Syrian refugees: ‘We would not consider Europe’
In Lebanon, many Syrians who fled the war simply want to return home, and have little interest in resettlement.
Beirut, Lebanon – Caught between a civil war and Europe, which does not seem to want them, Syrian refugees in Lebanon are struggling to find a place to call home.
Among them are Asim and Zeinab, who have been married for 20 years and are the parents of two children. (Their names have been changed to protect their security.) Before the war, they owned land in their hometown of Talkalakh, and worked in construction and tending olive trees.
Now, they live in an informal tent settlement in northern Lebanon, and own nothing.
“We used to celebrate every occasion. We used to fast during Ramadan and buy clothes and toys for our children. But we stopped celebrating anything. We stopped fasting, because of bad living conditions and lack of income. We don’t feel joy any more,” Zeinab, 40, told Al Jazeera.
In May 2011, the Syrian army raided their hometown. With their two-month-old son, Fahim, and 13-year-old daughter, Rama, Zeinab and Asim fled over the al-Kabir River into Lebanon.
Asim and Zeinab are two of the more than one million Syrians who have registered as refugees in Lebanon since the Syrian civil war began. A total of 1.5 million Syrians are estimated to be living in Lebanon, including those who are not registered refugees.
READ MORE: Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in fear of deportation
Despite their growing frustration and depression, Asim and Zeinab have ruled out attempting to be resettled in Europe.
“We would not consider the option [of going to Europe]. I prefer to eat a piece of bread with salt here – close to my country, rather than die abroad, where no one knows me,” said Asim.
He walks every day to a nearby hill, from where he can see the roof of his home in Talkalakh. He hopes that eventually, the time will come when he can take his family back to Syria.
Salwa, a 52-year-old widowed mother of 13 who is renting a home in northern Lebanon, feels similarly. “My dream is to go back to Syria to rebuild decent graves for my children and to see my family reunited,” said Salwa, who is from the village of al-Zara, near Homs.
Her daughter Ramia died when shells hit their house in the spring of 2014. Just two months later, her sons Youssef and Mahmoud were killed during clashes between rebels and the Syrian army near the Krak des Chevaliers, a 12th-century Crusader castle.
“My boys did not deserve to die. We never thought that one day we would be living in garages in Lebanon. We feel humiliated,” said Salwa. “But I never thought of going to Europe. How could I abandon my family and go to an unknown place? I don’t want to go anywhere except to my country, as I have God and my children as priorities in my life.”
Salwa used to run a successful shoe shop, but today she is struggling to make ends meet, and often has no money to buy basic products like milk or bread.
“Every refugee I talked to said that they would like to go back to Syria,” said Dana Sleiman, spokeswoman in Lebanon for UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. “In the ideal world, refugees want to go back to Syria as soon as they can. They wish to stay here [in Lebanon] not because they like it, but because they are close to home.”
We never thought that one day we would be living in garages in Lebanon. We feel humiliated. But I never thought of going to Europe. How could I abandon my family and go to an unknown place?
But, Sleiman added, resettlement to Europe could be the only chance for the most impoverished Syrian refugees to secure a better future for their children. The percentage of Syrian refugees in Lebanon living under the poverty line – approximately $3.84 a day – drastically increased from 49 percent in 2014 to more than 70 percent in 2015.
Single mothers and people with specific healthcare needs are prioritised for resettlement. Sleiman explained that UNHCR officers will analyse the database of registered refugees and contact those whom they believe meet these criteria.
Yet it is unlikely that more than a small percentage of Syrian refugees will be resettled.
“Resettlement is definitely a good option. However, [it is] available only for a limited number of Syrians, while the vast majority will stay in Lebanon waiting for the war to end,” said Hala El-Helou, adviser to the Ministry of Social Affairs in Lebanon.
READ MORE: Lebanon – No formal refugee camps for Syrians
The Lebanese government, along with experts and humanitarian agencies, has warned the international community not to lose sight of the Syrians who will stay in Lebanon and will need more humanitarian assistance.
Helou admitted that Lebanon was not prepared to host 1.5 million Syrians, and does not have a long-term plan to deal with the spike in its population. “Lebanon does not have job opportunities for Syrians, [nor] for Lebanese,” Helou said. “The presence of refugees is not the only crisis Lebanon is facing.”
The solution for Lebanon, Helou believes, must be in finding a peaceful solution inside Syria – and then attracting international investment to Lebanon, to generate job opportunities for both Lebanese and Syrians.
Sami Atallah, executive director at the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies, said: “The key is to be proactive in creating jobs [in Lebanon], reducing the cost of such services as electricity or water. This requires serious efforts going beyond humanitarian assistance”.
“In Syria I worked as a mechanic, but would you think of repairing your car when a war breaks out? Everything was suspended. People were dying every day,” recalled Mahmoud, 52, who escaped the Baba Amr neighbourhood of Homs after clashes between rebels and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad erupted in October 2011.
As a father of 11 children, Mahmoud was determined to create stable living conditions for his family upon their arrival to the village of Aidamoun in northern Lebanon.
“When we came, we did not have anything to start a new garage. I used to borrow screwdrivers from my clients to work on their cars. The Polish aid agency PCPM provided us with cash for rent, so I was able to invest half of my income to buy necessary tools,” Mahmoud told Al Jazeera.
Wojtek Wilk , the chief executive of PCPM, explained that direct financial assistance allows refugees to set up new businesses or find other types of employment. “PCPM extends its cash-for-rent programme also to Syrian refugee families with men unable to find decent employment in Lebanon, because we know that if a man is unable to sustain his family, he might be pushed by the extreme poverty to go back to Syria and join one of the armed groups to get any income,” Wilk told Al Jazeera.
“We want to prevent it. If this person is a refugee in Lebanon, we want this person to stay in relative safety in Lebanon until they can return to Syria,” Wilk added. Since 2012, PCPM has assisted 17,000 Syrian refugees in northern Lebanon with funding from the Polish foreign affairs ministry.
In Wilk’s opinion, Mahmoud’s family is a positive example, because they were able to become financially stable.
“It’s true that we are living in good conditions, better than other refugees,” Mahmoud said. “But we are not lying down, or smoking cigarettes and shisha, waiting for the money to arrive. We are sleeping under the car and working hard for our earnings.”
Despite Mahmoud’s success, he does not consider Lebanon his new home. “I am not as happy as if I was in Syria. I wish I could go back. We would go even today, on foot, if only it was safe.”