Beirut, Lebanon – Abdul Rehman, a 21-year old Syrian construction worker and father of two, works painstakingly every day to restore a heritage building destroyed in the August 4, 2020 blast in Beirut.
He clears the debris, loads the raw material on his back, and carries it up several floors. He scrapes paint off the damaged walls and delicately brushes dust off those painted with murals.
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Rehman works a 10-hour shift and yet barely earns $5 a day, far too little than for what he needs to raise his family, especially at a time prices of basic commodities have skyrocketed in the country.
“I can almost never buy meat for my kids any more,” he said. “Before the economic crisis, I could buy it once a week.”
Rehman is one of the hundreds of Syrian workers rebuilding Beirut after 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded at Beirut’s port and fatally damaged many neighbourhoods in the vicinity.
Yet, he said, he is invisible to the Lebanese who never engage him, other than when he is required to do the heavy lifting at a construction site for a pittance.
Ten years ago this month, Syria erupted into protests and soon a civil war so deadly that millions ran for their lives and became refugees.
Lebanon was the first, and the final, port of call for many. It hosted the largest per capita population of Syrian refugees in the world and gave shelter to 1.7 million Syrian refugees.
Rehman was one of the many children who escaped the Syrian war in 2012. He had to drop out of school and grew up in a refugee camp near Beirut.
He said even if he had gone to college he would still be employed as a manual labourer in Lebanon, which allows Syrians to legally be employed in just three sectors, including construction.
Syrian refugees like Rehman have confronted systematic discrimination in Lebanon all these years and struggle to make ends meet. But as Lebanon’s economy collapsed last year, the Syrian refugees, already the most vulnerable in the country, were the hardest hit.
“I don’t think I am providing my daughter with enough to eat,” Rehman said seeming flustered, holding back tears. “I can’t afford diapers for my daughter either. They are so expensive.”
Eighty-nine percent of Syrian refugees lived below the poverty line last year compared with 55 percent in 2019, according to a report released in December by UN agencies.
Ninety-three percent incurred debt to buy food, and a large number resorted to skipping a meal. Many married off daughters below 18, withdrew children from school, and sent them to work or even to beg on the streets.
“The percentage of children aged between five and 17 years old who are engaged in child labour almost doubled, up from 2.6 percent in 2019 to 4.4 percent in 2020,” Lisa Abou Khalid, spokesperson of the UNHCR, told Al Jazeera.
“Last year, there was a sharp increase in the number of calls made by refugees to our nationwide call centres, where refugees told my colleagues that they don’t know how to manage any more, how to survive,” Khalid added.
“Something that was repeated over and over was: ‘I’m thinking about taking my own life, what’s the point of continuing living if it’s such a struggle just to survive every single day?’” Khaled recounted what some of the distressed callers said.
Other activists say even though the refugees are suffering incomparably more than any other time in their so far 10-year-long exile, the interest of the global community in the welfare of the refugees has waned.
Fadi Hallisso, co-founder of an NGO called Basmeh and Zeitooneh that works for the Syrian refugees, said they face much more uncertainty in Lebanon than anytime before.
“I love Lebanon a lot but the problem is nobody sees the contribution of Syrian workers even after all they have done to rebuild the city after the blast,” said Hallisso. “It’s the same response as after the Lebanese civil war.
“Then too Syrian workers did all the construction work to rebuild the city, but they were not appreciated by the Lebanese. Instead, the Lebanese saw them with suspicion because of the Syrian regime’s presence on the ground.”
The impression of the Syrians in the minds of the Lebanese is tainted by the interference of the Syrian government in Lebanon’s affairs repeatedly since Lebanon’s civil war.
Some are just racist against the poorer and more conservative neighbour, while others have bought the claims of politicians that the Syrians have been stealing their jobs.
Hallisso said not only are the Syrians unacknowledged for their contribution to Lebanon’s economy who spend everything they earn here, but instead discrimination against them has increased as a result of the economic crisis.
“Yesterday, in one of the supermarkets, people were asked to show Lebanese ID cards to buy subsidised rice to make sure Syrians don’t take advantage of the subsidies,” Hallisso added.
“For the last two weeks in some areas of Beirut, the supermarkets are not allowing Syrians to purchase subsidised food items.”
‘Can’t do what Syrians are doing’
Paul Kousafi, a Lebanese national and head carpenter at the same heritage building that Rehman works at, said he employs Syrians to chisel the doors and windows because they charge half of what the Lebanese would.
He said Syrians are essential to Lebanon’s economy but as the crisis worsened, tensions between Lebanese and Syrian refugees exacerbated.
“Lebanese can’t do what the Syrians are doing and yet many ill-treat the refugees. I don’t like that,” said Kousafi. “Economic pressure on the Lebanese is making their attitudes towards refugees even more hostile.”
Rehman and his compatriots are caught between a rock and a hard place. His home in Deir Az Zor in Syria is still destroyed and the economic situation in Syria is worse than Lebanon’s.
Ten years into the conflict, he still cannot return to Syria because of security concerns and finds it increasingly hard to earn a decent living in Lebanon.
The country that gave him shelter is home for all practical purposes and even though he is needed here, he does not feel accepted.