With ISIS gone, tensions begin to fade in Arsal

By Nohad Topalian in Beirut

Members of a Lebanese family from Arsal celebrate Eid al-Adha with Syrian refugees. [Photo courtesy of Khalid Raad]

Members of a Lebanese family from Arsal celebrate Eid al-Adha with Syrian refugees. [Photo courtesy of Khalid Raad]

Since the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) was expelled from the area along Lebanon's border with Syria, normal relations are beginning to resume between Arsal residents and Syrian refugees, local officials tell Al-Mashareq.

The group's presence had fueled tensions between local and refugee communities by undermining security and eroding trust, they said, noting that since ISIS fighters left Lebanon on August 27th, relations have improved.

Arsal businessman Hakam al-Fleiti, 25, told Al-Mashareq his relationship with Saleh Mohammed, a 23-year-old Syrian refugee, is reflective of the improved ties between the two communities.

"We lived through years of fear and were reluctant to speak to refugee youth for fear they were terrorists," al-Fleiti said.

Today, he added, "the armed militant presence is no more" and the motorbikes that used to strike fear in the town are gone.

"Things have returned to normal and those who remain are civilians with whom we live in peace that we hope will be lasting," he said.

"In the past, I used to be afraid of being in the town’s squares for fear of being mistaken for a terrorist, and many avoided me," Mohammed told Al-Mashareq. "Today, however, I have friends in Arsal and they are helping me find work."

Improved atmosphere

"The situation for the refugees is better now that ISIS and al-Nusra Front (ANF) have left town," said Syrian refugee Khalid Raad, principal of the Bunat al-Mustaqbal (Builders of the Future) school in Arsal's al-Mualimin refugee camp.

The absence of armed militants in Arsal and its camps has "made it safer for us as Syrians, and for Arsal residents", he told Al-Mashareq.

An estimated 60,000 refugees remain in the Arsal area today, distributed among 110 camps, he said, with a few living in rented residences.

"The camps are now under control, and the director of each camp has compiled lists of the full names of all camp residents, so there are no more fake or assumed names," Raad said.

"We are free of the presence of ISIS and ANF among us, and all those who remain want to live in peace," he said, adding that the remaining refugees "want to live with respect for the army, official institutions and Lebanese laws".

According to Raad, requests have been submitted to the Lebanese Directorate of General Security to resolve the status of Syrian youth, in order to make their presence legal and regulated, so that they can work outside the town.

Those who remain in Arsal are civilians who look forward to receiving assistance from international organisations, which had not been able to access Arsal due to the presence of armed groups, he added.

Welcoming refugees as guests

Syrian refugees who remain in Arsal are "civilians whom we have welcomed and still do", Arsal deputy mayor Rima Karnabi told Diyaruna.

"After Operation Fajr al-Juroud (Al-Juroud Dawn), Arsal was happy to see the terrorists leave in several batches," she told Al-Mashareq.

Fears and security concerns began to subside as soon as they left and the residents reclaimed their town, she said.

Karnabi described current relations between town residents and refugees as "very normal", noting that when the extremists left the area, "both the residents and refugees breathed a sigh of relief".

When the Lebanese army enters Arsal and begins conducting patrols "the municipality will conduct a census to ascertain the number of remaining refugees", she said.

This will take place in order to re-organise their presence in the town and surrounding areas, and possibly find places where they can reside until they return to Syria, she said.

Karnabi noted that the refugees "are still distributed among 110 camps, and the only refugees who left were ISIS and ANF followers".

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That's right. We've got rid of all terrorism. We hope to remain brothers and to find jobs. That's all.