A right to exist: The stateless Syrian children

Syrian refugees who give birth in Lebanon struggle to secure a legal identity for their children.

Twenty-eight-year-old Ghazzieh is from Idlib and has been in Lebanon for four months [Felipe Jacome/Al Jazeera]
Twenty-eight-year-old Ghazzieh is from Idlib and has been in Lebanon for four months [Felipe Jacome/Al Jazeera]

In the damp, dimly lit cement room she now calls home, Dina sits cross-legged on a flat cushion, listlessly fumbling with the hem of her robe. Gaunt, sombre, and dressed in a plain black abaya, the 37-year-old mother of six is exhausted. Like many Syrians of her generation, Dina was forced to flee to Lebanon from a country where she once felt safe, but which is now engulfed in civil war.

In Syria, she lived near a UNESCO world heritage site, the medieval Krak des Chevaliers castle. In Lebanon, she shares a single room with her family in Wadi Jamous, an agricultural area to the north of the country’s second city, Tripoli.

After two-and-a-half years as refugees, her family is “tired, very tired”, Dina says.

“The situation is hard for myself, for my kids, for my husband,” she continues. “We have nowhere to go.

“I’m most afraid for the future of my children.”

As Dina speaks, her youngest daughter, two-year-old Layla, wants to play. The pudgy, fair-haired child attempts to climb on to her mother’s shoulders, tumbles into her lap, and glances up expectantly. Without looking at her, Dina pats Layla’s back, and the toddler gets up to play with her eight-year-old sister Manam instead.

Layla was born prematurely at six months and 18 days. At that point, her family had been in Lebanon for five difficult months.

She came into the world in the dead of winter without any of the celebrations that usually accompany the arrival of a new baby.

“When she was first born, she was even robbed of heat. It was so cold, and I didn’t have a heater. No one had given me one,” says Dina.

INTERACTIVE: Life on Hold 

Lebanon’s harsh winters have taken a brutal toll on refugees living in tents or partially constructed buildings, and a number of Syrian children have died of the cold. Dina considers it a miracle that her premature baby survived.

But the elements haven’t been the only challenge facing the mother and child. As Layla has grown older, her legal status in Lebanon has become increasingly complicated. Children who are born in Lebanon but not legally registered within the first year of their lives are at risk of becoming stateless. This phenomenon is particularly common among refugees, who may not know about Lebanon’s registration laws or may be too afraid to come forward to the authorities who, they fear, will send them back across the border. And because the security situation in Syria prevents Syrian parents from travelling back to register their newborns there, many children are at risk of growing up without a legal identity.

For those refugees who have entered the country through unofficial crossings, birth registration is usually harder still.

Dina, who crossed at an official border point, simply didn’t know that she needed to register Layla until she was already a year old. And once the one-year mark has passed, registration becomes increasingly complex, involving court decisions and other legal papers.

Dina first learned that she needed to register Layla through the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), an international aid organisation that is now helping her to complete the paperwork.

“I should have registered her in the beginning,” Dina reflects. “But I didn’t know the laws here. Now I’m depending on them [the NRC].

“I want my children to live a life that’s better than the one they’re living now. Layla is only two years old, and she has lived through so much already,” Dina says, grabbing a crumpled pack of cigarettes and lighting one with a shaking hand.

“I’ll tell you the story of how we left Syria,” she begins.

“We got to the last Syrian checkpoint before the border point. ‘Where are you going?’ they asked me. ‘To Lebanon? You can’t go.’ He [the border guard] forced my kids out of the car and pointed his gun at them. He cocked the gun and pointed it at my kids.” Her voice breaks and tears roll down her cheeks, but Dina continues.

“The driver [of the shared taxi they were in] tried to calm him down. The border guard said, ‘No. I’ll gun you down and every single one of these kids.’ We got back in the car. I looked at whatever money I had and gave it to him, begging, kissing his hands, just so they could let me through.” 

READ MORE: Syrians in Lebanon: ‘Glass cannot fit one more drop’

The border guard impatiently waved Dina and her children through. But the immense relief they felt upon entering Lebanon didn’t last long.

Her oldest son, Ali, couldn’t sleep for a year because he was so traumatised by the incident at the border. He was just eight years old when the guard pointed his gun at him.

But trying to forget that trauma and the many more that came before in Syria has been a family effort, Dina explains. Now 11, Ali has crafted a toy truck for his siblings from some wire and cardboard boxes. It is the only toy in sight.

