Beirut, Lebanon – From behind the counter of a downtown sandwich shop, Ali, a recently-arrived Syrian refugee from Damascus, wraps up a takeaway order. “I’ve gone from delivering babies to delivering sandwiches,” he said with a sardonic grin.
“But I suppose I’m one of the lucky ones,” Ali, who didn’t give Al Jazeera his last name, added. “At least I found work.”
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After seven years of working as a nurse and physician’s assistant at a Damascus hospital, Ali and his wife, a paralegal, made the decision to leave for Lebanon five months ago, leaving behind their careers, incomes and family home in order to ensure that their two young children have a proper upbringing free from war.
None of the hospitals I interviewed for ever called me back. This sandwich shop was pretty much my last resort after four months of being unemployed.
“We had all the comforts one could wish for back in Damascus, but the government started to monitor employees at the hospital to make sure we weren’t treating anyone aligned with the opposition,” he said, recalling the moments leading up to the decision to leave Syria. “They already arrested one of my closest colleagues, and I feared that I could be next.”
Unlike the often conjured up images of tented refugee camps, Ali and his family are among the many middle-class Syrian refugees now living in Lebanon.
But even after settling into a cozy two-bedroom apartment just outside the buzzing commercial district of Hamra in Beirut, normality continues to be a far-gone thought for Ali’s family.
After four months in Beirut, neither Ali nor his wife could find work that matched their qualifications. Rent was a month overdue, their eldest son was about to start kindergarten, and what savings they had left had nearly depleted. “None of the hospitals I interviewed for ever called me back. This sandwich shop was pretty much my last resort after four months of being unemployed,” Ali said.
A recent International Labour Organisation (ILO) report found that roughly one-third of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are unemployed. For those fortunate enough to find employment, 88 percent work in unskilled or semi-skilled professions, and are paid 40 percent less on average than the Lebanese minimum wage.
Since Lebanon is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, the status of Syrian refugees and the legal obligations of the state towards them now remains ambiguous.
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Meanwhile, state intervention to aid Syrian professionals like Ali joining the Lebanese workforce isn’t likely, according to Makram Maleab, head of the Syrian refugee crisis unit at the Ministry of Social Affairs. “In light of doubling the unemployment rates among Lebanese citizens to 20 percent, we are not currently engaged in any programmes that see qualified Syrians integrated into the Lebanese workforce,” Maleab told Al Jazeera.
“Instead, we will focus our efforts towards curbing the alarming unemployment trend among Lebanese citizens,” he said.
A 1993 bilateral agreement granted Syrians the freedom to travel and be employed in Lebanon on the condition they obtain a work permit from the Lebanese Ministry of Labour. With the influx of Syrian refugees in Lebanon today, processing times for these permits – which cost between $80-300 – can last up to six months, Maleab said.
Figures from the Ministry of Labour show that only 650 Syrian refugees were legally registered to work in 2013, while nine out of 10 were employed without a valid work contract.
For women, the struggle to find work is even more difficult: The ILO study found that of the total number of Syrian women seeking work in Lebanon, 68 percent of them are unemployed. Facing these challenges, a United Nations report stated that 80 percent of Syrians aged 18-24 were willing to take a job that doesn’t match their qualifications in Lebanon.
“There’s lots of talk about young Syrians being a lost generation; the figures we found seem to show that this saying is becoming a reality,” said Muzna al-Masri, a research consultant who helped draft the study. Al-Masri told Al Jazeera that there is a high desire among youth to emigrate overseas, although many countries have kept their doors closed to Syrians seeking asylum.
Amina, a former practicing architect from the suburbs of Damascus, now works retail in Beirut. She told Al Jazeera that not finding work to match her qualifications isn’t just a matter of pride, but a financial burden. “It’s impossible to live a proper life in Beirut working retail,” she told Al Jazeera. “I now make $700 a month, over half of which goes to cover rent and transportation alone.”
According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), consumer prices and rent in Lebanon have been particularly affected by the more than one million Syrian refugees now living in the country. In a 2014 report, the IMF claimed that rental costs have increased by at least 20 percent from the previous year in areas that have seen an influx of refugees.
In light of doubling the unemployment rates among Lebanese citizens to 20 percent, we are not currently engaged in any programmes that see qualified Syrians integrated into the Lebanese workforce
While the increased cost of living has left many Lebanese disgruntled, Maleab said the public’s response isn’t driven by animosity, as much by uncertainty. “There’s a great [sense of] anxiety when you see the population [of Syrians] double or triple,” he said.
“If this happens in one year, what will happen in 10? All elements of basic infrastructure are being pushed to their limits,” Maleab added, explaining that the ministry was currently moving forward with legislation to limit the number of Syrian refugees entering Lebanon.
Struggling to find qualified jobs and work legally, many middle-class Syrians are being forced to make a tough decision: either stay in Lebanon and face significant financial and social burdens, or return to their war-torn homes in Syria. “If I can’t find work as an architect here, I might just have to go back home [to Syria]. I don’t know how much longer I can afford to live in Lebanon without proper work,” Amina said.
But for Ali and his family, returning to Syria is not an option. “We came to Lebanon with the intention to raise our children in a safe environment,” he said. “As long as the situation remains safe in Lebanon, I will make sandwiches 24-hours a day so that my children have the opportunity to grow-up in peace.”