Just a few years ago, Syria Street, a main thoroughfare in the city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon, was notorious as the demarcation line between two warring neighborhoods — a no-go zone to most. Some of its buildings still bear evidence of the conflict with their walls riddled with bullet holes.
But on a recent afternoon, a group of young men from the rival neighborhoods — some of them former combatants — were sharing an argileh pipe as they took a break from plastering the walls inside one of those damaged shops.
The scene was part of a project by the Beirut-based organization March, which has been working for the past three years to mend ties between the neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen. The group has brought youth from the two communities — including former combatants — together on theater and music projects and opened a café on Syria Street that serves as a gathering place for both. Over the past year and a half, it has also employed dozens of young people from the two neighborhoods to restore businesses damaged in the fighting.
“The idea was to rehabilitate together what once you contributed to destroying,” said March co-founder Lea Baroudi.
Relative calm has prevailed in Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen since the Lebanese army took control of the area in 2014. But rebuilding the communities is more complicated, especially when many of the factors that led to the fighting remain unaddressed.
In part, the conflict between the neighborhoods represented a spillover of sectarian conflicts from the civil war in neighboring Syria. Bab al-Tabbaneh is a Sunni neighborhood and its residents identify with the largely Sunni groups fighting against the Syrian government. Residents of Jabal Mohsen, on the hillside above Bab al-Tabbaneh, are primarily Alawites – adherents of the offshoot of Shia Islam to which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad belongs. They generally support his regime. As well as fighting in their own communities, young men from the two neighborhoods have joined armed groups fighting on both sides in Syria.
But for many, the conflict was more economic than sectarian. In a poor area where many young men leave school before reaching their teens, the militias offered a paycheck.
“The root cause of conflict in Jabel Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh or in other marginalized areas is not ideologically driven initially,” Baroudi said. “It is the poverty, the marginalization, the lack of hope in a better future.’”
Abdelkader Wazeh, a former fighter from Bab al-Tabbaneh who now works as a painter, said he left school at 13 to work and support his family. The militias, he said, would pay fighters $200 a month – a low salary, even for the area, but the only one that was available. Now he makes $20 a day working with March on the rehabilitation project.
“Before, the guys up there [in Jabal Mohsen] were sitting around without work, and we were sitting around without work, and we were fighting and shooting at each other,” Wazeh said. “Now we’ve found work and we don’t want to fight. We’re all working together to fix the area.”
Apart from teaching them the skills needed to do the rebuilding work, March requires those who join its projects to take part in other classes — writing for those who never learned to read and write Arabic, English for the others — and team-building activities, like soccer tournaments. For young women, whose families may be resistant to letting them work outside the home, it offers graphic design training.
The rapprochement isn’t only economic.
Ali Amoun of Jabal Mohsen was also a fighter. Now he does administrative work in March’s office and said he hopes to open a drug rehabilitation center in the neighborhood.
The diminutive 24-year-old recounts with a trace of pride how he served time in prison for shooting someone in the leg and was shot five times himself. Amoun was one of the first young people to join March, taking the lead role in a play the group put on in 2015 with a group of young men and women from the two neighborhoods. Before that, he said, he’d had had only one friend from Bab al-Tabbaneh — they met in jail.
“When I sat with the people from Tabbaneh, I started thinking about it, that we’re all the same in the same situation, and it’s the politicians who want to make problems between the sects, Sunni and Alawi,” Amoun said. “I started to think that this person who I was fighting with, he’s like me and I’m like him. The pain that he lives in, I’m living in the same pain.”
Still, the work of nongovernmental organizations can only go so far. Baroudi speaks with frustration of the politicians who show up only during election season to give handouts, leaving the larger economic and social problems unaddressed.
“At the end of the day, whatever we do here, if the government does not actually work on a proper plan to economically and socially reform this area, NGOs can only contribute a small part,” she said. “It’s a job for the government.”
The current phase of the rehabilitation project, funded by the Dutch government, is employing about 75 young men and 30 women. But it will end after two and a half months.
“Before the project, no one had work,” said Wazeh, who is married with a 7-year-old son. “When the project stops, most of the guys will be out of work again.”
Asked what he will do then, he said, “Wait for the next project.”
Top image by Majdoline Lahham/March. Share image by Abby Sewell.