Syrians remain trapped as refugees

Syrians remain trapped as refugeesimage

16 Mar 2015

Nestled in one of Burj Hammoud’s many winding alleyways live Muhaned and his wife, among the first Syrian refugees to arrive in Lebanon in 2011. In four years, the family has managed to carve out a semblance of a life in their host country but they often dream of the home they left behind, slowly reconciling themselves to the idea that they may never return. “You’re taking me back four years,” Muhaned said, who requested his last name be withheld for security reasons. “I appear fine, but inside I feel like I’m on the edge.” Muhaned met Mariam in the spring of 2001. “We saw each other,” he grins. “Our parents knew each other,” she adds. “We got married,” they say in unison. The income generated from a small grocery shop in their small town of Jubata al-Khashab in the Syrian Golan Heights was enough for Muhaned to support his wife and their three children. Their contented small-town life came to an abrupt halt in March 2011, when a wave of protests germinated across Syrian cities. The demonstrations would lead to violent confrontations with police, resulting in many civilian deaths and gradually developing into an armed rebellion. In March 2011, Muhaned’s brother Ibrahim, a vocal critic of the regime, went missing from their town while collecting firewood during a snowstorm. A few weeks later, two of his cousins, who were government employees, were arrested. Government agents delivered the family their IDs, leading them to believe the three men were dead. Then his brother Majed was taken too. It was only a matter of time before they would come for him, Muhaned thought. “At that point the regime was detaining people randomly, some who didn’t do anything but be at the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said. “It was clear our family name had been blacklisted.” Shortly after his brother was taken in April 2011, fearing arrest he fled to Lebanon and registered as a refugee. His wife and children joined him two months later. Muhaned settled in Burj Hammoud, the only area in Lebanon he was familiar with because he had worked odd jobs there before. The family found housing for $200 per month. But as more refugees arrived, their rental fees rose incrementally. In 2012, Mariam gave birth to another child. Muhaned was the family’s sole breadwinner but never managed to find steady work. In four years of living in Lebanon he has swept floors, run errands for shop owners, fixed pipes, laid bricks, cleaned cars and bagged other’s groceries. His legal residency expired last year and he has been unable to pay for a new one. “I keep my movements in and around Burj Hammoud,” he said. While repairing an air conditioner, Muhaned got a call from a relative in Jubata al-Khashab that his brother Ibrahim was alive. He had spent a year and a half in Syria’s notorious Sednaya military prison. That night they spoke. Ibrahim told him that throughout his incarceration he had been fed a tablespoon of rice and piece of bread per day. Interrogators beat him regularly with metal rods and he was forced to stand for days at a time, he told his brother. Moreover, he and Majed had joined the rebel Free Syria Army. It was at this point Muhaned said he knew he could never go back. By 2014, when Syrian refugees amounted to roughly 20 percent of the Lebanese population, the landlord asked the family to pay $700 per month. Unable to pay, the family moved out. They met an Armenian man who expressed willingness to rent out his warehouse for $300 but the offer came with a warning. “Look,” he told Muhaned, “The place isn’t exactly livable.” The three-room warehouse was infested with rats and was not equipped with either electrical outlets or running water. But their landlord helped the family clean the place, tile the floor and install electric wiring. Mariam did her best to make the place feel like a home, hanging a poster of a sunflower on a wall and using tinsel to spell “Allah” in the family living room. Their children yearn to return to their homeland and see their friends again, their mother said. “The word ‘Syrian’ has become an insult on the playground,” she added. The family received food aid through the United Nations e-card program but they said relief from its chronically underfunded refugee agency is seldom enough for the family, who bring in monthly earnings of just $350. Muhaned hears from his brothers now and then but rarely delves into the military dynamics at play in Qunaitra and what that might mean for his family home. “We are surrounded, under siege,” is what Ibrahim relayed to him. The family filed a request to be resettled elsewhere two years ago but still do not know whether their case has progressed. They read enviously of the few thousand Syrian nationals resettled to Germany. “It’s been four years, and I am tired,” Muhaned said. “At this point I just want to live in a place where I will be treated with dignity.” Has he given up on ever returning to Syria? “This is what I fear,” he responds. “There is so much uncertainty. ISIS and Nusra and the Syrian regime, they’re different sides of the same coin,” “If the regime wins, I can’t go back. If Nusra wins, I can’t go back. All I can do is leave.”