For Syr­ian refugees, Le­banon a meet­ing place

Beirut is one of the only ren­dez-vous points for many sep­a­rated fam­i­lies

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - SYRIAN REFUGEES - By Abby Sewell

BEIRUT: Four years af­ter Saeed fled Syria – first to Le­banon, then Turkey and fi­nally find­ing re­set­tle­ment in Brazil – he was briefly re­united with his mother and three sis­ters in Beirut.

Saeed, who works as an on­line Ara­bic tu­tor, had been in­vited to Le­banon by his em­ployer for a work­shop two years ago and en­tered the coun­try on his Brazil­ian res­i­dency card. His mother and two of his sis­ters, with their chil­dren, crossed the bor­der from Syria to join him. His third sis­ter, liv­ing in the United States and mar­ried to an Amer­i­can, came from abroad with her hus­band for the re­union.

It was the first time the fam­ily had been to­gether since Saeed left Syria – with the ab­sence of his father, who died three years ago.

They spent an idyl­lic week in Le­banon, vis­it­ing tourist sites like Jeita Grotto and the Tele­ferique ca­ble cars to Harissa, and catch­ing up over leisurely din­ners.

“I was so happy and I just wanted to be with them all the time,” Saeed told The Daily Star. Like other Syr­i­ans in­ter­viewed for this ar­ti­cle, he asked that his fam­ily name not be pub­lished out of se­cu­rity con­cerns. “I didn’t want to do any­thing else. I just wanted to be with them, sit and talk with them, play with them, and see my sis­ters’ chil­dren – be­cause I had never seen them … We laughed and joked a lot and re­mem­bered the things we used to do when we were small.”

Around 6 mil­lion Syr­i­ans are dis­placed out­side the coun­try as a re­sult of the coun­try’s civil war; many of those left fam­ily mem­bers be­hind.

With bor­ders slam­ming shut for Syr­i­ans around the world, and many refugees un­able or un­will­ing to re­turn to Syria for fear of mil­i­tary con­scrip­tion, ar­rest or tar­get­ing by armed groups, Le­banon has be­come one of the only pos­si­ble meet­ing grounds for fam­i­lies sep­a­rated by the war – al­though not al­ways an easy one.

Un­til 2015, Le­banon did not re­quire a visa for Syr­i­ans en­ter­ing the coun­try. Af­ter the in­flux of Syr­ian refugees to Le­banon – now be­lieved to num­ber more than 1 mil­lion – the coun­try tight­ened its re­stric­tions, but did not com­pletely slam the door on Syr­i­ans vis­it­ing. Un­der cur­rent rules laid out by Le­banon’s Gen­eral Se­cu­rity, Syr­i­ans who can show at the Le­banese bor­der that they have a ho­tel reser­va­tion and at least $2,000 in cash may be granted a tourist visa of up to two weeks.

Not all fam­i­lies have the means, but many find a way. As with many as­pects of the Syr­ian cri­sis in Le­banon, in­dus­tries have sprung up to pro­vide work­arounds to the most cum­ber­some as­pects of the law. Some ho­tels of­fer dis­counted rates for “phan­tom” reser­va­tions, in which trav­el­ers book rooms in or­der to com­ply with Le­banese re­quire­ments but ac­tu­ally stay with fam­ily mem­bers liv­ing in Le­banon, leav­ing the rooms empty.

Some driv­ers who ferry peo­ple across the bor­der carry cash with them for their pas­sen­gers to show to Le­banese au­thor­i­ties, claim­ing it to be their own.

A young Syr­ian liv­ing in Beirut, who goes by the nick­name Seth, de­scribed how his fam­ily man­aged the lo­gis­tics.

Seth told The Daily Star he had com­pleted his manda­tory mil­i­tary ser­vice be­fore the war, but when he was called up as a re­serve five years ago amid the con­flict, he de­cided to flee to Le­banon. He had hoped to make his way from there to Ger­many via smug­glers as some of his friends had, but he did not have the money to pay for the jour­ney, and has re­mained stuck in Le­banon.

A sil­ver lin­ing of his un­will­ing so­journ is that his mother has twice been able to travel to visit him in Beirut. Friends chipped in to lend the money that she needed to show at the bor­der, Seth said, and the ho­tel where she had booked her stay gave a dis­count know­ing that it was a “phan­tom reser­va­tion” and she would ac­tu­ally stay with her son.

But his father, brother and sis­ter did not ac­com­pany his mother – it would have been too ex­pen­sive for all of them to come, he said.

