Beirut's Real Refugees

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Two Sudanese workers walk in the devastated southern suburbs of Beirut

Despite the relative quiet in Beirut on Tuesday, the jittery sense of desperation is getting worse. The Westerners are being evacuated, but that's not necessarily good news for the Lebanese staying put. Once the Westerners are gone, people on the streets wonder what will hold the Israelis back. The lull in the bombing, in fact, is widely seen as a deliberate break by the Israelis to allow the foreign nationals to get out.

And yet for all the press that the Western evacuation is getting, there's another group of refugees that isn't being noticed. Lebanon has a large population of Iraqis, Sudanese and Somalis, as well as guest workers from the Philippines and Sri Lanka, who are too poor to pay their way out. And their governments are either ineffective (Iraq, Sudan) inattentive (the Philippines, Sri Lanka) or non-existent (Somalia), and have not offered any resources for these people.

Outside the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office in east Beirut, Abdou Shafai Ismael, 38, from Sudan, has a story that contrasts sharply with that of the American tourists and students being floated to safety on Norwegian cruise ships. While they may complain about having to pay back the U.S. government for the costs of their evacuations, from the darting look in his eyes, I think Ismael would go to great lengths (perhaps questionable ones) in order to have a spot on a boat to Cyprus. Many of the 100 or so other men milling around with him probably think the same. Theirs are tales of constant flight from one crisis to another. Ismael, for example, fled Darfur in Sudan to work in Iraq, until the Americans invaded and he fled to Syria, where he was arrested for entering the country illegally. For two months, his Syrian jailors beat him every day, he said, before releasing him to go to Lebanon."Where will I go now?" he asks. He can't return to Sudan, where he fears Arab militias will kill him, and he says he won't go to Syria because he fears being arrested and beaten again.

Alaa Mahmoud, 42, is Iraqi, from the notorious Haifa Street in Baghdad; he's one of about 20,000 Iraqis in Lebanon. He fled the nascent civil war in Baghdad in 2004, and now he is sick, he says, with an infection of his hip. He has no medicine and can't work at his job as a janitor anymore. As his eyes tear up, he pleads with me to call his sister in Baghdad to tell her he is alive. At this point, he breaks down and cries.

Inside his air-conditioned office, looking out on the street where the drama plays out, Arafat Jamal, the senior regional officer for the UNHCR, tells me that in one week, 400,000 people in Lebanon — 10% of the country's population — have been displaced. The people in the street below him will not be taken out of the country, he said, but instead moved to "safe havens" in schools in the mountains and near Tripoli in the north. He looks tired, and he should be; he's incredibly short-staffed at the moment because the Lebanese employees of the UNHCR have fled to the mountains themselves.

But if Beirut's poor and stateless have the U.N. to look after them, Beirut's rich and almost-rich can look after themselves. The signs of a mass exodus of Lebanon's wealthy class are everywhere — and telling. The city's ATMs, which normally disburse both Lebanese pounds and American dollars, are now only spitting out the brightly colored pounds, a sign that those who could have already fled — and took their hard currency with them. I took out 1 million pounds today, about $670, but I worry about how long that will last. Even the Western Union is unable to give out dollars.

At least credit cards still work. An upscale supermarket was packed as I stocked up for what might be a long siege of Lebanon. I found myself in a grim race with another man grabbing bottles of orange juice, each of us trying to get as many as we could before the other could claim them. This will be a savage place in two weeks if this keeps up, I thought.

We're already seeing the beginning of shortages. Bread is hard to find, for example. And the scratch cards to recharge our mobile phone accounts — already outrageously expensive in peacetime — have jumped in price from about $40 to $50 for 80 minutes of talk-time. Soon, even that connection to the outside world will vanish.

As it is, Lebanon is already disappearing before my eyes.