Economic meltdown, protests and the devastating explosion in the heart of Lebanon's capital in August: Many Syrian refugees in Beirut are deeply worried. Their most fervent wish finally get out of the country.
"We fled death in Syria," said Mohammad, an 18-year-old who asked that his real name not be used. "Now death haunts us here in Lebanon." Every day he asks himself how long he can survive, sitting in the windowless basement apartment that he shares with his brother and his family in Beirut's Gemmayzeh district. Their previous home was destroyed in the explosion in Beirut in early August.
The family comes from a small village in northeastern Syria. At the age of 14, Mohammad made the dangerous journey to Lebanon to escape the war. When he reached the border after several days on the road, he was kidnapped and held in a basement. Either you pay or you die, the kidnappers told him. In the end, he made it to Beirut. Without legal residence status, he lives in in constant fear of being detained or deported. Authorities have questioned him several times over the years; once he was imprisoned.
Mohammad and his family are a few of the estimated 1.5 million displaced Syrians in Lebanon, which, with a total population of about 6 million people, hosts more refugees per capita than any other country. The situation for displaced people in Lebanon was precarious even before the devastating explosion in Beirut in August — since the beginning of the economic meltdown in late 2019, the currency, the lira, has tanked, businesses have shut down, and thousands of people have lost their jobs. As poverty grows and protests against corrupt politicians and authorities continue, finding official resources to assist displaced people is less of a priority.
Lebanon has practically no resources to help displaced people, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). More than 75% of refugees in the country live in extreme poverty at this point, said Dalal Harb, the spokeswoman for the UNHCR's Lebanon's branch. "The biggest challenge for refugees at the moment is simply to survive," she said. "We strive to continue providing protection and assistance to the most vulnerable through our humanitarian programs and emergency responses."
Mohammad is looking for a future beyond Lebanon and Syria, and has been planning his escape to Turkey for weeks. "If I stay in Lebanon, I will eventually starve to death," he said. "If I go back to Syria, I risk capture by the Syrian army."
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To get to Turkey, Mohammad would have to cross Syrian territory. It is a great risk: There are people who have vanished on that route. "Some of my friends disappeared while fleeing," he said. "Others did not. I simply hope that I will be one of those who will not disappear."
The August 4 blast of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate in the port of Beirut increased Mohammad's fears. He survived with shock and a few minor injuries, but lost his apartment as well as his job and now has no income at all. He longs for a life of dignity and relative prosperity. "I am young," he said. "I want to learn and not beg." In Lebanon, he said, he feels helpless and abandoned.
According to the UNHCR, more than 200,000 refugees live in Beirut. Ghassan al-Rabii and his family of six are also from Syria, and have been living in a one-room apartment in Beirut since 2013. Twelve-year-old Batul has diabetes and Down's syndrome — and had little future in Syria, where Ghassan al-Rabii said her health care and safety could not have been guaranteed under the current conditions. That was one of the reasons why they fled. In Lebanon, the family receives support from the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italia (FCEI) aid organization.
Syrian families are increasingly falling below the poverty line, the FCEI's Hani Alagba said: "The situation has worsened considerably over the past year," he said, "and NGOs are finding it very difficult to help refugees at all."
Suheir El Ghali, the national coordinator for the Social Affairs Ministry's Lebanon Host Communities Programme and a teacher at Lebanese University, said it was a "particularly stressful situation" for displaced people. "They no longer have a home," she said. "No one supports them."
The economic meltdown has intensified competition on the labor market. Given their precarious immigration status, Syrians often must take work under inhumane conditions and frequently face discrimination and hostility. There had been animosity toward displaced people long before the explosion, said al-Rabii said. But he added that his family has been lucky: The FCEI managed to get them visas for France in cooperation with a French partner organization through its Humanitarian Corridor program, which focuses on the "transfer and integration in Europe of vulnerable refugees."
Unlike Mohammad, who still needs to save up funds for his risky escape to Turkey, the al-Rabii family is already eagerly learning French — and looking forward to more sustainable conditions.