And forgetting the violence isn’t easy in a country where conflict never seems far away. Without formal refugee camps, many of those fleeing the war in Syria settle wherever they can find affordable housing – sometimes in a place as challenging as Wadi Jamous. Dina takes her children out for walks in the fields near their home, but says she has to be extra careful as two feuding Lebanese families own the land and gunfire can ring out at any time of the day or night – as they either celebrate a relative’s wedding or shoot randomly at one another.

“The thing I’m scared of the most is the sound of bullets. I can’t handle the sound of gunfire,” Dina says, crying.

Many of the 1.2 million Syrian refugees suffer from anxiety, depression and fear. Mothers, in particular, have reported difficulties in handling their children and showing them affection.

“If I wasn’t taking medicine, you probably would have seen me sprawled out on the floor,” Dina mumbles.

“Even with the medicine, in this situation, I still feel like I’m not OK. But I have to carry on; I have to keep going because I have to stand for my kids.” 

Dina tries to encourage her children to keep reading, writing and playing, in the hope that one day they will be able to return home and lead normal lives.

“I tell them that, God willing, we’ll go back to Syria. I make them believe it, but I don’t have any more hope myself,” she admits, describing how Ali has convinced himself that they will return to their old lives in Syria soon.

“We came here thinking we’d be here one month, but we’ve been here almost three years. And we might be here another 10,” Dina says.

Tirelessly tumbling over some cushions, little Layla continues to play as her mother and older siblings dream of a homeland she has yet to see.

Born stateless

Dina left Homs three years ago after her husband was wounded in the war. On their way to Lebanon the family was detained and tortured at a checkpoint. At that time Dina was six months pregnant with Layla. In Lebanon, the family has been evicted four times. Layla was not registered at birth as the family did not know how to go about it [Felipe Jacome/Al Jazeera]

Ahmed fled from Syria two years ago. Shortly after, his daughter Farah was born. The family now lives in an informal settlement in the north of Lebanon. The residents of the settlement have problems accessing water and have been subject to raids by the Lebanese armed forces. Ahmed didn’t know how to register his daughter. The Norwegian Refugee Council is currently representing him in court as he attempts to prove kinship of his daughter in order to register her birth  [Felipe Jacome/Al Jazeera]

Sana is a Palestinian Refugee from Syria (PRS). She is 22 and came from Damascus in 2013. She lives with her family in a Palestinian camp in Tripoli, north Lebanon. The family lost almost all of their documents when their house in Syria was destroyed. In Lebanon, there are limited services for PRS people. Sana’s son Khaled is now a year old and the family is trying to obtain a birth certificate for him  [Felipe Jacome/Al Jazeera]

Samira fled to Lebanon over a year ago. Her baby Saja is four months old. The family has trouble paying rent. Samira’s husband is still in Syria and cannot come to join the family as Lebanon has closed its borders. When Saja was born, Samira didn’t know how to register her baby [Felipe Jacome/Al Jazeera]  

Thirty-five-year-old Mariam came to Lebanon from Aleppo three years ago. Her husband doesn’t work and she has six children. Her oldest is only 12. In the portrait with her is three-year-old Ali and one-year-old Aisha. Both were born in Lebanon. Ali has a birth certificate but Aisha does not. Mariam wants to be able to register them in order to take them back to Syria when the war ends [Felipe Jacome/Al Jazeera]  

Twenty-eight-year-old Ghazzieh is from Idlib and has been in Lebanon for four months. She has seven children. Her youngest, Sham, is 40 days old. Sham had to stay in an incubator for five days. So far, they have only been able to pay for half of the hospital expenses. The hospital has retained her ID until she pays the remainder [Felipe Jacome/Al Jazeera]  

Twenty-five-year-old Mariam has two daughters who were born in Lebanon. They are four-year-old Fatme and two-year-old Rana. They have birth certificates but are not registered. She has been in Lebanon for four years and her husband is unemployed. She doesn’t know what has become of her house in Syria, but most of the people she knew there are either dead or have been displaced. Her priority now is to register her children [Felipe Jacome/Al Jazeera]  

Rima and Dawoud fled Homs three years ago. Their first son is mentally challenged but they cannot afford to send him to a special school. Baby Hanan is eight months old. Due to the lack of legal status in Lebanon, they have not been able to register her [Felipe Jacome/Al Jazeera]  

This article first appeared in the March 2015 issue of the Al Jazeera Magazine.

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