For refugees in Lebanon, a desperate search for dignity

Syrians and Palestinians keep embarking on what they think is a journey of hope but often end up on a voyage of death.

For Fatima al-Moussa, the dread began the minute her brother Ismail told her of his fateful decision.

“I knew in my heart something was going to happen to him,” she says.

“When he left, I said goodbye to him several times because – I knew.”

Born and raised in the Beddawi refugee camp in northern Lebanon, 35-year-old Ismail, a jobless and desperate Palestinian refugee, couldn’t take life in Lebanon any longer.

With no work, no wife, no children, and nowhere else to turn, he paid a smuggler to get him to Europe.

“It got so bad for him,” explains Fatima, tearing up, “he sold his house cheaply just so he could leave. They made him think the trip would be safe, that food was guaranteed, that he’d be in a 5-star hotel”.

Ismail wasn’t able to keep in constant contact but he sent text messages when he could.

Sudan was the first stop.

“He got there,” says Fatima bitterly, “and they put him up in a room that animals wouldn’t stay in.”

Treacherous journey

After reaching Libya in March, Ismail boarded a vessel bound for Italy.

During that treacherous journey across the Mediterranean, the boat capsized and Ismail drowned.

“I still can’t believe he’s dead,” adds his incredulous and grief-stricken sister.

“I’ve become like a crazy person – praying for him that he’ll return home safely.”

After Ismail’s death, friends and relatives in Lebanon gathered to pay their respects.

They threw flowers into the sea to commemorate Ismail and so many others like him: Syrians and Palestinians who’d thought they were on a journey of hope, but who ended up on a voyage of death.

From children working in the fields to adults begging on the streets, the prevalence of poverty in Lebanon is staggering.

“Lebanon is under enormous pressure,” Antonio Guterres, the UN high commisioner for refugees, told Al Jazeera.


“One-third of the Lebanese population is either Syrian or Palestinian and it is obvious Lebanon needs massive international support to be able to cope with with this challenge.”

“Unfortunately,” says Guterres, “that support has not been enough.”

In this tiny country, whose complex politics won’t allow for the construction of official settlements, more and more makeshift camps dot the Lebanese landscape every day.

Truth be told, while many refugees in Lebanon would happily be smuggled onto a boat to Europe if they could, most wouldn’t be able to afford the trip.

‘Two ways out of here’

Alaa al-Halabi, like other Syrians in Lebanon, already fled the war at home. Now he’s looking to flee again.

“There are two ways out of here,” says Alaa. “First is by sea, from the port … The most dangerous solution is going back through Syria.”

Then, as he looks out over the Mediterranean with a rueful smile, Halabi adds: “The sea is more merciful, maybe.”

Alaa was jailed for a time in Beirut because he didn’t have his residency papers in order.

He hasn’t been able to find work, or renew his passport, ever since.

“I decided I can’t live here,” he explains. “I want to get out and start a new life in Europe.”

Fully aware of the dangers, he’d like to get smuggled onto a boat, if only he had enough money to do so.

One of the more popular ways of preparing for the voyage is through closed Facebook groups.

One such group is frequented by tens of thousands of Syrians, who once cleared by the administrator, help by putting people in touch with smugglers, passport forgers and helpful information in terms of getting visas and how to avoid to arrest.

More and more makeshift camps housing refugees from war-ravaged Syria dot the Lebanese landscape everyday [AP]
More and more makeshift camps housing refugees from war-ravaged Syria dot the Lebanese landscape everyday [AP]

Alaa became a member of just such a group, with the hopes that reaching out to others in a similar position would help him get out the country.

Through his newly established contacts, he discovered the whole voyage from Lebanon to Europe would cost him between $5,000-$8,000.

“We’re not getting any support,” says Alaa.

“We’re depending on Arab countries, we’re depending on the UN – they’re the ones responsible for humanitarian needs. They see these hundreds of people dying in the sea.”

When we meet Youssef, he’s attending a workshop for Syrian refugees attempting to get valid training certificates.

Even if he gets those papers, he still has little hope he’ll find meaningful employment.

“I don’t know what to say,” says Youssef, who requested we not use his last name.

“It’s a huge humiliation for the Syrians in Lebanon. We fled Syria – the killing and injustice. And then we found it here in Lebanon.”

A terrible lesson

When Youssef, who spend time in jail in Syria, originally fled his war-torn homeland, he wound up in Turkey.

When he paid a smuggler to get him to Europe from Izmir, he was tricked.

“They took us back to Izmir and told us we were in Greece,” says Youssef, who, soon after, sought refuge with friends in Lebanon.

He says he’s learned a terrible lesson.

“I have no willingness to try being smuggled out to Europe now,” he says.

“Even if it is a dream there. Because I could die on the road.”

Still, while he’s become accustomed to the miserable conditions all around him, he can’t help but wonder why life isn’t just a little bit better.

“Why aren’t you giving me my dignity?” he asks.

“If you can’t give me my rights here in Lebanon, then let us go to a country where I can get them. I don’t want money. I just want my dignity.”

Source: Al Jazeera