For Syrian refugees, Lebanon a meeting place
Beirut is one of the only rendez-vous points for many separated families
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 Like other Syrians interviewed for this article, he asked that his family name not be published out of security concerns.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’