Caught between the trauma of the past, the struggles of the present, and the uncertainty of the future, Syrian refugees in Lebanon are living in limbo.
Syria is the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time. In less than five years of war, a quarter of a million people have been killed, and half the country forced to leave their homes.
Lebanon, impoverished and fragmented, does not provide sufficient accessible education, health and social services even for its own poor. It has neither the ability nor the will to meet the needs of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, who are often treated with hostility, seen as driving up prices and unemployment.
Over 1.1 million of these have fled to Syria’s tiny neighbour Lebanon, where a quarter of the population are now refugees.
It is in this pressure cooker of a context that Caritas is working, providing medical services, food, rent and cash assistance, vocational training, and psychosocial support to help people cope with trauma, among other projects.
For many, Caritas is a lifeline, the only support that is enabling them to stay in Lebanon, rather than being forced to go back and face the violence in Syria, or give up everything and risk their lives trying to reach Europe, because they are simply unable to survive as refugees.
Four Syrians in Lebanon have agreed for us to follow their stories over the months leading up to the fifth anniversary of the crisis in March 2016.
War widow Rose Sham is trying to cope with trauma and piece a life together for herself and her sons after the death of her husband under torture in Syria.
Newlywed Jassim wants to find a secure way of making a living. risks becoming blind forever due to lack of access to healthcare, he needs an operation urgently but doesn’t know if he can get it.
And is facing bringing her first child into the world in exile.
Read and follow to find out what happens to them all, and how Caritas is helping.
Rose Sham describes herself as ‘a daughter of Damascus’. Her eyes are a bright green and stand out in her pale face. She looks at you enquiringly, calmly, but with a look of pain that never leaves her. Before the war Rose lived in a house she loved with her husband and three sons: ‘it was a sweet life, everything was happy’. But as conflict spread across Syria in 2011, the area she lived in on the outskirts of town was overtaken by violence. The family moved again and again in search of safety.
‘I saw many dead bodies, many massacres’ Rose says vividly. ‘Everywhere we went there was bombing. The buildings were falling down around us. Our lives were threatened many times. My sister joked that maybe it was my fault, that the war was following me.’
The war truly came home to them when her brother was killed by a bomb. They had been eight siblings, but Rose had been closest to this brother, whose gentle nature suited her own. She made the difficult journey to the north of Syria to go to the funeral and be with her family.
They returned to Damascus, and winter set in upon her mourning. The weather grew cold, but they lacked money to buy coats and blankets. Rose’s husband decided to risk the dangerous journey back to their old house to bring their warm things. ‘He went once, and managed to get a few bags. He was scared but he wanted to go again to get more. He promised it would be the last time.’
It was indeed the last time. He never returned. Nine months later, she heard her husband was dead.
‘I had thought that my brother’s death would be my biggest crisis, but this was even greater. When my brother died, I felt that time stopped. But when I lost my husband, I was not able to collapse. I was responsible for my children.’
Rose had moved seven times already over the past three years, but now, terrified of her sons disappearing like their father, she brought the family to Lebanon.
In Lebanon, a new brutal reality faced her: life as a refugee. Poor, unable to register her sons in school, and overwhelmed with the trauma of what she had seen and experienced, Rose didn’t know where to turn. Finally, someone told her to go to Caritas. She had never asked anyone for help before – in Syria, she used to support others in her community. It was hard, but there was no choice.
Caritas gave Rose some immediate assistance to get mattresses and blankets for the house, and cash support for food, gas and other essentials.
But even more importantly, Rose and her youngest son Obay started seeing a Caritas counsellor.
‘Caroline from Caritas really supported me. She helped me to be stronger. I would go and see her and talk, and if a session got delayed I felt stressed, I felt I really needed it.
She told me I am strong and that I am doing well. I knew this inside me, but I needed someone to tell me it.
I came from Syria with hopes for a better life, but I was shocked when I came. Caroline helped me through that. She was my medicine.’
With Caritas support, Rose has started piecing her life back together in Lebanon. Obay is in school and has grown in confidence. The flat has started to feel homey, with Caritas mattresses, and some furniture donated by friends and relations, and a makeshift wardrobe knocked up by tacking fabric over planks.
But worries remain. Rose’s eldest, Ayham, has a university degree in Economics, but has been working selling bread on the street due to lack of jobs. However, he’s broken his foot so the entire family is now dependent on the income of the middle son, Ehab, a gentle 15-year-old who is working as an attendant in a bus station.
Rose is anxious about the future, about her sons’ education, about making ends meet.
And the trauma she has experienced is still with her.
Follow to find out whether Ayham finds work, Ehab returns to school, and Obay settles back into education. Walk Rose’s journey with her and share updates on her life as she tries to put the past behind her and build for the future.
Slim and energetic, with frank eyes and a ready smile, 25-year-old Jassim is of the generation who came of age at the start of the war.
