UNESCO Supports Syrian Refugees in North Lebanon to Map their Cultural Resources

, Lebanon

Through an EU-funded project, UNESCO Beirut helped Syrian refugees in Lebanon map their tangible and intangible cultural resources. 

Community-based mapping aims to provide concerned communities with tools to enable them to find answers to problems or protection risks. The challenge resides in the fact that few experiences exist or are documented on the use of cultural resources in addressing problems or protection risks in the context of displacement.

Cultural mapping promises new ways of describing, accounting for, and coming to terms with the cultural resources of communities and places. Cultural mapping is pragmatically defined as a process of collecting, recording, analyzing and synthesizing information in order to describe resources, networks, links and patterns of usage of a given community or group. From this perspective, cultural mapping is regarded as a systematic tool to involve communities in the identification and documentation of cultural assets, with the implication that this knowledge could then be used to inform collective strategies, planning processes, or other initiatives such as increasing conservation, transmission, and protection efforts. These assets are both tangible, or quantitative (e.g., physical spaces, cultural organizations, public forms of promotion and self-representation, public art, cultural industries, natural and cultural heritage, architecture, people, artefacts, and other material resources) and intangible, or qualitative (e.g., values and norms, beliefs and philosophies, language, community narratives, histories and memories, relationships, rituals, traditions, identities, and sense of place). Together, these assets help define communities (and help communities define themselves) in terms of cultural identity, vitality, sense of place, and quality of life.

Against this backdrop, and in the framework of the EU-funded project “Protecting Cultural Heritage and Diversity in Complex Emergencies for Stability and Peace”, UNESCO Beirut embarked on a venture to support the mapping of cultural resources of Syrian refugees from seven neighborhoods in Abou Samra and Tripoli (North Lebanon).

Part of the initiative was the development of a methodology to undertake such an initiative, complete with training materials and data collection tools in view of replicating this exercise wherever it is needed. The development of the methodology was launched during a two-day meeting with UNHCR, UN-Habitat, UNDP, and the NGOs Action for Hope, Ettijahat, Al-Mawred, and Coordinamento delle Organizzazioni per il Servizio Volontario (COSV).

With the instrumental support of UNHCR, a three-day training on the use of this methodology was given to 8 women and 6 men from the concerned communities on 26 and 27 August and 2 September 2019 at the Forum of the Handicapped (FOH) Community Development Centre in Mina. The training centered on discussion of definitions of key notions such as culture, cultural heritage, creativity, and cultural resources, as well as practical exercises on how to conduct household surveys, which, in addition to focus group discussions and key informant interviews were the three tools adopted for this exercise.

UNHCR trained the participants on UNHRC’s ethics, code of conduct and research principles. By the end of the training, a definition of cultural resources and data collection tools were reviewed with community members to ensure the community-based and participatory aspects of the endeavor are the centre of the process. Following the training, the 14 enumerators collected data in pairs through 176 household surveys, while UNESCO conducted focus group discussion with two groups of women, men, and youths from Abou Samra and Mina.

The objectives of this pilot exercise were to document existing Syrian cultural resources and assess their needs in terms transmission and conservation, assess the impact of cultural resources on the lives of the concerned community, and to propose actions to support efforts by displacement-affected communities to safeguard and engage their cultural heritage, creativity and diversity as resources for maintaining their personal well-being and collective identities, restoring social stability and strengthening resilience, all as ways to promote protection.

The data collected during the pilot exercise was analyzed and urgent needs were identified. This served as a basis for UNESCO to propose actions for the mitigations of the negative impact of displacement on the mapped cultural resources. Among the actions proposed and discussed with the community members, the following obtained consent of the community members present during a closing meeting that took place at the FOH on 30 September 2019. These actions centered on the protection and adaptation of culinary traditions, namely workshops to help Syrians adapt their “mouneh” skills (traditional food preservation) to the humid Mediterranean climate of Tripoli, the creation of food markets where Syrians and Lebanese can cook and sell their food, theatre and clowning workshops and a study on Syrian traditional cultural resources related to textile.

A short movie on the training as well as the data collection directed and filmed by Syrian refugeesfrom Action for Hope’s movie school is also being produced and will soon be available online.

In addition, a desk study on the cultural rights of Syrian refugees in Lebanon was developed, focusing on three areas: identity and heritage, participation in cultural life, and creativity and expression. The challenges identified included:

  1. The double impact on the cultural rights of Syrian refugees of the historical cultural connection between Syria and Lebanon have a double impact: commonalities make it easier for refugees to relate to their host communities and understand their new social environments, on the other hand this similarity threatens the cultural identities of refugees and facilitates cultural assimilation and the loss of cultural differences;
  2. The acceleration of this assimilation brought on by tense social conditions in some parts of Lebanon; cultural identity and the sense of pride it generates often becomes a liability;
  3. Restricted access to cultural centres, art education programmes, theatre halls, cinemas;
  4. Insufficient legal protection for young Syrians;
  5. The negative impact of the legal framework on the employment of non-Lebanese artists.

Meanwhile, UNESCO has also assessed the needs of cultural resources in Syria and identified emergency response measures. The assessment covered intangible cultural heritage manifestations as identified and defined by local communities, contemporary cultural assets by artists and culture professionals, knowledge and skills available related to traditional materials and techniques; immovable tangible cultural and natural heritage, and collections of movable cultural property (museums, archives and other public or private collections).

This project highlighted the impact of displacement on cultural resources but also the impact of cultural resources on displaced communities as a first step towards providing the support needed to ensure their safeguarding and transmission to future generations as a means for human and economic recovery, the protection of displaced Syrians’ cultural rights, and fostering social cohesion and stability after years of armed conflict and suffering.