LEBANON, SOUTH BEIRUT
A life of violence and humiliation
Amal, aged 15, stares at the carpet covering the floor of this small ground-floor room that she shares with eleven members of her family and says little. It is her father, Omar, dark and tense, who tells her family’s story. “We went through a living hell in Syria. I’d hoped life would be better in Lebanon.” But since arriving in Hay el-Selloum, in South Beirut, two years ago, the family has been relentlessly persecuted. In this neighbourhood, home to lebanese disadvantaged, Hezbollah flags flutter above the portraits of martyrs. Syrians, who - like Amal and her family - have sought refuge from the war here, are considered the poorest of the poor and are frequently attacked, humiliated and exploited.
We went through a living hell in Syria.
Originally from Raqaa, north of Syria, the family was forced to flee at the very start of the conflict. They went first to eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, where they lived off the land. But the blockade of the city forced them to move on. They then headed for Adra, 30km away, where they only stayed for 20 days. “I thought we were going to die. The fighters were massacring people all around us. We lost some of our friends.”
So Omar decided to take his family to safety in Lebanon. But the pressure caused by the inflow of refugees on the economy and institutions of this country is huge. Lebanon has already welcomed hundreds of thousands of Palestinians since 1948 and is unable to meet the needs of the 1.5 million Syrians who have sought refuge here. As the conflict drags on, their living conditions continue to deteriorate. 70% of them are living below the poverty line.
Omar’s family is no exception. “When we arrived in Lebanon, we worked in a nylon factory for a few weeks. They paid us $20 for ten people,” he explains angrily. His eldest daughters, Amal and Chadia, aged 16, then found work in bakery where they were paid just $10 for a 14-hour day of exhausting drudgery. The owner humiliated them. “He said we were dirty, he insulted us and laughed at us”, Amal tells us, her voice shaking with anger. Then one day, Chadia, who has a foot malformation, fell over under the weight of a heavy tray. “The owner began hitting her while she lay on the ground. Then he dragged her outside by the hair and chased her off.” The memory of the incident makes her cry. Chadia now has a new job, but Amal continues to suffer insults and poor treatment at the bakery.
The suffering of Omar and his wife is etched on their faces as they talk about Marwan, their 8-year old son, who has had to stop going to schools because of the constant beatings, or the bag of excrement they found on their balcony one morning. Despite the humiliations, it is impossible for the family to return to Syria. “My country has been completely destroyed”, explains Omar, “and there are no signs of things getting better”, explains Omar. “All I want is to live somewhere where there is enough to eat, somewhere where we are respected”.
Lebanon, Bakaa Valley
The burden of boredom and frustration
Hyam and Houda are no strangers to rejection and boredom. These two sisters who arrived from the southern suburbs of Damascus four years ago were abandoned by their husbands in Liban. Hyam, the younger sister, has two daughters, Janah and Farah. The eldest, Houda, has a little girl called Zeina. Like them, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have settled in the Bekaa valley on Syria’s western border. But unlike many of their fellow Syrians, condemned to living all year round in the tents covering the fields of this agricultural region, Hyam and Houda now share a flat in Qab Elias with their parents and one of their brothers.
When they first arrived, they had to make do with sharing a container with thirteen other people. Then their brother found work as a steamfitter and the family was able to move into decent accommodation. Sitting on a mattress in a room where the only other furniture is two garden chairs, Hyam tells her story: “Before, we lived in poverty. [It was so crowded] we couldn’t breathe properly. Things are a bit better for us now, but the psychological pressure is huge. Without a husband, we have to be both a mother and father to our children.” Hyam finds occasional work as a hairdresser, but most of the time the two women have absolutely nothing to do. They are bored to tears by the routine of their existence. Their social life is restricted to a visit to the market and playing with their children. “We just eat and sleep, eat and sleep”. Their distress is evident, as are the signs of depression.
When they first arrived, they had to make do with a container shared with thirteen other people.
Hyam and Houda are being care for by mental health and psychological support teams from Doctors of the World (MdM). Alongside other Lebanese care providers, these teams provide assistance to Syrian refugees sand impoverished Lebanese in Bekaa’s four health centres, in partnership with three associations: Amel, Islamic Welfare Society and la Paroisse d’El Qaa. “We meet lots of women on their own, divorced, with children,” explains MdM’s Fatima Nabaa, who works with patients in psychological distress. “They feel lonely, sad and pessimistic.”
