Syrian refugees in Lebanon: We are spiralling, we are despairing
Over 800,000 Syrian refugees live in Lebanon. As inflation spirals and the situation in Lebanon gets worse, they say they are not living, just existing
When we meet in the street below his Beirut apartment, he extends out his arms with the palms of his hands upturned, tilts his head towards me before placing the palm of his right hand to his chest.
He then walks on ahead along a narrow footpath past a small dusty, pot-holed car park, leading me, Irishman Luke Hamilton, and his colleague Nadine Mazloum towards the steep stone steps to his apartment.
Nadine and Luke, and another colleague, a Lebanese liaison officer who clearly knows the Al Sharifs well, work for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
They are helping refugee families such as the Al Sharifs (one family among 839,086 Syrian refugees currently registered with the UNHCR) survive in what Limerick-born Luke admits are “dire” circumstances.
Nadine and Luke advise against asking questions about Aleppo when we met briefly beforehand.
Although they don’t elaborate, there is always a risk that questions about what had happened before anybody flees a warzone could spark unwelcome memories of something traumatic.
Later, looking over the photos of them taken during the interview, you can see there is a look in the eyes of the older children that isn’t in the eyes of the children who were born after the family fled to Lebanon.
The year peaceful protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime descended into a decade-long brutal and bloody civil war saw the birth of their second daughter, Shahed, in 2011.
At the time, they had had one daughter, Sidra, who was born in 2008, now aged 14.
Between 2011 and 2015, he and his wife endured the conflict happening around them in Aleppo, which has been the focus of relentless bombing by al-Assad’s forces and his ally, Russian Federation armed forces.
Two years into the conflict that has so far claimed 350,000 lives, the couple’s daughter Mariam was born, in 2013.
By 2015, the family had had enough. The last straw was their house being blown up.
We follow him up the steep stone steps to a doorway where his beaming six-year-old son suddenly pops his head out around a fully stacked clothes horse.
Abdeljalil leads everyone into a room that is vacant save for a thick black rug on the stone floor, and some cushions are propped against the facing wall.
Abdeljalil’s young daughters appear into the room followed by their mother and look up with welcoming smiles.
“I am from Aleppo. It is where I was born and bred”, Abdeljalil begins, as he settles onto the black rug and his children assemble around him.
“I left because of the violence. I was in Lebanon previously and some members of my family escaped, and I followed.
“My house was razed to the ground, so I don’t have a house. So, I am here because of the war and the violence.
“The economic situation is just impossible. It makes it impossible for our family to exist there.
“It is not a place where I could raise our family, especially as I can’t even fix my own house again.”
He used to work as a farm labourer, toiling the land, and while he was in Lebanon regularly during the 1990s, in 2015 he decided to finally move for good because of the war. At that point, his two youngest children had not been born.
These are Nada, and Mohamad.
Dressed in a bright yellow dress, four-year-old Nada beams up at everyone and spends a lot of the time pulling faces at her older brother.
The six-year-old in turn giggles back at her and spends much of his time by his father’s side, smiling at and looking with curiosity at the camera.
He occasionally runs over to look at this reporter’s notepad during the interview, and at one point mimics someone taking notes.
Occasionally, Nada will pick up her father’s battered mobile phone and pretend to be having a conversation on it quietly, but with her characteristically animated facial expressions.
Herself and her brother are two happy children who are as up to mischief and random play as any other child their age.
After a while, bearing in mind the interview goes on for more than 30 minutes, one thing that is noticeable is something that marks them apart from children of their own age.
There are no toys. Do they have any toys?
UNHCR spokesperson Nadine Mazloum, who is doubling up as an interpreter for the interview, asks.
He shakes his head apologetically and points to a small rug with a few trinkets on it under the end of a steep staircase that leads to the attic.
He explains to Nadine, a former Oxfam media advisor who has been working for the UNHCR since January, that they have very few toys.
The girls sleep in the attic, on the floor.
Mariam, nine, and Shahed, aged 11, sleep there with Sidra aged 14, when she is at home. Sometimes, she stays at a clinic where she is being treated for scoliosis.
What space there is in the attic is a clearing in the middle of the room surrounded by bags of clothes, and boxes: all the family’s possessions.
The only other room is the kitchen, which is beside a small bathroom and toilets.
The old Sony TV and VHS video player in the main living room is a recent replacement to the previous one that stayed broken for a year because Abdeljalil couldn’t afford to get a cheap secondhand one.
“A labourer gets about 250,000 to 280,000 per day Lebanese pounds per day and that is for a skilled labourer, so that is the top rate,” Abdeljalil explains of what amounts to little more than about $5-a-day (€4.70).
“But it is not enough to buy anything.
“I have a sick daughter, she is currently in a clinic.” He shows me a photo of her as a look of pride comes across his eyes which squint as he smiles and nods his head up and down slowly, as if to say, ‘that’s my girl’.
Her medicine costs around 2m Lebanese pounds-a-month, or around $40.
