Beirut: Syrian refugees adapt to makeshift lives

Four refugee families from Syria reveal a cross-section of society with conflict in common

Fatima helps her eight year old son, who just started first grade in Lebanon, with his Arabic homework in their apartment in Beirut. Fatima and Mohammad were lucky to find slots for their three school-age children in a government-run Lebanese elementary school nearby. Many refugee families in other areas have found the schools to be full or too expensive.
Ben Gilbert

All names have been changed at the request of the interviewees. 

BEIRUT — Um Ali is one of more than a million Syrians who have fled the country since 2011, when the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began. 

She left Aleppo with her husband and son four months ago to join her sister, mother and other family in Lebanon. Her son had just turned 18 — the age when Syrian males are required to do their military service.

"He's an only child," the 45-year-old housewife says. "I was afraid he would get hurt in Syria, and I was afraid of the war, so we fled."

The Lebanese government estimates that 1.2 million Syrians have come to Lebanon since the uprising began in March 2011. The refugees span the entire social and economic strata of Syrian society. Some are rich, some are poor; many are from the towns and villages that have been pummeled by government airstrikes and artillery fire.  Others have escaped the urban combat in Idlib, Aleppo or the Damascus suburbs. 

Um Ali and her family settled with her sister and mother in the Beirut neighborhood of Said Ghawash. 

Ghawash is a warren of narrow alleyways winding through a jumble of one- and two-story cinderblock buildings.  It used to be home to poor Lebanese and Palestinian refugees. Now Syrian refugees seeking cheap housing have settled here, just north of the infamous Shatila camp in Beirut’s southern suburbs.

Um Ali rents a room that makes a prison cell look big — for $100 a month.  At about 10 feet wide by 12 feet long, the bare concrete floor and dirty walls barely fit two beds, a couch, a small TV and a fan.  A space as big as a closet contains a small stove for cooking. 

"There's a big difference between here and Aleppo," she says. "There, we used to live in our houses, big houses. We had three bedrooms in our house, and the family was made up of only four members."

Now, Um Ali sleeps in this room with 10 other people, including her 72-year-old mother and four children. The beds are all shared. Some sleep on mats rolled out on the floor. Another family member uses the couch as a bed.

"We ask God to go back to our houses in Syria," Um Ali says.

Her husband and son haven't found work in Lebanon. Her Lebanese brother-in-law has supported the family by paying their rent. He has also paid for Um Ali's mother's medical care.

"She can't walk around; she has ulcers in her feet," Um Ali says.

The United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, offers Syrian refugees aid and services when they register with the organization, but Um Ali has not registered. She’s heard that UNHCR takes photos of refugees, and rumors are circulating that these pictures will be sent to the Syrian government. 

"I believe they will be sent to Aleppo and to the Syrian regime, and will be on the Internet and on TV," