Syrian Refugees in Lebanon: From One War to the Next
Syrians who have chosen or been forced to seek refuge in their country’s smaller neighbour, Lebanon, find themselves moving from a raging war zone to one of deep political and religious schisms between those Lebanese who support the Syrian regime and those who support the uprising.
Beyond these two options, the estimated 1.2 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon face a different type of war: the war for daily living and to secure a life with dignity.
59 year old Abu Tareq is one of the Syrian refugees. He hails from the city of Binnish in Idlib province. To survive, he splits his work hours driving a taxi with his two sons.
“Each of us drives the taxi for 8 hours, and we pay the owner of the car 30 dollars a day and keep the rest,” he says.
Should the situation in Lebanon worsen, Abu Tareq’s eldest son Tareq said he will return to Syria.
“If the only option is to live through a war and die, then I will do it in my own country,” he added.
The family’s support for the uprising in Syria has not led to any harassment from the residents of the Beirut neighbourhood of Tareek Al-Jadida, in which they live.
“On the contrary,” explained Abu Tareq, “these people are with us. They support us.”
Many Syrian refugees in Lebanon are not as lucky. In some areas, local authorities have imposed evening curfews, and many refugees avoid talking politics lest their political leanings become known. There have been reports of attacks on Syrians who are suspected of supporting the opposite side from their neighbours, including a mob that beat Syrian national Yasser Mustafa al-Barazy and led him around the streets of Tripoli by a dog collar on April 22 on suspicion that he was a supporter of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
This has led some refugees to move to other areas in Lebanon where residents share their political positions.
Imad Musafa, 24, does not have an answer when asked about his options should the Syrian war spread into Lebanon.
“Let us just fix our situation before the war starts. When it does, we will see what to do,” he said. According to Imad, he has not been involved in politics since he arrived to Lebanon.
“I left Syria when I graduated from university because I could no longer postpone the military draft,” he said.
Imad complained that he is unable to find work, even though he is willing to do manual labour.
“I am willing to work in construction, but this is also not easy because there are tens of thousands of Syrian construction workers in Lebanon,” he added.
Lebanon is host to the largest number of Syrian workers, leading the Lebanese government to create the Department for the Organisation of Syrian Workers in Lebanon under the Ministry of Labour. The government does not have, or will not release, official statistics detailing the number of Syrian workers in the country. Studies dating back to 2005 indicate that there are 400,000 workers, primarily in agriculture, construction, and handicrafts.
Salim Jreissaty, the acting minister of labour in Lebanon’s current caretaker government, issued a directive on February 3 allowing Syrian workers, on humanitarian grounds, to practise occupations previously limited to Lebanese citizens. This has led many employers to use cheap Syrian labour instead of more expensive Lebanese workers, which in turn has bred animosity on the part of many Lebanese.
Other Syrian refugees live on the streets of Beirut and make money by selling flowers, chewing gum, shining shoes or begging.
A refugee named Riad is one of the nearly 700,000 Syrian refugees who have registered for assistance with UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. Riad recently fled Aleppo with his family and lives in a Palestinian camp outside Beirut. He says UNHCR has been helpful.
“At least UNHCR helps Syrian refugees if they face a security or a political problem,” he said. “Their protection office provides lawyers who work against deporting refugees.”
Refugees say they receive a monthly coupon for 40,000 Lebanese pounds (27 dollars) for basic items and food for each family member.
“We also receive free cleaning and baby supplies every month,” said refugee Abu Omar.
Wealthier Syrians don’t need such assistance. Hani Sleiman, 48, who worked in Damascus as a customs mediator, has lived in Beirut’s upscale downtown neighbourhood for over a year. He says the economic and security crises have not affected him, even though he has not worked since he moved to Lebanon.
“I can go to Europe and live in London, or I can move to the UAE,” he said. “But in Beirut at least I can speak my language and my children can find friends from their social background,” he said.
Despite his comfortable financial situation, which is not typical of the vast majority of Syrian refugees, Hani still encounters difficulties.
“I have worked in customs since I graduated from the business institute in Damascus, but I have not closed a single deal in two years. This is how my livelihood has been affected,” he explained. “The country is ruined, they ruined it. They all ruined it!”
The war he left behind still haunts Hani, as it does other Syrian refugees in Lebanon. He wonders about the future, asking simple questions to which he has no answers: “What will we do? Where will we go? What will happen to us?”
This story was produced by the Damascus Bureau, IWPR’s news platform for Syrian journalists.