DEJA VU : Another Colorado Shooting, Another Blast From the Past

This song is just too prescient for its own good?  To update the motif,  as the Middle East burns, it may serve well to note the sentiment in the film “The Butler” about the African American experience in the US.  Says the protagonist: Americans always turn a blind eye to our own. We look out to the world and judge. We hear about the concentration camps, but these camps went on for 200 years in America.

In Lebanon, we may be developing a fear of parked cars- AGAIN.  Car bombs = Not Good. And a vicious reminder of the civil war from Hell.  But we are still not scared of malls and cinemas and primary schools.  Yet.

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“DON’T HAVE TO LIVE LIKE A REFUGEE”

Unless of course, you really do. Syria’s refugees face unlivable conditions, and Lebanon becomes bitter as the quality of life for all goes down the toilet.  A proud country’s sense of sudden entitlement comes face to face with another countries limits of hospitality.

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Did you ever have to relocate, move, find new digs, really fast? Do you remember what you took with you, against all logic? Those few bags, no doubt, had things in them that a better use of space and logic may have suggested, canned beans…a kilo of rice…..a carton of cigarettes?

When you arrive cross border, you realize you have a lot of books, or cds, or sentimental objects; birthday gifts, photo albums, favorite articles of clothing that are useless for the new climate…..join the club.

Keep in mind you don’t have to be a political refugee of any kind. Often the same world greets the homeless across the globe, as greets the refugee.

When a civil war tears your life from its moorings, and you have twenty four hours or less to fill a bag, one bag, what do you bring? This should be some kind of therapy technique, if therapy ever dealt with real life. In real life, that book is worth a thousand sweaters. That photo album is worth a weeks worth of food.

If you arrive, ,lucky to have that one bag, as opposed to the ‘clothes on your back’ approach some refugees take, you wonder….what didn’t you take…. and why don’t you have a sweater …..now. Now?

Now is relative. A planned exodus is not a hasty exodus, is not a sudden exodus known as me and my family or friends may die in a few hours, we’re leaving, fleeing, praying for the best, clothes on our backs style…

Now? the first shockwave of winter through Lebanon. Alexa. In Beirut, the storm was a total wuss…..ooh, gusty winds, oooh I’m scared. But when temps drop in tent cities around the country? Well….living in a tent in nearly freezing temperatures with possibilities of shelter collapse or flooding? When I’ve been in similar situations the stupid shit I bought with me? Helped me get through, to be honest. The next horrorshow , however, is when those lucky enough to have packed one bag to flee cross borders and away from wholesale death? See those precious few things drifting downstream in a flood of sewage water while the temperature keeps dropping and ….and….

You start to wish you had filled your bag with a hundred kilos of canned food. Too late. Anyways, your life is now bumping and floating downstream in a new born river comprised mostly of human waste. Does it matter now? Canned food or photo albums? No.

The axe blow to the psyche in either case is catastrophic. The little of your life you brought with you, or the few hardcore survival thingies you had? Are gone. It’s time to hope the UNHCR or someone will have an answer by the time the flooding reaches the height of your four year old.

When total catastrophe strikes, or a recent series of them , strike? You have to wonder what the futile point is of all this. People losing much, much less decide to snuff it, to end their lives. I doubt the thought is far from the mind of most Syrian refugees living in tents, on a daily basis? But then you say, fuck it. Live. If only in defiance of how bad things can get and how callow people really are in the face of funding, actual concern, political facesaving and related bullshit. Fuck em all, live anyway, despite their predictions and promised aid packages due three months after this current freeze has you shivering under four UN blankets, in a plastic tent which sounds like its being raped by Godzilla, and oh yeah, the storm is gonna get worse, says the weather report….

And now that Winter is Coming? We’ll see a tragedy only aired every ten years or so that’s big enough to grab media attention, and then made into an award winning Hollywood movie, another Hotel Rwanda.

The refugee crisis, without doubt, is fucking Lebanon up royally. The raised rents and population influx, many of whom live off the streets, is making this little country nervous. More than nervous. How many times do you have to pass someone on the street begging or selling useless trinkets and hitting that cliché sympathy line: Ana min Suri?  Good for you, life is rough enough here, and being Syrian doesn’t make you special or any kind of martyr in the Middle East. Rather, its just your turn in the life horror quotient, okay? Lebanon? Been there, done that.

Then you feel like shit for being such a prick, but there’s the sudden increase in the prices of fuel , gas, food and a whole lotta things. Then there are the new bunkers being built for Syrians in poor Lebanese villages where, it seems, the sudden refugees get an instantaneous upgrade to poor Lebanese. Let’s be blunt ? Ana min Suria? doesn’t cut it as an excuse for a handout. It might have but a minority have made life impossible for a majority of refugees of late.

 The whole black abaya look with sleeping infant? Whose infant, how many mgs of valium do you dose the baby with, why did you pick that corner for your daily ‘work’? I was warned against helping those ‘poor souls’ way back in Aleppo in 2001. Most people here in the region know the scam. A truckload of village women in pious black garb with sick infants stake out street corners and naive people give them money.  The bigger picture from locals?   If you don’t have a baby, you rent one for a price. load it up on valium or the like, so it doesn’t cry all day while you beg. Days end, a truck comes from the village again, everyone takes their cut (except for the infants perhaps) and its repeated day by day like a full time gig.  Syrians pointed this out to me, and since then, its obvious. Same people , same corner, same docile baby….all this beggar shiftiness, really destroys those out on the streets needing a one time fix, or a few dollars to eat…often, those are the ones NOT begging, by the way? Too many beginners mistakes in the beggar racket, methinks.