While he gets around 4m Lebanese pounds ($80) every month in subsistence allowances from UNHCR monthly cash assistance and World Food Programme food assistance combined, he earns around another 3m Lebanese pounds ($60) a month, but that is only if he is lucky.
“Sometimes I make up to 3m, but it really depends on the work situation and even if I do find work every day, it is not enough.
“So, I am always looking out for whatever work I can get. I work as a labourer on a construction site or in farming, or basically wherever I can work. The Lebanese themselves are suffering and many have left the country.
“Business owners are leaving and have left, and this means there is less work to go round. I am always looking for work and anything I can find.”
His monthly costs are around 7m Lebanese pounds ($140) per month, well below what is known as the ‘survival minimal expenditure basket indicator’.
This is used to measure the cost of the bare minimum amount of food a family of five or so would need to survive each month, and in Lebanon, the survival index is around $200.
According to research last year, about 90% of refugees in Lebanon were living on levels below this bare minimum indicator.
Abdeljalil’s costs include paying the equivalent of $28-a-month for the use of a communal generator.
Although his rent is 1m Lebanese pounds-a-month, he, like a lot of other tenants in the city, says he faces having to pay his rent in dollars, which in his case amounts to $40.
Other costs are the 20,000 Lebanese pounds it costs per day for two packets of pita bread he uses to feed his family.
Water is another expense.
While he does get ‘fresh’ water, it is toxic and must be filtered.
However, one of his daughters, Mariam, has a kidney complaint and must have a purer form of bottled water daily.
That costs money.
“My nine-year-old daughter Mariam has kidney issues and I have to buy her special filtered water which is usually the water you get from the store,” he explains.
“Because she can’t drink the water from the tap or any water that you would get from the house, she has to have special bottled water.
“That costs around 250,000 Lebanese pounds per month (just over $4) and sometimes I can’t afford it.
“My children feel the situation and they are aware of what is going on.
“Mariam stops herself from drinking and two days ago, I had to pick her up from school because she was in excruciating pain because she is not drinking enough water and that causes pain to resurface. Even if the water is available, she doesn’t drink as much because she wants to cut down on the costs.
“One day recently, we were having a meal together and the family drinks from the regular tap water. And she was asked: where is your water?
“It is usually in the fridge and she said, ‘if I keep drinking it, it will finish and you will have to buy me another bottle’.
“And that is a conversation we have almost every day because it is something we consume every day, all of the time.”
Foza added: “She really cares about the wellbeing of the family and the wellbeing of her father, so she is very sympathetic that way.” The family does get help from neighbours, but even that is changing because so many of their neighbours are now struggling.
“We have great neighbours who help us out with clothes and water and food,” he said.
“But the situation on locals and Syrians has become unbearable.
“Before people would provide help but now there is so little work for them that they are struggling themselves.” Throughout the interview, Abdeljalil smiles politely, and throws a loving arm around his children as they play around him and at his feet.
Occasionally, his eyes cloud over, the smile vanishes, and a stern look comes onto his face.
It is when he is asked about how he feels about his current predicament and how he feels about the future.
Again, Luke and Nadine advised against asking the direct question: would you like to come to Ireland?
This is because it might give him and his family unrealistic expectations and hope, and as this reporter has been repeatedly told from all sides: there is little to no hope for refugees in Lebanon.
“How do I feel?,” he asks Nadine in Arabic.
“We are not living, we just exist.
“The situation is dire. Sometimes I just walk the streets because I don’t know what to do.”
He pauses as his youngest charges playfully at his son.
“Us poor, we were hardest hit by what happened in Syria,” he says.
“More affluent people were able to leave to different countries but us poor, whether here or in Syria, have been the hardest hit.” Asked about his future, he shakes his head.
“We have no ambition. It is tragic,” he says.
“Nothing is improving for us to even consider the future. We are spiralling down. We are despairing.
“It’s getting worse. Even if something breaks down in the house, I can’t fix it let alone think about the future or think about any aspirations, any hopes, or any dreams.
“So, it is just a matter of existing. And day to day, we are just existing. We just eat, sleep and drink.
“We are just in survival mode.”
Electricity is sparse, and after a week without power the family are getting used to having it for two hours each morning and evening.
Before he gets up to collect his daughter from the clinic she is being treated in, he addresses Nadine.
“The situation is tragic,” he says.
“I feel that in the west, the lives of people there are of more value than they are here and, in the region, and I feel through this ordeal, I have grown to hate the way myself and people like me have been treated and hate what has happened to us.
“As Syrians, we feel we have no value.
“Anyone who gets the opportunity to immigrate is something people hold onto, to seize the opportunity because there is absolutely no hope here, there is just no hope, no hope at all.
“My entire family has been scattered. I have a brother in Turkey, and I haven’t seen him or my father in years.
“Like other families, we were hoping to return to Syria, but it is something we cannot do.”
His voice trails off, before he adds: “This is our ordeal.”
Source: Irish Examiner
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the Observatory.