ZBOUD/MINYEH, Lebanon: Many in the northern Bekaa town of Zboud, from residents to its mayor, feel abandoned by their government. Until recently, these frustrations were reflected in chronically low subscriptions to public services, with barely a quarter of residents paying their water bills.
As of last year, however, that number had shot up to 95 percent.
The unlikely newfound faith in the public water system is thanks to an European Union-funded program that has increased the quality of both the infrastructure and the service of the public system bringing water to homes.
Villages like Zboud are prime targets for international aid programs, the scale of which have increased dramatically since the start of the Syrian civil war and the resulting influx of refugees into Lebanon.
The projects implemented by international donors speak to an evolving strategy that has had to take into account both a skeptical local population and, with the rhetoric around refugees increasingly shifting toward the issue of returns, a skeptical government.
From the outbreak of the war, refugees came to the Bekaa Valley in the thousands because of its proximity to their home country and the relatively abundant jobs in the agriculture industry, one of only a few in which refugees are allowed to work.
But competition for low-skilled employment and resources has stoked tension between host communities and refugees.
Before Zboud’s public water system was given a much-needed overhaul, many locals were forced to pay for water from expensive private trucks, while refugees were receiving subsidized water from the same system. This, said Elena Diato, a project manager with NGO GVC that has been implementing the new water system, was one of the factors causing tension between the communities.
The Zboud water project, which cost two million euros ($2.7 million), is part of a national program run by a consortium of international NGOs at a total cost of 13 million euros ($14 million), and is indicative of how international donors are trying to foster goodwill between Syrians and the local population, by paying increased attention to local communities while also addressing a humanitarian need.
Reactions to the project are positive. Zboud’s Mayor Rifaat Alaaeddine, says the project is a “huge achievement” that has alleviated a 20-year dependence on water trucks.
Chardo al-Hawle, a Syrian refugee who has been living in Zboud since the start of the Syrian civil war, says the new system is cheaper and the water is cleaner than that provided by the trucks.
Diato said relations have improved thanks to both communities sharing the new system. The success of the scheme, she says, is down to building personal relationships with beneficiaries and working closely with the municipality.
Making sure local communities benefit from aid in order to improve relations with refugees is a model the EU has replicated in other aid projects across the country.
In Minyeh, north of Tripoli, a primary health care clinic has drastically expanded, growing from 2,000 consultations per year to 18,000 with international investment as a result of the Syria crisis.
Previously, funding existed for Syrian refugees but not locals.
Through the EU’s most recent investment a 32 million euro project aiming to increase access to health services and implemented by the International Medical Corps at the start of this year the clinic now charges exactly the same LL3,000 ($2) flat rate to any patient, while the most vulnerable pay nothing.
“This project decreased the tension between host communities and refugees because hosts previously had to pay [higher] fees,” Abdel-Hakim Qaim, the center’s director, says.
Meanwhile, centers like Qaim’s have benefited from vastly improved infrastructure and equipment as well as access to the know-how of international partners that have helped to improve skills for the center’s staff, IMC project coordinator Iman Khalil says.
For those working in the industries that have seen large increases in aid, the increased flow of international funding is predictably welcomed.
At a public school in the Bekaa town of Barr Elias, Director Ihsan Taraji says the physical appearance of the school has been transformed “more than 100 percent” thanks to international grants.
The school currently has 904 Lebanese students registered, as well as 884 Syrian refugee children for its “second shift.” Syrian students are taught in the afternoon, after their Lebanese colleagues depart.
The UNICEF-run, EU-financed scheme that funds both enrollment fees and supplies has drawn criticism for putting extra pressure on staff and effectively segregating the children.
However, Sonia Khoury, a program director with the Education Ministry, argues that the second shift is necessary because prior to the program, having the two sets of students study alongside one another overwhelmed the system, causing many Lebanese students to leave.
Taraji is a wholehearted advocate of the system, saying, “I receive money on time and can do many improvements to the school.” He is grateful for the reliability of international money, but also realistic about what to expect from the Lebanese state. He is not overly distressed by the delays in government formation: “We have a system that works whether or not there’s a government.”
Nevertheless, calls from some members of the government are growing to scale down aid projects in Lebanon and refocus them in Syria so as to encourage the process of return. Late last week, caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil called for financial aid to be given to refugees after their return to Syria.
One parent at the Barr Elias school says conditions in Lebanon are now so difficult that his children’s education was one of the few things keeping him here. “We live in a state of fear,” says the parent, who hasn’t had legal residency for three years and is not being identified for his protection. “You never know when there will be a checkpoint. No one is forcing us to return to Syria, but there’s pressure. If we lose the opportunity to register our kids in school, of course we will return. It’s the only thing that keeps us here.”
The decision is further influenced by the fact that, as of September, residency renewal fines are being waived if violators agree to take part in organized returns to Syria.
For others, however, aid is not a major factor in such decisions. Back in Zboud, Hawle only receives a little financial aid from international NGOs and is struggling to feed his family and two young children. He has no intention yet of returning to Syria, as he fears being recruited into a militia by the Kurds, who control his hometown near Raqqa.
While tensions between host communities and refugees have not entirely dissipated, the greater attention to improving quality of life for locals while also providing humanitarian support to refugees appears to be making an impact, even if the reasons behind it are not entirely understood.
Hasan, 42, a shop owner in Zboud, says he and his family are happier and better-off with the new water system. “We didn’t realize it was installed because of the Syrians,” his brother Chawki says. “We thought it was for us because there’s a need.” As for the Syrians, “I suppose we’d better thank them.”