When he started university, reading Business Studies, Syria seemed to be in a long period of relative stability. The younger generation hoped, reasonably, for more economic prosperity and better standards of living than their parents, perhaps even a freer society. Jassim and his friends worked hard, they got university places. Their lives stretched before them, full of possibilities.
Then, as Jassim was graduating, the Syrian uprising started. The country descended into violence. Hoping to be able to use his degree and get a good job, Jassim left Syria in 2011.
‘It was hard’ he explains. ‘When you come to a place you know nothing and no one. You’re a stranger. As a Syrian, the Lebanese people didn’t accept me. There were no opportunities for me to use my degree.’
He is now living in a tiny partition of an old farm building with 16 other families. Only the outer walls are stone, and the roof is sheet metal. As he says, ‘in the summer it’s an oven and in the winter it’s a freezer’.
This sub-standard accommodation costs $200 a month, and the rent is a worry that keeps Jassim awake at nights.
‘If I can find work, I will do anything. Construction, painting, electrics, working on the land, anything.
But there is no security. I’m never comfortable or at ease, I’m always nervous. I might work for a week and then get nothing for the rest of the month. The rent is always on my mind, more than food, more than anything.’
Jassim fell in love with his neighbour’s daughter Ghalia and married earlier this year. He wants to provide a good home for his adored new wife. But putting a roof over their heads and food on the table is a constant source of stress.
Finding work is one of the biggest issues for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, where the population has swelled by a quarter in less than five years, and the employment market has failed to keep up. Caritas runs courses for women and men in sewing and handicrafts, hairdressing and make-up, mobile phone repair and other vocational skills, to help them make a living.
Jassim has signed up on a mobile phone repair course: ‘I’m hoping that if I learn how to fix mobile phones this will be another string to my bow. I might be able to find work doing this, even if it’s just here and there or fixing phones for people I know. Or hopefully I can get something more regular.’
The mobile phone repair course will last until Christmas, by which time Jassim’s home will be hitting zero temperatures at night and he’ll need to buy fuel to keep warm as well as the other household expenses. His hopes for the immediate future are to find work, for his financial state to improve and for improvement in the worries and conditions of his life.
When asked about his hopes for the more distant future, he says ‘I am hoping for peace so that people can be released from all their problems and they can live happily ever after.’
As winter sets in and the weather gets colder, follow to see if Jassim finds work to heat the house and feed the family; will the mobile phone course provide the increase in income they are looking for?
The smell hits you as soon as soon as you cross the threshold of Ayman’s rooms in the basement of the volatile city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon. Bad sanitation, damp, lack of air, and something else that is sour and unidentifiable. Perhaps this stink is that of the rats that Ayman and his family can’t get rid of. Unsurprisingly, both Ayman’s daughters have asthma.
Ayman and his family are living in this way because they have no options. Ayman is near-blind and cannot work. If he cannot get an operation very soon – in the next few weeks – he will lose the sight in his remaining seeing eye, and will be blind forever. But he explains that he has not got the money needed: ‘I have no idea how to pay for the operation. If I could afford the operation, or anything, you wouldn’t see me living like this.’
A decade ago, back in Syria, Ayman was walking home one night and fell down an uncovered hole in a construction site. He broke several bones in his face and severely hurt his eyes.
The health service in Syria before the war was well regarded as one of the best in the region, with hospital and doctor levels comparable to other middle-income countries such as Brazil and China. Access was affordable and widespread. There was a thriving national pharmaceutical industry which provided 90% of the country’s drug needs.
Because of all this, after his accident, Ayman was able to get good treatment at the local hospitals in his hometown of Homs. He was operated on several times and prescribed medication which not only immediately saved his sight, but kept his eyes in a stable condition. He was able to work. When he fell in love with a bright young woman called Noha, he was able to ask her to marry him.
He and Noha had recently got engaged when ‘the events’ – as the uprising and subsequent violence in Syria are often called in Arabic – started. Homs came under fire and was heavily, constantly, bombed. The resulting dust irritated Ayman’s eyes.
It became harder to see doctors as many left the country. And it became harder to get prescriptions as production of pharmaceuticals inside Syria dropped by 60%, while the cost of medications rose by half.
So his eyesight was already deteriorating when he and Noha, now married and with a baby on the way, fled the violence in 2012 and came to Lebanon. They settled in the northern city of Tripoli, where Ayman managed to find work selling corn on the cob from a street stall, and where the baby was born – a beautiful girl whom they named Hanadi – soon followed by a little sister, Aya.
Unlike Syria, Lebanon has almost no public health care system to speak of. 86% of hospital beds are private, and the cost of seeing a doctor or buying medicines is prohibitive. In effect this means that the poor often cannot get the medical care they need.
Ayman’s income was just enough to meet the immediate needs of the family. He couldn’t afford medicines or medical care in Lebanon, and his eyes got worse.
They had come to Lebanon to be safe from the bombing, but the town where they settled, Tripoli, was itself struggling with internal conflict that spilled into outright violence frequently in 2014.
