Date of Degree

9-2022

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Anthropology

Advisor

Mandana Limbert

Committee Members

Marc Edelman

Karen Strassler

Gary Wilder

Ilana Feldman

Subject Categories

Social and Cultural Anthropology

Keywords

Lebanon, Syria, refugees, agriculture, debt, gender

Abstract

Lebanon hosts the highest number of refugees per capita in the world. Yet, contrary to the dominant image of deracinated refugees in unfamiliar territory, significant numbers of Syrian refugees in Lebanon had lived there before as seasonal laborers. Based on eighteen months of ethnographic fieldwork laboring and living among displaced Syrian farmworkers in the Lebanese-Syrian borderlands, this project traces the forms of debt these farmworkers incurred before and throughout the war in Syria. By bringing an agrarian perspective to their conditions of displacement, this research rethinks the conventional distinction between “free” labor migrants and “forced” political refugees, as well as the very notion of a refugee crisis itself.

In contrast to the conventional notion of “crisis” as a humanitarian emergency, this research argues that Syrian farmworkers “debts of displacement” are a multi-generational predicament rooted in a history of uneven agrarian development and gendered divisions of labor on both sides of the Lebanese-Syrian border. It charts how agriculturalists from Syria’s northeastern Jazīra province – the heartland of the Baʿth Party’s vision of state-led agrarian development and the site of the iconic Euphrates Dam project – became the largest and lowest paid stratum of Lebanon’s agricultural system. Approaching “debts of displacement” as a protracted afterlife of Syria’s land reforms and its long postsocialist transition, this study argues that Syrians’ growing dependence on seasonal labor migration was rooted in a crisis of rural reproduction that predated the Syrian conflict by decades.

Throughout this dissertation, debt serves as an optic onto the long-term, structural, deeply gendered, and less visible manifestations of crisis in Syrian farmworkers’ lives. Many rural Syrians were drawn into seasonal migration by the growing threat of indebtedness and the promise of higher wages in Lebanon, especially as Syria’s state-led economy began to formally liberalize in the 1990s. Through a multiscalar account of debt’s displacing and stratifying effects, this study traces the historical emergence of the divisions of labor within Lebanon’s contemporary food system: Lebanese contract farmers (ḍamān), who hire Syrian labor brokers (shāwīsh), who recruit and give shelter to Syrian farmworkers. While most shāwīsh camps are now officially designated by the United Nations as refugee camps, they began dotting the Biqaʿ Valley’s landscape well before the war began.

In turn, this study argues that farmworkers’ loss of seasonal cross-border mobility throughout the Syrian war deepened a long-standing crisis of rural reproduction, leading to Syrians’ dependence upon credit at an unprecedented scale throughout the war. It traces how shāwīsh camp headmen scaled up pre-war seasonal migration infrastructures to create long-term refugee camps, through which they lend cash, housing, and services in exchange for agricultural labor commitments. In contrast to the typical understanding of camps as spaces of exclusion from economic and political life, this research shows how shāwīsh camps are deeply embedded within the political economy of agriculture in the region, where the war was not simply a rupture but rather a reconfiguration of these camps’ redistributive functions. Capitalizing on a shift to labor-intensive production, these camps became central to Lebanon’s liberalized food system, emblematic of new forms of bonded labor across the world, where debt serves as a mechanism of intensifying labor output.

Based on long-term immersion in a shāwīsh camp, this research traces how these camps also became a life-saving source of credit for Syrian refugees who could not afford their basic necessities. For many Syrians facing the trauma of war and the challenges of meeting their daily subsistence needs in exile, shāwīsh camps were a vital source of welfare, offering not only affordable housing and services, but also a sense of community and baseline security. Paradoxically exploitative and life-sustaining, such “debts of displacement” existed on a tense continuum between bondage and belonging. Whether to wait out the ongoing crisis in Syria or simply because they could not afford to live anywhere else, this study examines how and why some refugees remained in these camps even after they worked off their debts.

Finally, this study traces the limits of these debts’ binding power in the context of Lebanon’s sovereign debt crisis. The devaluation of the Lebanese currency amplified the contradictory position of shawīsh themselves, as many were caught between a moral obligation to maintain a positive reputation among their workers by lending generously, on the one hand, and an economic imperative to constrain their lending in order to prevent their camps from going bankrupt, on the other. This research analyzes ethnographically how Syrians negotiated these tensions in everyday life, leading some to return and keeping others bound to Lebanon. It does so through a feminist analysis of how debt became a tense battleground of competing obligations within Syrian farmworker families. Far from existing in relation to a foreseeable “end” as their refugee status would seem to imply, displacement endured for these farmworkers as a complex set of attachments to places and people, unfulfilled promises, intergenerational sacrifices, and ongoing debts to each other.

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