BEIRUT: With the latest surge in Syrians fleeing violence, hotels and furnished apartments in Beirut have seen a significant rise in occupancy rates, but responses have ranged from the charitable to the discriminatory.
Many of those who crossed into Lebanon last week, following the intensification of violence in Greater Damascus, were wealthier than the some 30,000 Syrians registered with the U.N. who have gradually trickled into the country over the last 16 months.
While the vast majority of displaced Syrians, until now, have been residing with host families or in renovated abandoned buildings in north Lebanon and the Bekaa, many of the recent arrivals moved to Beirut and other cities and towns.
In Ras Beirut, hoteliers noticed a sharp increase in Syrian guests, which has gradually leveled off as people have moved to longer-term rentals.
At the Cedar Lounge apartments in Hamra, front office manager Bassam al-Awar, said that around 70 percent of the guests are Syrian, and mainly from Damascus and Aleppo.
“The numbers are still increasing, but some people have already moved on and are renting apartments,” he said. “Some men are leaving their family here and then going back to check up on their business in Damascus.”
While the Cedar Lounge is offering the same rates irrespective of nationality, several other establishments are offering special offers to Syrians.
Bassam Zeidan, the general manager of Midtown Hotel and Suites, is offering a 30 percent discount to Syrians. The hotel is currently at full occupancy, he said, again with Syrians accounting for around 70 percent of guests. Zeidan also reported that many have moved on to longer-term leases.
Badr, a 21-year-old student from Kfar Souseh in Damascus, arrived to Midtown Hotel and Suites last week with around 20 members of his family.
“I live next to an area where there are a lot of Free Syrian Army members and where I live there are a lot of buildings belonging to government officials so it became very dangerous, it was so close to home,” he said.
“There weren’t bombings, but 14 people were killed by snipers nearby.”
He returned to Damascus several days ago, but left again after one day, and came straight back to Beirut.
“After 5 p.m. you can’t walk in the streets, there are no street lights and it’s just too dangerous. I am here now indefinitely,” he added.
An elder relative, Abu Tareq, tried last week to find longer-term accommodation for his family in Broummana.
“At first it was $2,000 per month, but when they realized I was Syrian they told me it was $4,000,” he said. “I felt really taken advantage of.”
Despite the fact the family does not know for how long they will remain in Lebanon, “For the time being it is cheaper for us to stay in this hotel.”
Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud said Thursday that Syrians experiencing such incidents should report them to the ministry’s hotline (1735), but said that it had received no such complaints.
Abu Tareq was not aware of the hotline, but said he would have called had he known about it.
Father and son Ahmad and Ayman al-Masri, and Ahmad’s nephew Samir Eid, arrived from Mezzeh in Damascus last week, and came to the hotel as they had stayed there before.
“We came here and booked rooms for a week, but now we have extended our stay. We don’t know how long for,” Eid told The Daily Star.
The three relatives traveled alone by car, across the Masnaa crossing, and are now contemplating moving to Jordan, where they have business links, should the crisis in Syria continue much longer.
The manager of two apartment complexes, also in Hamra, Rabih Fakhreddine, has been leasing flats which normally go for $3,500 per month for $2,900 to Syrian families.
As this is still expensive, he said he does not have so many displaced guests, with Syrians currently occupying five of the 15 apartments. By mid-afternoon Friday, four families had already come looking for accommodation, before moving to cheaper apartments nearby.
A Damascene himself, Fakhreddine believes the Lebanese response to Syrian refugees has so far been largely lacking, and often discriminatory.
“My Syrian friend wanted an apartment in Broummana, so he sent a Lebanese friend to look at it first, who was told it was for $2,500 per month.
“But then when my friend went, and they heard his accent, they raised the price to $5,000.
“In the 2006 war, everyone in Syria helped the Lebanese out but the Lebanese are just taking advantage of them now,” Fakhreddine said.
In an exceptionally poor tourist season – which has seen the governments of several Gulf countries that normally provide the bulk of summer traffic urging their citizens not to travel to Lebanon – Fakhreddine believes landlords are making the most of the situation next door, which has so far claimed the lives of around 19,000 people.
“Tourism was low this season, so they thought they could take advantage. It’s haram.”
Firas, 28, and also from Damascus, arrived to Beirut last Wednesday with his parents. They are renting an apartment on Bliss Street, and have just extended their lease to one year.
While he agrees with Fakhreddine’s assessment, he said he understands why the Lebanese response differs from that of Syria in 2006.
“In 2006, Syrian people were much more supportive of the Lebanese refugees than the Lebanese have been today. My friends’ parents volunteered, and a lot of people were helping out, and giving what they could,” he said.
“But I kind of understand this. The Lebanese people had a very bad experience under Syrian occupation. You cannot blame them entirely.”
He also defended the increased rent offered to Syrians, and sees it purely as a business decision.
“This was a low season and they suddenly had high demand, I understand why they did it. But in the long run it was an unwise decision as many people have decided it is simply too expensive and have returned to Damascus.”
Some of his friends have already returned to Damascus, and his parents are keen to go back as well.
“As they are a bit older they do not seem to worry as much as me,” Firas said. “They just want the comforts of home. And they are hearing that things are settling down a bit there now.”
However, for Firas, Beirut is easy – he has friends here, and can enjoy the social scene. “And I can monitor my business from here: it’s much more comfortable here than hearing shooting from your office.”
(Some names in this article have been changed)