Forgotten woes of Lebanon's slum families

By Caroline Anning

Image source, (C) British Broadcasting Corporation
Image caption, The slum of Hay al-Tannak in north Lebanon is set for demolition

Hitching up her trousers to escape the pervasive mud, Umm Mustafa surveys the tin-roofed shack she calls home.

It is not much - two rooms for her husband and their eight children on a rubbish-strewn patch of land on the seafront in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli.

Just behind her, workers are hammering away at a new high-rise apartment building, where flats are expected to sell for around $250,000 (£161,000).

"Nobody cares about the poor in Lebanon," she says. "We are like refugees in our own country. At least for now, we have a roof over our heads, but we never know what tomorrow will bring."

Umm Mustafa's home, along with the 200 others in Hay al-Tannak, which means "Tin Quarter", is set for demolition.

The land they have lived on since the 1950s is now considered to be prime real estate, sitting on the broad sweep of coastline near the port, and developers have their eye on it.

Hay al-Tannak's approximately 1,500 residents face eviction - but no-one is sure where they can go.

In a country with no social security or subsidised housing, the poorest are usually left to fend for themselves.

Boom and bust

Lebanon has recently seen a luxury real estate boom and a sharp rise in land prices. Visiting journalists wax lyrical about five-star hotels and glitzy rooftop bars rising out of the ashes of war.

Image source, (C) British Broadcasting Corporation
Image caption, There is no running water or drainage in Hay al-Tannak

But amid the million-dollar apartments and designer boutiques, families forced into slums by war and poverty are being left behind.

"Land values are rising across Lebanon, so there's an incentive to get rid of people. If a large-scale development project wants to come along and you're poor, you're going to be pushed out," says Mona Fawaz, professor of urban planning at the American University of Beirut.

"If you look at other Third-World countries, over the last few decades governments have come through and decided to accept and improve informal settlements. But it never happens here. There's no political will," she adds.

Former Tripoli MP Mustafa Allouche blames the political situation for the government's inaction.

"The situation in Hay al-Tannak is terrible, but we can't solve it until we have a solution to this problem all across Lebanon," he says.

"And because of the instability we have here, there are always more important problems to be solved."

'Worth nothing'

Majed Bernard, the de-facto "mayor" of Hay al-Tannak, is leading the fight to save its residents' homes.

Sitting in his small living room surrounded by pictures of his seven children, he chain-smokes as he explains the uphill struggle he faces.

"The politicians come along once every four years, when they want to get elected, to hand out a few dollars and make empty promises," he says.

"Because we're poor, we're worth nothing to them, so nobody wants to try and find a solution for us."

Mr Bernard explains that Hay al-Tannak residents do not want to stay in the slum.

The police patrol the area every few days to make sure no-one is making any permanent improvements to their homes.

The flimsy breeze-block houses flood every time it rains, and they have no running water or drainage. Raw sewage soaks the ground around their homes, and with little access to healthcare, disease is rife.

Seven years ago, Umm Mustafa's baby son died of a treatable lung problem because she did not have enough money for medicine.

All of her children suffer from asthma, and her four-month-old baby cannot breastfeed because Umm Mustafa is too ill herself.

"I would ask the government to at least help the children, so they don't have to grow up like this," she says.

Hay al-Tannak's residents would like the government to build social housing nearby which they could move into and pay off gradually, allowing the community to stay together.

But given the often glacial pace of political change in Lebanon, that is unlikely to happen any time soon.

"Instead of social housing, they want to build gardens," says Mr Bernard, holding the letter that tells him his family has to leave.

"They value the animals more than the people."

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