The view of the valley through the huge bay window is stunning. But the sisters say they no longer notice the beauty of their environment; it no longer offers them any consolation. Their three little girls shuttle between the television and the terrace. They amuse themselves as best they can. “It’s difficult to channel their energy. They can’t run about outside because the children are aggressive with each other. Our frustration rubs off on them.”
Hyam and Houda can’t imagine ever returning to Syria. They’re pinning all their hopes on one of their other sisters who may be able to get into Europe as her husband has been killed. But Houda’s situation could make this family reunification impossible. Her husband has gone to live in Brazil without making their divorce official - and she can’t travel without his authorisation. “I hope the authorities aren’t going to make my life even more difficult”, she sighs. As a war refugee and woman, she is paying a double price.
Jordan, Zaatari camp
Building a future for their children
In Jordan, exiled Syrians all share the same determination to provide their children with a proper upbringing despite the turmoil and their uprooted lives. On the brightly-painted walls of the prefabs marking the boundaries of one of the twelve districts of Zaatari refugee camp in north-east Amman, messages unfurl like wisps of hope: « Education », « I want to learn a language ». This desire to learn can be seen in another wall painting that shows three children squatting and using books to cover their eyes, ears and mouth respectively, in an imitation of the maxim of the three wise monkeys: see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil.
Opened in July 2012 by Jordanian authorities and situated less than 20 km from Syria’s southern border, the camp is now home to some 80,000 refugees. Zaatari has developed into a sort of town, with shops, hospitals, schools and administrative services. The Syrians who live here are safe from harm. They share a culture and a history, all the more so as most of them come from the governorate of Deraa, just over the border - like Ahmed, his wife Nour and their four daughters. “We arrived on 12 April 2014”, Ahmed recalls. “Back in Deraa, I could no longer let my children go outside. Bombs were falling less than 60 metres from our house." After spending 3 months in a tent, the family is now living in a tin shack that Ahmed built with his own hands. “We’re in line for a prefab, but nothing seems to be happening. There are six of us in one room. We’ve put up a blanket to separate the kitchen from the rest of the room, but we can’t keep the insects out.” Today, the girls can huddle up to a gas heater given to them by their neighbours, but a few weeks ago, the kitchen stove was the only thing protecting them from the cold.
In fact, Ahmed and his family have nothing. To survive, they depend on money sent to them by a relative, and the 120 dinars (€150) credited to a payment card each month by the World Health Programme. This card is for buying food and can only be used in the camp’s supermarket, but Ahmed sometimes exchanges it for money to buy other things, such as school supplies for Loundja and Maraha, his eldest children.
As the two schoolbags hanging on the wall testify, education is an absolute priority, the only hope for a better future for Ahmed’s children and he does not intend to sacrifice it to the horrors of war and the poverty of exile. “Loundja is a very good student. She goes to two schools, the one in Bahreïn and the American school. I hope she’ll be able to go to university.” With a shy smile, Lounda tells us that her dream is to become an English teacher. Her father nods, proud but worried.
Education, the only hope of a better future for his children
He is worried because the family is about to leave the camp. When I decided to leave my country to come to Jordan, it was to protect my children. In Zaatari they are safe, but safety is the only thing we have here. I feel shut in, of no use to my family.” Because he considers the living conditions to be undignified, unsuitable for the education of his children, because he can't work and earn a living, Ahmed is returning to Syria. “Outside, I’ll be able to work and take care of my family". Yet Ahmed knows that the situation in Syria is deteriorating. One of his nephews was killed in the fighting just two months ago and he doesn’t know where his parents are. But there is one thing he is sure of: his house is still standing. He lends it to other families displaced by the fighting - free of charge, because everyone must do whatever they can to help others.
Jordan, Zaatari camp (East)
Born in Exile: rootless children
For Sohad, 47, there is no question of returning to Syria while the country is ravaged by civil war. Over the last three years, her family has found some stability in the Zaatari camp. This mother of three children, remembers the chickens they used to raise, their olive fields and the underground water tank they had built to water their crops. “In Deraa, we sold our produce at the market". In Zaatari, Messaoud, the father, runs a little shop in the main shopping street, known here as the Champs-Élysées, between a boutique selling wedding dresses and a grocery store. He sells clothes, food and cleaning products. Whatever it takes to feed his large family living in two prefabs allocated to them by th HCR.