“I haven’t seen any­one but my mother in five years, and I saw her only twice,” he said. “There are chil­dren of my sib­lings who, when I trav­eled, were small and now I’m see­ing videos that they’ve got­ten big and started school and such.”

His mother had hoped to come again af­ter her last visit two years ago, but lack of fi­nances pre­vented it.

“We tried af­ter­ward, but my sit­u­a­tion was a bit dif­fi­cult – there was no work or money,” Seth said. “So, I told her don’t come now, be­cause I won’t be able to do ev­ery­thing for you if you come. There’s no money to do any­thing. I told her to wait, and when there is money, I will tell you to come. We’ll see – maybe next year, if I’m still here.”

Even for those with the fi­nan­cial means, the trip does not al­ways go smoothly. In some cases, ap­pli­cants are re­fused en­try even with the re­quired cash and ho­tel reser­va­tion, and may be given more or less than the re­quested time for the visa, based on the mood of bor­der of­fi­cials.

And for many oth­ers, meet­ing in Le­banon is not an op­tion. Many Syr­i­ans who left Le­banon for re­set­tle­ment in Europe or else­where are banned from re­turn­ing be­cause they vi­o­lated Le­banese res­i­dency rules. And even those who are not of­fi­cially banned may be blocked from en­try.

Bas­sel, a Syr­ian who has been liv­ing in Eng­land for the past five years, gave up his Syr­ian pass­port for a travel doc­u­ment that al­lows him to travel more eas­ily within Europe. That means that rather than en­ter­ing Le­banon as a Syr­ian cit­i­zen, he must ap­ply for a visa as a for­eigner. Hop­ing to ar­range a meet­ing in Le­banon with his par­ents who had re­mained in Syria, he ap­plied twice for a visa and was re­jected both times.

“I stopped even ask­ing or try­ing be­cause, to be hon­est, it’s a hu­mil­i­at­ing process,” he said.

Bas­sel said he em­pathizes with the chal­lenges Le­banon is fac­ing in cop­ing with the in­flux of refugees.

“But lit­er­ally I can­not com­pre­hend the rea­son be­hind not let­ting peo­ple to go back,” he said. “If you have res­i­dency in a Euro­pean coun­try, I don’t think any­body would go back and stay in Le­banon … On the other hand, the loss is theirs, be­cause if I’m go­ing, I’m pay­ing some money and if I’m go­ing, then I will have friends that will come around and spend money … It’s just lit­er­ally money be­ing poured into the coun­try for free.”

In the end, his fam­ily found an­other so­lu­tion, one also not open to most. His par­ents man­aged to get a tourist visa to France, and the fam­ily met there over the sum­mer.

In the com­mu­nity- and fam­ily-cen­tered Syr­ian so­ci­ety, sep­a­ra­tion can be the most painful as­pect of ex­ile.

Zahi­rah McNatt, a doc­toral stu­dent at Columbia Univer­sity who co-au­thored a study of the ef­fects of fam­ily sep­a­ra­tion on Syr­ian refugees in Jor­dan, said this pain was ev­i­dent in in­ter­views with refugees who had left fam­ily mem­bers, par­tic­u­larly el­derly par­ents, be­hind in Syria.

“They had a re­ally deep sense of guilt, of be­ing un­set­tled in the new coun­try and be­ing un­able to sort of move for­ward with­out that per­son,” McNatt said. “They strug­gled in think­ing about the next steps in their own life.”

Neil Boothby, di­rec­tor of the Pro­gram on Forced Mi­gra­tion and Health at Columbia’s Mail­man School of Pub­lic Health and coau­thor of the study, added that when talk­ing about their long-term prospects, most of the refugees cited fam­ily re­uni­fi­ca­tion as their “dom­i­nant con­cern, whether that be in Jor­dan or it be some­where in Europe or whether it be back in Syria, given cer­tain se­cu­rity as­sur­ances.”

“They wanted to get back to­gether … and where that took place seemed to be of se­condary im­por­tance,” Boothby said.

With pol­i­tics in Europe, Amer­ica and else­where mak­ing per­ma­nent re­uni­fi­ca­tion in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult and go­ing back to Syria still not an op­tion for many, Boothby said, the op­tion of re­unit­ing briefly as some fam­i­lies have in Le­banon, may be the best avail­able.

“I would spec­u­late that it’s tremen­dously im­por­tant,” he said. “To be able to re­con­nect, even if only briefly, is hugely im­por­tant.”

‘To be able to re­con­nect, even if only briefly, is hugely im­por­tant’

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