Early one Friday afternoon in the sleepy heat of August, Ayman was standing at his stall near to a mosque, waiting for worshippers to emerge after prayers. Suddenly he was thrown as a huge blast went off in what later was found to be a car bomb targeting the mosque. In a sense, Ayman was lucky. 42 people were killed that day. But Ayman was among the 300 injured, as the light, the heat and the debris hurt his eyes.
This final catastrophe, coupled with the difficulty of accessing ongoing medical care in Lebanon, has already blinded Ayman in one eye, and will soon deprive him of sight altogether, unless he can quickly get another operation to give him a replacement lens and cornea.
He has been unable to work since the accident. Caritas have given the family food coupons and assistance with the rent, but Ayman’s greatest need is to get the operation. The UN and Caritas between them are able to pay the hospital fees for this operation, but Ayman needs to raise a further $3000 to pay for the actual lens and cornea, and the medication and follow up care.
‘If I live, I live for my daughters. I try to give them everything I can, although I cannot provide for them, I am trying my best.’
Follow to find out whether Ayman finds the money he needs to get his operation, and whether he can save his sight and see his daughters’ faces once again.
Five months pregnant and recently homeless, Dima walked into the Caritas clinic in Beirut.
Just a week before, she had been at home in the cosy flat in Aleppo that she and her husband Haroud had set up together just a few months earlier as newlyweds, when a bomb hit the building and she felt mortar falling around her. Crouching amid the rubble, she thanked God that she was alive and unhurt.
It wasn’t the first time she’d been through an air raid – bombs had even fallen at church during their engagement party. ‘We were living really on the front line. The regime used our area to hit the opposition, and the opposition fired back at us. Gas became very expensive. Fuel was rationed, and the winter in Aleppo is very hard. We stayed a long time despite the situation because we didn’t want to leave our home. We hoped that things would get better.’
Dima and Haroud had stayed put through shortages and bombardment, not wanting to leave. But things were different now. Now they had the baby to think of. Terrified by the close escape, they packed what they could carry – not much, considering Dima’s condition – and left.
They went to Haroud’s parents, who had come to Beirut’s old Armenian district Burj Hammoud two years earlier. Haroud’s family are Armenian, while Dima’s are Syrian Orthodox. The couple had met at church.
The first priority was to find a clinic where Dima could get regular check ups through the pregnancy. But how to do this in Lebanon, where almost all healthcare is privatised, when both were jobless and they had little cash? Haroud’s family told her about Caritas.
‘I heard a lot about Caritas and how they provide very good care. And it’s free. In Syria, when I needed to go to the doctor, I used to pay just a little bit. But here in Lebanon everything is very expensive, especially healthcare.’
The Caritas clinic is one of the only places in Beirut where pregnant Lebanese and Syrian women can access ante-natal care for free. Dima saw a doctor, and it was agreed that she could come regularly for free ultrasounds, blood tests and all the other check-ups needed throughout pregnancy. And while there was no delivery room at the clinic, after the birth they would keep seeing Dima and the baby for the post-natal checks, and give the baby vaccinations free of charge.
That day, Dima seemed positive. The upheaval of leaving Aleppo had been great, but it was good to be in Beirut, safe from the bombing, and to know the pregnancy and the baby’s health would be looked after. All that was needed now was for Haroud to find work – he had been a printer back home – and prepare for the coming of the baby. She didn’t know yet if it was a boy or a girl, anyway ‘the only important thing is health.’
Four months later, and nearly full-term, the change in Dima is perceptible beyond the expansion of her belly. Coming in to the Caritas clinic for her last check-ups before her due date, she seems tense, unhappy. The immediate relief of being safe has worn off, replaced by worry as the reality of life has set in, mingled with the nervousness any woman feels before giving birth to her first child.
‘I’m much more stressed and anxious. I’m about to give birth for the first time and my mum can’t come, I’m far from home and everything that’s familiar. I’m worrying about money all the time, and about what will happen to us. I never expected to be having the baby far from home.’
Haroud has finally managed to find work – though in a restaurant not as a printer (‘what can we do, we have to work’) – but his salary doesn’t go far in Lebanon, where the cost of living far outstrips wages.
‘Lebanon is so expensive’, sighs Dima. ‘Everything here costs so much more than in Syria; food, transport, rent, clothes. Things for the baby are so expensive here that we had to get family to send them from Syria. It’s hard. The pressure breaks you.’
They did consider returning to Syria when they realised how difficult everything is in Lebanon, but now the road to Aleppo is closed and the situation is even worse. Even so, Dima explains that ‘if it wasn’t for Caritas, we couldn’t have stayed in Beirut. If I had had to pay $100 every time I needed see a doctor, there’s no way we could have done it, we’d have had to go back to Syria, to some area less dangerous than Aleppo.’
A rare smile breaks through as she says they now know the baby is a girl. ‘I just want to live in peace and to have a place to put the baby’, she says. What mother wants anything else?
The first baby is a momentous time in any life. Follow to find out how Dima meets this experience while struggling to survive in a new country.