NABATIYEH, Lebanon — Despite its unflinching support for the Syrian government during the last two years, the militant Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah has been quietly aiding Syrians living in Lebanon – including those who don’t support its political positions.
“Since the beginning of the events in Syria we have been helping refugees,” said Imad al Wahda, a Hezbollah representative in this southern Lebanese city that is considered a party stronghold.
“We have provided more than 2,000 houses and apartments in Nabatiyeh and the surrounding villages,” Wahda said. “Some homes have two or three families in them.”
The group is providing similar assistance to refugees in other parts of the country, even as its fighters are reportedly battling on the side of the Syrian government.
Formed in the early 1980s, Hezbollah is today the single most powerful force in Lebanese politics, a status it owes in part to the social services it provides to the country’s long-impoverished Shiite community, the single largest religious sect in the country. In Syria and across the Arab world, Hezbollah’s popularity soared in 2006 when the group’s militia fought Israeli troops invading Lebanon to a standstill.
Six years later, some of the same people who once revered the group now denounce it for its support of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who belongs to the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiism. The anti-Assad rebels are drawn almost entirely from the country’s Sunni Muslim majority, many of whom accuse Alawites of discriminating against Sunnis during the four decades the Assad family has held power.
Hezbollah certainly has benefited from Assad rule in Syria, and his fall would likely make its dominance of Lebanon more difficult. Much of Hezbollah’s heavy weaponry has flowed through Syria from Iran, and the defeat of Assad by Sunni militants might encourage Sunnis in Lebanon to rise up.
But while Hezbollah’s few public pronouncements and its media and propaganda organizations have largely stayed in lockstep with the Syrian government’s positions during the 22-month uprising, the group’s aid efforts don’t appear to have the same taint as hundreds of thousands of Syrians arrive here with little more than they can carry.
Hezbollah claims even to have helped Syrian migrant laborers who come to work in construction and other service-sector jobs retrieve their families.
“Sometimes we pay for their taxi fare to return to Syria and bring their families here,” al Wahda said.
In a rare statement earlier this month about what’s happening in Syria, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, asked the Lebanese government to form a coherent political approach to the crisis.
“We should deal with the Syrian refugees with purely humanitarian responsibility, without politicization of the issue,” Nasrallah said. “Attention must be paid to the displaced families, whatever their political background.”
While the majority of the Syrians in Lebanon have fled to areas dominated by the same sect as the one to which they belong, Hezbollah is indeed helping displaced Sunnis as well as Shiites.
“My husband is looking for work,” said Umm Ibrahim, a Sunni and a 22-year-old mother of three who used a nickname that means “mother of Ibrahim” when speaking with journalists because she fears for the safety of relatives who remain inside Syria. “There is no more work in Syria.”
Umm Ibrahim shares a four-room apartment with 20 people. She had recently taken her children for immunizations at a hospital run by Hezbollah. She said that when her family came to Nabatiyeh four months ago, Hezbollah also gave them blankets and heaters.
“We thought we would stay here for just a month,” she said.
That was before her neighborhood in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, became a frontline.
“I don’t know what happened to our home,” she said. “My parents’ house was looted and destroyed. My sister’s house was destroyed by shelling.”
Umm Ibrahim did not voice support for either side in the fighting, but she did use the term “Free Syrian Army” when referring to the rebels. Nor did she mind doing so in the presence of a Hezbollah official, even though supporters of the Syrian government tend to use the term “armed groups” or “terrorists” when talking about the rebels, echoing the Syrian government’s terminology.
Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter @davidjenders