9 Sep 2015

The lives of the Syrian refugees desperate to leave Lebanon

“Look at it, rubble from the fourth floor up. They tell me it could come down any minute.” Ftaym, single mother of five children, gestures up at the bombed-out concrete wreck in the south of the Lebanese capital which is now “home.”


She’s tough. She has to be: “The police came for my husband in Homs three years ago. He was arrested. Then he was killed.”

Flat-lining. Emotionless. Straight facts of life in Assad’s tormented Syria.

Two years ago they landed up in Beirut.

We go in. It is a stinking, stifling bath-tub-humid hell-hole. Confused electric wires hang down, randomly sparking as children play amongst soaking rubbish inches away, oblivious. Water drops from fractured tanks in the roof-rubble. A rat shoots silently away into the gloom.

“Now I want to go back to where I was before,” she says.

“Where was that?”

“Not far. It was an underground car garage. There were six Syrian families in there. But they charged us $1000 a month. Too much. I would go back there if I could afford it. It is better than here.”

One room, plaster parting from the walls. A tiny space for a rusty hob to cook on; toilet exactly two metres away; shower with rusty tap next-door – for the eight of them. Her parents are here too.

Outside her son Mahmoud arrives for work – precious money for them. He is 11 with a serious condition in one eye – no chance of buying any treatment, but they need food.

Lebanon has had enough of being miraculous. The UN’s refugee agency says it has had 1.1 million Syrians cross the border. But some estimate that as many as two million people could have entered the country – which has a population of just five million.

Now it wants these families out. So there are no longer any work permits issued. The UN says it only has 35% of the funding it needs to carry out its response plan for the refugees in the region. So the families are squeezed on that side as well.

“I must get out,” the mother tells me. Like many Syrians, she has relatives abroad – a brother in Canada, and another in Sweden. “We have to get there somehow,” she adds.

Not a hundred metres away in Beirut’s dense slums of Shatila, the historian and geographer Mohamad Stitan is outraged:

“Churchill – a British hero. Margaret Thatcher with the Falklands yes! British heroes! Great country! But David Cameron?”

He taps his forehead with an index finger: “He does not care about Syrian people.”

A refugee twice over, for he is originally from Palestine, from the battered Yarmouk Camp in Damascus.

Proudly, he describes how his father fought in the British Army during the Second World War from El Alamein in North Africa to Norway. He was a medic.

His family of five lives in one room. Osama, one of the sons, has profound learning difficulties.

“I like Italy,” he suddenly confided.

Water drips down the wall.

For some reason the electricity sparks and flashes outside the window – a hole with plastic sheeting. The power constantly blacks out.

Mohamad’s wife Wassal insists upon hospitality and somehow produces delicious coffee for eight of us gathered here:

“Like my husband, if possible I would like to get to Sweden perhaps, or England, or Norway. I’ve made inquiries but the smugglers want about $5000 and we don’t even have $200.”

As a Palestinian he cannot work outside the camp here in Lebanon. There is no work in the camp. As a Syrian refugee he can no longer work legally at all.

No wonder they want out. Two years of it and they can’t take much more.

Which is just what the Lebanese government wants. For four years it has absorbed a quarter of its population size from Syria. But it has had enough. Now, banning refugees from working is the first move to force them out.

And that means forcing them out to Turkey and yes, the EU.

At least a thousand a day are on the move, mostly from the north Lebanese seaport of Tripoli, close to the Syrian border.

The next wave for unprepared and uncoordinated Europe is already underway.

You have been warned.

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