S Y R I A S T R E E T // Tripoli, Lebanon // 2016
A war between neighbors began many years ago. The origins of the unrest, the disagreements, the injustices are debated by scholars and warlords and citizens alike while the echoes of a history of violence continue in brutal clashes today.
Military check points, mortar scars in pavement, piles of dust that used to be bricks spill from the corners of broken walls, pock-marked facades look more like nets than barriers, bombed-out stairwells where children play hide-and-seek while soldiers casually stroll by with Kalashnikovs.
This is Syria Street: the front line of a decades-long conflict between two adjacent neighborhoods in Tripoli, Lebanon. Syria Street divides the predominantly Sunni residents of Bab-Al-Tabbanneh with the mostly Alawite residents of Jabal Mohsen who live just up the hill. Residents of Tabbanneh and Jabal Mohsen share the same resources, the same landscape, the same city, the same street. On most days they are neighbors, but on some darker days, they are enemies.
It is easy to label this conflict “sectarian” but difficult to call this assertion truth. The reality is, the cause of the violence here is extremely complex and thus, the fighting continues.
This is home.
When war explodes in your home, you can stay or you can flee. Some have the luxury of choice, and some do not. And some brave leaders courageously choose to stay and steer their community toward peace – even though it’s difficult, even though angry men hold fire in their eyes and vengeance in their hands, even though finding compassion and forgiveness feels overwhelming.
Below are five stories of brave neighbors, courageous mothers and hopeful youngsters on both sides of Syria Street – one road that connects and divides an awful neighborhood war in Tripoli, Lebanon.
Zaynab lives on the front lines of conflict in Jabal Mohsen, Lebanon. She dreams of becoming a Bollywood actor - even though her bedroom is punctured with bullets; even though she can’t leave her house sometimes. When I met Zaynab, she was beaming with joy – she had outfits prepared for our photo shoot, looks rehearsed for the camera, and a radiant smile that could star on any big screen. She showed us her bedroom where she kept her toys, and told us that she never slept there. We did not need to ask why. Still, in a bedroom where Zaynab cannot sleep, her dreams are infinite.
Meet Moeen - a warm young man with the most charismatic smile. Moeen had just escaped Aleppo and was sleeping in the streets when Ahmad Ibrahim Ali first saw him. Ahmad runs a produce stand in Jabal Mohsen - he told me that it was unacceptable to see such a young man sleeping in the streets, so he took Moeen in, gave Moeen a job, and a set Moeen up with a safe place to sleep. Ahmad is not a hero – he’s a neighbor doing what is right.
I heard this story over and over and over again in Lebanon. I met families, and couples and kind neighbors who opened their doors to the homeless, to refugees, to anyone in need because living on the streets was unacceptable, because it was the right thing to do, because someone in their community needed help. Each time I heard these stories, I thought to myself, would I do the same?
Kawthar Ahmad volunteers in a classroom off of Syria Street that teaches children on both sides of the divide. Fighters in the neighborhood lean out of buildings with blacked-out windows holding guns that serve the community. Kawthar walks past these same men in the street holding books that serve the community.
Tharwat Al Kare is among a handful of strong women who volunteer at a nonprofit that offers food and education to youth on both sides of this urban conflict. The women she works with are dedicated to serving the entire community, so they built two access points to their facility: one that faces Syria Street on the Bab-Al-Tabbaneh side and one just up the hill on the Jabal Mohsen side of the fighting. The building is an oasis - neutral ground in a neighborhood where getting caught on “the wrong side of the street” can have grave consequences.
The nonprofit is called Ruwwad which means “Pioneers.” The women I met at Ruwwad are much more than pioneers, however; they are brave warriors rallying together to feed and educate their children. They are grandmothers who defy the dangers of war and walk through active fire-fights to give to their neighborhood. They are loving examples of peace who are building a hopeful future from the ground up, with their own hands.
And that is exactly what I see in this photo – faith for the future. I see the future of Tripoli in Tharwat’s eyes, and in the memory of her beaming smile as a wave of children flood into her kitchen, hungry, laughing, hopeful.
5. Al Shokr
Somewhere up in the hills behind this mosque, there are political skirmishes, armored vehicles and men who want to fight. Somewhere up in the hills behind this mosque there are school children with infinite dreams, young refugees starting over, and teachers handing out books instead of guns. And here, standing in front of us now, standing in front of this mosque whose Arabic name translates to “thankful,” is a mother who loves her son.