I had a chat with the water-filter guy.
He was bemoaning the fact that, as a former procurement manager in Dubai, he had not been able to find a suitable job after returning to Lebanon. This, he attributed to the large influx of Syrian refugees who had flooded the job market.
Moreover, he seemed none too pleased upon learning that I work for a humanitarian organization serving this same refugee population.
What struck me about this encounter was not its particularity, but rather, its seeming ubiquity. I began to wonder at the veracity of the supposition.
To what extent could we, in Lebanon, legitimately blame the woeful state of our economy and job market solely on Syrian refugees?
Why is there no acknowledgment of the fact that Syrian workers tend to compete for primarily unskilled labor that they were relied on to carry out even prior to the crisis, not to mention new restrictions on Syrian employment forcing them into the informal job market?
Why is there no mention of the more than $700 million pumped into the Lebanese economy since 2013 through the distribution of food vouchers alone, or the $120 million donated by humanitarian agencies and foreign governments purely for the purpose of strengthening Lebanese infrastructure in 2016?
Yes, as a country of previously 4.5 million rapidly inundated by approximately 1.5 million Syrian refugees, Lebanon currently holds the highest concentration of refugees per capita.
However, recent studies have found that while the Syrian war has had a predictably negative impact on the Lebanese economy, it has also yielded gains in certain sectors, most notably, due to the increased demand for Lebanese services by the refugee population.
In a report released in 2015, the World Bank therefore cited the Syrian refugee presence as a resilience factor in economic growth, noting that “a 1 percent increase in refugees’ stock increases services exports by about 1.5 percent after two months.”
And what do the Lebanese politicians do? The ones who can’t even clear the garbage off the streets?
They blame our nation’s problems on Syrian refugees. The perfect scapegoat for their cruel impotence and flagrant corruption. And woe to us who believe them.
I am not denying that the flood of Syrian refugees has taken its toll on Lebanon. I am merely suggesting that it is unjust to place the blame for our nation’s problems squarely on their shoulders.
Furthermore, I believe that we, as followers of Christ, should be vigilant in calling out this strategy of scapegoating, since, as theologian Miroslav Volf points out in his book, “Exclusion and Embrace,” we worship a crucified Savior who was, essentially, the ultimate scapegoat.
However, as Volf observes, people have a predisposition to “remask what has been demasked when it fits their interests.”
He further points out that the “[t]he tendency of persecutors to blame victims is reinforced by the actual guilt of victims, even if the guilt is minimal and they incur it in reaction to the original violence committed against them.”
Theologian and political commentator, Reinhold Niebuhr, in his classic treatise, “Moral Man and Immoral Society,” attributes this cruel pattern of concealing unjust mechanisms to humanity’s innate selfishness and lust for power, noting that, “[e]ven the most rational men are never quite rational when their own interests are at stake.”
Niebuhr further argues that this self-deception is exacerbated at the collective level, culminating, in the modern era, at the level of the nation-state.
However disheartening this perpetual reality must be, Niehbuhr does suggest a means by which it can be overcome: religion.
Religion, Niehbuhr argued, points to a supreme being who holds our every thought and deed accountable and causes us to strive to be greater than we are.
It is a powerful force that can lead to great violence when manipulated and wielded in the hands of man, yet it is an even greater force for good when emanating from the truth of God.
As followers of Christ, we see this power for good personified in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.
Without his higher calling to love of one’s neighbor, we would look no farther than the orbits of our own existence, inevitably chained to our own self-interest.
By the light of his life and testimony, our vision may yet be cleared to look beyond self, and to see the other; not as an existential threat, but as a reason for living.
As Jesus testifies in Mark 10:45, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Suzie Lahoud serves with a Lebanese, faith-based nongovernmental organization that has been providing relief assistance in response to the Syrian crisis since 2011. She is also currently enrolled in the Institute of Middle East Studies’ master of religion in Middle Eastern and North African studies program. A version of this column first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission.
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here.