For Syr­ian refugees, life in camps get­ting harder

As Trump sus­pends re­set­tle­ment to U.S., many of the 1 mil­lion-plus dis­placed to Le­banon find re­sources stretched to the limit


ghazzeh, le­banon — Clutch­ing Syr­ian drums and in­stru­ments made of spruce and wal­nut wood, 12 Syr­ian chil­dren filed ner­vously into a packed room in Le­banon’s Bekaa Val­ley last week. None had been mu­si­cians be­fore they fled Syria’s war, but af­ter months of prac­tice they were ready for their show.

The crowd of refugees stayed quiet as an Aleppo love song filled the air. But when it slipped from its verse to the cho­rus, sud­denly, the whole au­di­ence was singing.

“That’s it,” cried a woman from the front row, clos­ing her eyes and smil­ing as she swayed. “I’m in Syria.”

None of the refugees had ex­pected to stay away this long. As the ten­drils of war crept through their home­land in 2011, the fam­i­lies cross­ing ear­li­est into Le­banon thought they would return in weeks. Months at most. In­stead the fight­ing swal­lowed ev­ery­thing, smash­ing homes, di­vid­ing com­mu­ni­ties, and turn­ing those months from sea­sons into years.

As Pres­i­dent Trump sus­pended the re­set­tle­ment of Syr­ian refugees to the United States, many of the more than 1 mil­lion dis­placed to Le­banon have found their re­sources stretched to a breaking point.

“Life here is harder than we could ever have imag­ined,” said Om Ahmed, a widow from Aleppo, grab­bing her son in a bear hug as he charged out of the per­for­mance room. “If you saw our tent, you wouldn’t be­lieve we’d left Syria to give our boys a bet­ter life.”

Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent United Na­tions as­sess­ment, con­di­tions for Le­banon’s refugees have de­te­ri­o­rated for a sixth year in a row. Ninety per­cent of house­holds are tak­ing out loans to af­ford ba­sic ne­ces­si­ties, leav­ing the av­er­age fam­ily to sur­vive on less than two meals a day.

“When peo­ple first fled, they may have had some re­sources and were able to meet their needs,” said Ni­amh Mur­naghan, Le­banon coun­try di­rec­tor for the Nor­we­gian Refugee Coun­cil. “As the cri­sis wore on, their money was used up.”

In the Bekaa Val­ley, a sweep­ing ex­panse near Syria’s western border, in­for­mal camps have be­come war­rens of tents stacked on muddy ground. Many are kept neat as a pin, but no amount of care can save wooden boards from rot­ting or wa­ter from seep­ing through mat­tresses, blan­kets or any­thing else that touches the floor.

“Our chil­dren are start­ing to be­lieve we were born like this, and this is how life is meant to be,” said Mounira Mo­hamed, 32, stand­ing out­side her tent in a small set­tle­ment near the town of Sad­nayil. “They ask us about Syria as if it’s a place on the tele­vi­sion.”

With a weak econ­omy, a pre­war pop­u­la­tion of 4.5 mil­lion, and a his­tory of ac­cept­ing dis­placed Pales­tini­ans who later be­came a per­ma­nent fix­ture, Le­banon is ill-equipped and re­luc­tant to of­fer long-term sanc­tu­ary to a new wave of refugees.

But as neigh­bor to one of the dead­li­est wars of the 21st cen­tury, it has found it­self with­out a choice.

“If some­one can tell me hon­estly that there will be se­cu­rity in my home­land, I would go back to­mor­row,” Mo­hamed said. “I would go back faster than that.”

She left Aleppo the day a bar­rel bomb smashed through the fam­ily home, killing her sis­ter out­right and leav­ing three or­phans in her care. Now 8 years old, the youngest boy re­calls Syria only in the mem­ory of his mother’s body in the rub­ble.

With lim­ited op­por­tu­ni­ties to work, fam­i­lies can be heav­ily de­pen­dent on monthly cash pay­ments from the U.N. refugee agency.

For Mo­hamed Ahmed, a 27year-old for­mer real es­tate agent from Syria’s western city of Homs, this has meant a down­ward spi­ral into debt.

“Ev­ery day I work to pay it off, but the chil­dren still need to eat. So we buy more veg­eta­bles on credit, take an­other loan for med­i­cal bills. And then there’s an­other thing to pay off,” he said, stand­ing by the rack of cell­phone charg­ers and boot­leg Bruce Wil­lis DVDs he now sells as one of two jobs.

Like many small busi­nesses in the area, his shop al­lows the refugees to com­mu­ni­cate daily with loved ones back home.

“These calls keep Syria alive for us,” said Mo­hamed, the mother from Aleppo, ad­mit­ting that some­times she did not know whether it was bet­ter to know or hide from what was hap­pen­ing to her rel­a­tives. “We worry about them, and they worry about us. No one has men­tal peace here,” she said.

But ev­ery­day life also fea­tures mem­o­ries of bet­ter times. In Sad­nayil, a group of women stuffed pale-green zuc­chini with rice, bick­er­ing gen­tly over whose recipe for the Syr­ian dish — known as mahshi — was the best. “This tech­nique came from my mother,” one woman said with a shrug. “How can you ar­gue with that?”

Relief groups are also bring­ing tra­di­tional mu­sic to camps and ur­ban refugee com­mu­ni­ties, hop­ing that those they teach can some­day earn a liv­ing through their new craft.

“Un­til early 2015, most of the peo­ple we worked with seemed to think this was tem­po­rary, that the regime would fall one day, and then they’d go back. But that didn’t hap­pen,” said Basma elHus­seiny, di­rec­tor of the char­ity re­spon­si­ble for the chil­dren’s con­cert, Ac­tion for Hope.

“When they learn an in­stru­ment, they learn to stop feel­ing like vic­tims. They’re not wait­ing for help, they are con­tribut­ing,” she said.

As the per­form­ers darted around the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s kitchen af­ter their show, many were still hum­ming the tune to their fi­nal song.

“Did we sing this in Syria?” one girl asked a woman nearby. “Yes, love,” came the re­ply. “Yes, we did.”


A Syr­ian refugee from Aleppo, with her tod­dlers, takes refuge in a makeshift tent in a Syr­ian refugee camp in the town of Kab Elias in Le­banon’s Bekaa Val­ley.

Syr­ian chil­dren play in a makeshift refugee camp on the out­skirts of the town of Zahleh. The num­ber of refugees and oth­ers flee­ing their homes spiked to 65.3 mil­lion peo­ple by the end of 2015.

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