The Dom in Lebanon: Citizens, Migrants, Refugees and Nomads

Jasmin Lilian Diab
Director, Institute for Migration Studies, School of Arts and Sciences, LAU

Aslı Saban
Independent Social Worker and Civil Society Practitioner


Introduction: The Dom

The Dom are an ethnic minority group who currently reside in several countries throughout the MENA region, including Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Gaza, the West Bank, Egypt and Turkey. Historians and linguistic theorists have found that the Dom’s language, referred to as Domari, derives from an Indo-Aryan language. They insist that the Dom are descendants of a group of itinerant ethnic groups, called the Roma (Romani) people and Lom people. The supposed ancestors of the Dom, the Domba were said to have left the Indian subcontinent sometime between late antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Misunderstood and complicated, the Dom have been present in the MENA region for over one thousand years. Most information about them is derived from their language. Both Roma and Domari comprise words borrowed from other languages, reflecting a rich history of migration through the region and elsewhere. Beyond this, little of their origin is known or consented to by historians and scholars. People throughout the MENA refer to the Dom as “Gypsies”, “Ghajar” or “Nawar” a word that has evolved into a derogatory term, connoting someone who is “uneducated” and “uncivilized”.

The Dom of Lebanon

Prior to an assessment carried out by the Swiss NGO Terre des hommes, no reliable estimates of the total number of Dom living in Lebanon were ever made available - nor were the Dom part of any Lebanese census. According to this assessment, the estimated size of the Dom in Beirut and South Lebanon is 3,112. In Lebanon, the Dom remain either isolated from urban areas or based near poor, marginalized areas, such as Palestinian refugee camps. A 1994 Lebanese naturalization law, increased the Dom’s access to public services, education and health. Nonetheless, according to multiple sources, 68% of school-age children in Dom communities have never completed any schooling. On the outskirts of Lebanese society, the Dom suffer from extreme poverty and social marginalization, with very limited access to health, education, formal employment and adequate housing. Having led a nomadic life until the mid-to-late twentieth century, the Dom are now largely sedentary throughout the MENA – with the exception of Syria, where they were forced to be on the move yet again, fleeing a now decade-long Civil War. Many now live among other refugee communities, in informal tented settlements across the border in Lebanon. Often referred to as the “other” refugees, or the “forgotten” refugees from Syria, the community continues to navigate new-found challenges in neighboring countries where it resides.

The Dom of Syria, Now in Lebanon

During the Ottoman era, the Dom migrated freely throughout the MENA region as commercial nomads. The fall of the Ottoman Empire following WWI led to the formation of nation states with established borders. This largely impacted Dom movements. It is almost impossible to estimate Syria’s Dom population, as they often conceal their identity out of fear of being stigmatized. Different sources estimate 37,000 Syrian Dom speak Domari, alongside Arabic, although other sources have reported twice that number.

With Beirut formerly an open border away, a significant number of Dom from Damascus fled into Lebanon after the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, reportedly settling in several regions across the Beqaa Valley. Similar to the Palestinian refugees from Syria who entered Lebanon, that ultimately joined Palestinian refugees from Lebanon in their camps once they crossed the border, the regions where the Dom settled were areas where Dom communities live in Lebanon. For Dom communities from Syria, Lebanon is a “centuries old junction” in their migration route. According to an EU-funded study, many of them continuously migrated between the two countries, and ultimately have the identity of both countries. The study observed that there were many marriages between Syrian and Lebanese Dom, and therefore there are “transitivities in terms of citizenship” within the community.

Testimonies from members of the Dom and Abdal communities from Syria (who are called the ‘Per-Dom’ by the Dom, to denote lower status, have also been studied as part of the Dom community despite their linguistic, religious and historical differences) have highlighted that they have relatives in Tripoli and Beirut, and they used to come to Lebanon frequently before the Syrian Civil War broke out as well. In Lebanon many of the Dom men work in construction, and have largely irregularly crossed into Lebanon “over the mountains”. They remain not registered with UNHCR and do not receive any  (or limited) services or aid from the UN Agency. Fascinatingly, many members of the Dom community who entered Lebanon from Syria lived in Lebanon prior to the Lebanese Civil War, during which they migrated to Syria - effectively making many of them view themselves as “returnees” to their “relatives in Lebanon”. Essentially living in Lebanon in legal limbo, because of the fact that they are not registered with UNHCR, and they have no home in Syria to return to, the Dom in Lebanon remains a political and legal predicament for policymakers on both sides of the border.

Concluding Remarks

The Dom community cannot access basic needs, nor their fundamental rights in Lebanon. Children of the community encounter additional challenges such as chronic malnutrition, child labor, sexual exploitation, and child marriage. A significant number of Dom children and youth are not enrolled in schools in Lebanon. The Dom community from Syria that currently resides in informal refugee settlement areas in Akkar and Beqaa Valley has very limited access to public services such as health care, education and humanitarian assistance due to their legal status. Local Lebanese organizations such as Lebanese Developers (LD), have  aimed  to empower Dom women in Akkar through livelihood activities, as well as through organizing group sessions among women and young girls on gender-based violence (GBV) and sexual exploitation; however, no tangible policy directives by the Lebanese government have been undertaken to address the larger community’s needs, rights or wellbeing.

Stigma and marginalization associated with the community remains prevalent in the MENA region, and national social inclusion programs remain unheard of. The community additionally remains understudied by academics, think-tanks and research centers alike.  The community remains unincluded in third-party evaluations monitoring humanitarian assistance activities and programs in Lebanon. Projects rarely account for the Dom community in their mandates, UNICEF’s MAKANI project in Jordan serves as a rare example of a program targeting marginalized and vulnerable children, that accounts for Dom children in their mandate. With the physical hardships and the centuries-long social ostracization of Dom communities, relief for Lebanese and Syrian Dom is pivotal. If the Dom’s culture, language and identity are to survive centuries of marginalization and vulnerability, preservation and advocacy efforts are essential.