Lebanese are becoming infuriated by the sense of entitlement and the dismay as street beggars walk in their overpriced rented shops to grab at customers.  The shopowner / over-the- top beggar balance is slipping out of control.   These people have a business and it is most likely sinking. Just because of economics without the added complication of customers staying away because they are likely to be subjected to a Mumbai slum desperation.   No one  wants to go in a shop to be physically assaulted by beggars.  Damn right the shopowners are furious and yet? till now, have displayed an amazing sense of self control.  Things were already wonky with the Lebanese economy even before the  massive exodus.

And many Lebanese add gasoline to the fire.   The upper class from Syria comes in , needing a place to live? and the local slumlords double and triple the rents.  Which means Lebanese or Syrian, we face the fact that rent and basic necessities are doubling almost overnight.   Panic sets in. It’s only logical. 

Anyone underestimating the humanitarian disaster unfolding may want to look at historical precedents. If I recall, the Lebanese exodus during the war didn’t really target one area. True, many , many Syrians opened their doors then. Many, many, many Syrians were gracious hosts. In fact, it’s hard to find a level of hospitality to match traditional Syrian hospitality. Really hard.  But it wasn’t the main destination of those who could leave Lebanon, and did. The refugee crisis in Rwanda as a counterpoint?  The UN ended up  actually feeding  and clothing  the ones most responsible for the genocidal  violence, housing and aiding them in neighboring Zaire…not one of the UN’s best laid plans. Iraqi refugees into Jordan and Syria seemed to have fewer speed bumps, when one day you woke in Damascus to find a lot of blue collar jobs were being done by Iraqis , or? The former Baathist elite settled in Amman with their millions.

This Syria thing is a thorny creature. It makes Jordan periodically shut its borders to refugees and pretend they don’t do that. Let’s face it thought, in dealing with Jordan? Jordan First! is a dismal ands small souled motto. Means Jordan gets to beg for international handouts before anyone else, and has no room for people in need or those who threaten the already precarious economic disaster known as the Hashemite Kingdom.  Jordan makes refugee camps the size of small towns. Za’ataar is the third largest city? Well, that’s Jordan for you.  All nations need to look after their own first.  It’s different to advertise the fact and to deny closed borders while asking for international handouts.

It all makes everyone worry about how it’s all going to turn out. Then you have Lebanon. Which likes to blame their vicious civil war on the Palestinians in the camps back in the day. As one Unified Command leader in Shatilla once said to me: And what of the civil war in the fifties, the previous civil war? There were no Palestinians to blame then….

The refugee population is now nearing the 25% mark in Lebanese demographics. A strange demographic in most any place; 25% of the population? The streets and street vendors are not immune from the crying, coattail grabbing, pushy refugees demading cold cash simply for being a refugee. The shoe shine boys in Hamra? Too many are obsequious enough till you give them several dollars. And they are shocked. Fifty dollars, yo? These deluded street boys and girls forget one thing. Lebanon already had poor people. Lebanon doesn’t need for its customers to avoid store fronts or workspaces that have become  beggar magnets. Walking into work one day, someone accosts me, in the building, showing me their needs from a medical center. Excuse me? You follow people into office buildings now, to get what “you deserve” or need? Coming into retail outlets where many of us are debating between this or that because we can’t afford both , and then being accosted with a Syrian beggar, which drives the shop owner half insane? Yes, Lebanon is pissed off.

Down the street, more pragmatic refugees are being denied working for a living from this strange entitled class of Ana Min Suri who think the world should support them, and support them well? Wish I expected fifty dollars from six minutes work, to be honest. I’d be clinically insane grant you, but I’d feel much better about my self worth. You start to classify, against better humanitarian instincts, whether helping someone out will lead to being recognized and targeted by the con artists who feel they deserve more, and be hit up twice or three times more than anyone else.  The killing , sinking feeling comes from the fact that people who aren’t into the fine art of begging, and who have to? are getting lumped in with all the pros.  Newborn pros, who won’t accept your charity in less than denominations of tens.

What passed for a rough winter storm, in Beirut at least, may be measured in the days to come as it clobbered tent towns and refugee squats in greater Lebanon. Snow, ice, winds, floods….none are kind to cheap cloth or plastic tent dwellings or unfinished buildings converted into homeless shelters. It’s bad enough in Beirut to be honest, if you don’t have that condo, that generator, that closet full of designer winterwear. The gap, mind you, has always been there, between rich and poor, resident versus immigrant, white versus blue collar. But in times like these, those gaps will probably lead to some bitch’s brew of anarchy, rage, crime, despair and hopelessness. Hopeless is considered the deadliest of sins. It makes us do things, things that people with hope would not. How close does the Middle East want to approach that point of no return, where too many populations have nothing to live for , and no reason to go on. It’s this demographic that panders too often into nihilistic extreme religion. We’re seeing that now.

It’s hard to blame Lebanon for getting bitchy about this refugee thing. It’s harder still, it seems  to convince humanitarian orgs to do something efficient and right and to get the full backing of their respective donors. And while those organizations try to gain funding, you find a wall of bureaucratic and geopolitical theory getting in the way of translating money into food and shelter.

Answers? I have none. None that would be implementable as the world turns. Predictions I have a lot of. Things will get far worse before and if they get better. From the middle east point of view? There’s a bad moon on the rise.

Just wish that meant something this week to people who are watching their tent being uprooted by the wind, or watching their clothes and photo albums from a previous life, get turned into sewage.

When the shitstorm really hits its stride, I’m pretty sure we will all be fully aware of how bad it is, and maybe? Why it was allowed to be that way? By then, though, it may be too late.

And for those refugees in the Beqaa, and other border regions? That life chill factor may be damn near unliveable. Life below zero. Do the math. Then? either try to change the equation? or deal with the zero sum game it implies.