In an apartment overlooking the old lighthouse in Beirut, every Saturday a Syrian architect, Omar Abdulaziz Hallaj and his wife, Syndi Stewart-Hallaj open their home to Syrians. The gathering has become known among Syrians in Lebanon as “the open house.”
About thirty to fifty people show up. There are regulars, but anyone can join. The only rule, as Hallaj says laughing, “Cigarettes are outside.”
Hallaj’s home is a welcoming place for people who are trying to rebuild their lives from scratch in a new country. The conversation often revolves around the situation in Syria, but also about practicalities: how to find a job or how to cope in a new place. They have been doing it for almost a year.
When the Hallaj family moved to Lebanon, Stewart-Hallaj would often hear Syrians say, “I don’t like Lebanon. We want to go home.” “I thought, ‘let’s open our house every Saturday and invite everyone, anyone Lebanese, Syrian, foreigner,” she said. “They can start forming a community. They can start identifying something positive in Lebanon and that’s basically how it started.”
When asked what social gatherings can change about the bloody conflict in Syria, Syndi says they are not here to end the war. “We are here to get people to talk to each other and to have a conversation. We will not have a solution to the problem if people can’t talk to each other.”
Syndi is no stranger to opening her house to people. In the 70s, she lived for five years in a collective in Texas. Her mother was a community activist. “Everyone was welcomed in our house. We would never know who would come but the door was always open,” she says.
Abed Alrazak Alnaeb is in his twenties and he is a regular at Hallaj’s open house. Like the host, he is also an architect, a group that is typically well-represented at the gatherings. Alnaeb says this place helped him more than once not only in finding a job when he really needed work, but also when seeking emotional support.
He admits it is not always easy to be Syrian in Beirut because of Syria’s occupation of Lebanon until 2005. To this day, some Lebanese associate all Syrians with the Syrian army. “Some Lebanese look at Syrians as enemies. Some people cannot forget that the Syrian army was here,” he says.
He also describes several initiatives that were born during these weekly meetings, like gathering clothes for Syrian refugees ahead of a recent storm. Amid the ruthless conflict in Syria, the open house is a place that gives a bit of hope. The tone is not always light, however, and you can hear difficult conversations about Syria and where the country is heading.
“We are in the middle of a civil war and civil wars have lives of their own. You have multiple layers of conflict going on in Syria,” Hallaj says. “We are talking now about a sectarian layer, we are talking about an ethnic layer, about a class layer. We are talking now about warlords, war-time economy, and regional conflict. Pity revenges, wicked psychology and all of this intermixed into a very complex web, which is natural when civil war progresses….unfortunately we are beyond the point of easy solutions.”
In 2007, Hallaj received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture for the rehabilitation of the city of Shibam in Yemen. He also has experience working with civil society. In the recent past, he worked with Syria Trust for Development, an organization linked to Syrian First Lady Asma Al-Assad, which some opposition Syrians hold against him. Yet they recognise the great effort.
In this house the idea of Syria is alive, although so much death is close by.
“It’s going to be years and years and years of hard work until we get our country back. It’s a dark moment but life goes on and it’s up to us…we can all turn our backs and move in the world or we can actually each assume a responsibility and move forward with it,” Hallaj says. “[It’s] up to us Syrians to keep the idea of the country alive, to keep the idea of the culture alive [and to] do something to keep the idea of who we are alive.”
Rima Marrouch is a fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University. She previously worked as a Beirut-based producer for NPR, and has reported from Syria and Libya for the LA Times. Rima tweets @RimaMarr and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org