A Haven No More: The Closing of Aassoun Tower
(This article is one of two in a package. The other is “For Syrian Refugees in Lebanon, Precarious Lives.”)
DANNIYEH, Lebanon—Aassoun Tower is a tall cylindrical building located in picturesque, hilly country east of this coastal city, and was originally intended as a tourist hotel with a rooftop restaurant. Its construction was incomplete, but like many unfinished buildings stalled by financing problems, it was put into service as a settlement for Syrian refugees. (See a related article, “Comics Take a Candid Look at Refugee Lives.”)
For about four years, the tower was the temporary if safe home for about 40 Syrian refugee families, according to Nasser Zawk, communications officer for Solidarités International. With a Unicef contract, this French organization made the building, which is in northern Lebanon, east of Tripoli, habitable by adding electrical and water systems, and remained responsible for it. The building’s owner agreed to let refugee families live in the tower’s unfinished rooms in exchange for a financial subsidy from international donors, rent from the families themselves, and rehabilitation of the building.
In November, the landlord evicted the tower’s residents. The building stands empty, and its gates are locked. Although unnoticed by local or international media, the closing of Aassoun Tower can be seen as a significant moment in a continuing process of donor fatigue.
“The funds the owner had been getting from NGOs came to an end,” Zawk said. “The Syria crisis has been going on for many years, and donors are shifting their funds to other places, such as Yemen.”
Zawk said that although the building’s owner kept the source of his subsidies private, residents of the tower said that the owner received funding from organizations in Qatar and Kuwait. As funding from these sources dried up, the landlord raised the rent he charged refugee tenants. Eventually, the arrangement was no longer profitable, and the tenants were given a few days’ notice to leave.
The families who lived in Aassoun Tower came from a variety of backgrounds, Zawk said. “There were lawyers and teachers, and people who own land and work in agriculture. They came from almost all the well-known places in Syria. It was a very diverse group of people. We called it ‘mini Syria.’” After the eviction, Zawk said, the community scattered, as some families settled nearby, while others settled further away.
Under Lebanese law, Solidarités International is prohibited from providing accommodation to the evicted families, but once they had settled elsewhere, the organization’s rapid response team provided emergency assistance in the form of bedding, hygiene kits and the like.
The eviction of the residents of Aassoun Tower is a significant development in the situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Zawk said. “Aassoun Tower was stable—it was a constant in this crisis. The people who were living there were a very nice group of Syrian people: every humanitarian worker in the north [of Lebanon] knew about them.”
“The frequency of evictions is growing,” Zawk said. “There’s a whole media campaign that has been going on for the past three or four months calling for the return of Syrians to Syria, and their safe return—in quotation marks—as if the war has ended and it’s safe for Syrians to go back. At Solidarités International, we are part of a coalition of organizations that feels we are not even close to safety.”
The closing of Aassoun Tower, Zawk said, “is an alarming sign that things are not as they used to be.”