This is where Sohad spends her days taking care of her youngest children while the older ones are at school. The youngest, Nabil, is three. With brown curls and big, laughing eyes with long lashes, Nabil was born in exile, at the hospital in Mafraq, the Jordanian town closest to the camp. His play area is two stark rooms, carpeted with cushions and separated by a muddy yard. As far as his eyes can see, there is nothing but barren desert. “When I was pregnant, the hospitals in Deraa were not safe; they were being targeted in the air raids. That’s why we left.”
The hospitals in Deraa were the target of air raids.
The fear, the journey, having to leave behind all their possessions, even their most precious souvenirs, caused Sohad considerable distress. She gave birth prematurely while the family’s identity papers were in the hands of the Jordanian authorities controlling the arrivals of réfugees. “It’s a real tragedy” explains Sohad."Nabil has no legal identity, no birth certificate other than a certificate from the hospital. To get him one, we have to go to court and pay legal costs”. The other option would be to use a contact outside the camp to make the application in Syria. But Sohad is discouraged by these arrangements - too complicated or too expensive. “My son is healthy, that’s the most important thing. I take him to Doctors of the World’s health centre and the doctors there are very kind to him.”
“Here, people take care of each other”, Sohad tells us, “but what we miss most is our freedom of movement.” This devoted mother can’t visit her son who is still in Syria. “I want him to come here and be with us, but he’s stuck over there because they’ve closed the border.” Her biggest fear is that he’ll get caught up in the war, be forced to join one group of fighters or another. And that she will never see him again.
Fleeing the bloody battlefield of Alep
The hope of a solution to the Syrian crisis seems to fade even further with each new group that joins the fight. Indeed the situation has worsened in the north of the country since Russian planes began bombing Alep and its governorate.
Public buildings have been destroyed, including many health facilities and hospitals. With no access to health care, surrounded by the armed forces of Bachar al-Assad’s regime, thousands of civilians are fleeing to turkey’s borders.
With no access to health care, thousands of civilians are fleeing towards the Turkish border.
“Today, at last I feel safe”, explains Hassan, sitting in one of the two small rooms of the prefab he shares with his wife, three children, mother and sister. The border is just a few yards away from this little Turkish village near Reyhanli , now home to 130 Syrian families who make up 80% of its population. “We managed to hold out for three years in our campaign to the south of Alep. But when the Russians began bombing us, they also paved the way for the massacre of civilians. Fighters turned up on our doorsteps. They burnt down our houses. They killed twenty or so men and took away the children. I saw them murder a doctor, a man who was caring for people”, recounts Hassan, scrolling the photos of victims on his mobile phone.
After borrowing money from the village chief, Hassan and his family managed to escape to Bab al-Salam, one of the entry points into Turkey. “My wife and children weren’t even wearing shoes when we left.” But the border was closed. Turkey has built a concrete wall, 7 kilometres long. Only the injured are let in. They are taken to the hospitals, mainly to the post-operative centre run by the UOSSM (Union des organisations de secours et soins médicaux) in Reyhanli - equipped and financed by Doctors of the World. Hassan and his family managed to cross the border illegally. They met up with a cousin who had fled to Turkey two years earlier.
The border is closed. Turkey has built a concrete wall, 7 kilometres long.
In the last two months, Hassan has only had a couple of temporary jobs - undeclared, as Syrians are not authorised to work in Turkey. Not enough to feed his family. And they have only received food aid once since they arrived. To pay for food and blankets, Hassan has had to sell his wife’s gold jewellery. “My mother is 60. She has a heart condition. In Reyhanli, a doctor told her to go to Adana for tests. It’s much too far for us. I can’t afford to take care of her.”
Around their makeshift house, dodging between the washing lines, the children play outside a Turkish school that now takes Syrian children. Abdulrahman, 10 years old, is the eldest of Hassan’s children and attends this school, painted a cheerful blue. “But he finds it hard to concentrate”, says his father. “He’s distressed, he sleeps badly. I’d like him to see a psychologist.” The trauma of the atrocities experienced in Syria is still vivid. Hassan would like to return to Syria after the war, but he knows there is nothing left for him there. He has lost his farm and his fields. He is thinking about going to Europe. “But how can we go so far when we can barely survive here?” is?”