Kurds in Lebanon endure poverty, grapple
By Brooke Anderson - The Daily Star
February 9, 2012
Fadia Mahmoud Ismail says she is proud of her
Kurdish heritage, although she wouldn’t consider
leaving Lebanon. Photo: The Daily Star.
— As a teenager in a rural area of predominantly
Kurdish southeast Turkey, Bahaeddin Hassan heard of
a far-off, beautiful place called Lebanon. He was
At 15, he traveled overland through Syria to Beirut.
Lebanon was not quite the paradise he had hoped for.
Life was harsh, and for many years Hassan took
whatever odd jobs came his way.
Today, at 57, having become a Lebanese citizen who
has found fulfilling and lucrative work as a
clothing exporter, he says he has stayed in his
adopted land because it is indeed beautiful. But he
laments the hardships many of his fellow Lebanese
Kurds continue to endure.
“We got nationality, but we didn’t get anything
else,” says Hassan, president of the Lebanese
Kurdish Philanthropic Association.
“No one protects or defends us. No one hears our
While most of Lebanon’s Kurds have become citizens,
many have yet to feel truly at home within Lebanese
society because the community continues to struggle
with low education, high unemployment and lack of
Sitting in her home under a roof cobbled together
out of scrap metal and tires, Fadia Mahmoud Ismail,
41, says she is proud of her Kurdish heritage,
although she wouldn’t consider leaving Lebanon,
which has been her home since she came to Beirut as
a 13-year-old bride, a conflicted sentiment echoed
by many in the community.
“I don’t feel Lebanese,” Ismail says. “My culture
and language are Kurdish. I know I’m Kurdish, and
that won’t change.”
While she has no plans to leave Lebanon, Ismail does
wish that she and her fellow Kurds had greater
recognition in Lebanese government and society. “I’d
be happy if I turned on the TV and saw a Kurdish
representative,” she says.
In 1994, a total of 10,000 Kurds were granted
citizenship under late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri,
the second round of Kurdish naturalization after a
handful of Kurds got citizenship in the 1960s under
then-Interior Minister Kamal Jumblatt. After
generations of statelessness, a status that excluded
them from public and private sector services, many
of Lebanon’s Kurds finally got the chance to enjoy
the basic benefits of Lebanese society.
However, their citizenship came at a price, as the
Kurds, like all other communities in Lebanon, were
forced to become part of the country’s sectarian
Considered Sunni Muslims by the government, they
don’t have any specific representation in
Parliament, unlike Armenians, many of whom migrated
to Lebanon at around the same time.
When it comes to charitable funding, their only
non-governmental organization, the Lebanese
Philanthropic Association, is overshadowed by larger
Muslim organizations. Among other concerns, Kurds
have long worried about a lack of resources to
provide their children with instruction in the
Kurdish language. More recently, the organization
has been struggling to help Kurds fleeing the
violence in Syria.
Kurds were initially prevented from obtaining
citizenship because of fears that they would upset
the country’s delicate sectarian balance. Later,
many were naturalized for the benefit of Sunni
politicians who sought their votes. But that has
hardly garnered them political clout. Kurds say that
in a recurrent cycle, once election time has passed,
politicians no longer pay them any heed.
A report published in November by Guita Hourani at
Notre Dame University-Louaize, documenting the
community’s upward mobility via naturalization,
found that “the naturalized are not at all ‘free’ in
their voting behavior, but are rather ‘prisoners’ of
the one thing that should have freed them – their
citizenship, because many believe that they owe
their citizenship to one politician or other.”
Hourani notes that “the Kurds and other naturalized
citizens continue to rely heavily on political
patrons who, in return for favors going back to the
event of naturalization in the first place, pay them
back at the ballot box.”
And approximately 40 percent of Kurds in Lebanon do
not even have Lebanese citizenship. For years, their
identification cards have indicated that their
status is “under consideration.”
Today, after years of living in abject poverty, with
menial jobs passed on from one generation to the
next, little education and no political
Lebanon’s Kurds continue to struggle to escape their
dire circumstances, despite the modicum of security
attained through citizenship. Indeed, Kurds remain
the least educated group in Lebanon.
Although many Lebanese Kurds have come to Lebanon in
recent decades, Lebanon’s Kurdish community dates
back to the 12th century, when the Ayyubids took
control of the region. Later, the Ottomans sent
loyal Kurdish families from the empire’s interior to
modern-day Syria and Lebanon, where they played an
important administrative role.
These families – which included the Janbulad family,
ancestors of Progressive Socialist Party leader
Walid Jumblatt – became fully assimilated into the
With the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath
of the World War I, Lebanon saw its first major wave
of Kurdish migration, when thousands of Kurds left
Turkey for nearby Lebanon and Syria. The second
significant influx of Kurds to Lebanon took place in
the late 1950s and early 1960s, as many fled poverty
and political repression in Syria and Turkey.
Although there are non-Muslim Kurdish communities in
other countries, the Kurds of Lebanon all share the
Sunni Muslim faith, as well as an emotional affinity
for their ancestral homeland, which spans parts of
modern-day Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. They speak
two dialects of Kurdish, Kurmanji and Mhallami (a
mixture of Arabic, Kurdish, Syriac and Turkish).
Despite the linguistic difference, the two tend to
be mutually intelligible, though Kurmanji speakers
are generally better able to understand Mhallami
speakers than vice versa.
Otherwise, the Kurds in Lebanon couldn’t be more
divided, with the community’s estimated 60,000
having aligned themselves with a plethora of
political parties throughout the country’s turbulent
modern history, often to the detriment of their own
well-being and security.
During Lebanon’s Civil War, Kurds fought in the
ranks of Lebanese left-wing and Palestinian
militias, hoping to earn money and allies. Instead,
their conflicting allegiances and lack of unity left
them vulnerable, forcing the resettlement of Kurds
who were no longer safe in their previously
ethnically diverse neighborhoods.
In the early 1990s, following the Lebanese
government’s destruction of several of Beirut’s
squatter quarters, to which many Kurdish families
had relocated during the war, about a quarter of
Lebanon’s Kurds emigrated to European countries,
while many others left the country’s capital for the
Bekaa Valley, Tripoli and Syria, further scattering
much of the already fragmented community.
One Lebanese Kurd, while acknowledging his
community’s difficult circumstances, suggests that
Kurds themselves could do more to initiate change.
“We can’t put the blame entirely on the authorities
and society. The Kurds are also to blame for their
lack of upward mobility,” says Lokman Meho, director
of university libraries at the American University
“Most are illiterate, many families prevented their
girls from going to school, and menial jobs are
passed from one generation to the next,” adds Meho,
a rare example of a Lebanese Kurd who has reached a
high level of professional success.
His parents, who had never attended school
themselves, encouraged their children to pursue an
Because of his Lebanese citizenship, Meho qualified
for a college scholarship from the Hariri
Foundation, allowing him to attend AUB. He then went
on to obtain his master’s in library science and
doctorate in information technology from
universities in the U.S., returning to Lebanon three
years ago to run the AUB libraries.
Despite his level of education and work, Meho says
that growing up he always felt like a second-class
citizen. Lebanese biases are often sectarian in
nature, but Meho’s childhood was spent among
neighborhood kids who, despite being fellow Muslims,
called him “dirty” and “foreigner.”
“All Kurds are proud to be Kurdish and Lebanese.
They feel both identities equally,” Meho believes.
Still, he thinks, “it could have been more tilted
toward Lebanese if they hadn’t suffered so much.”
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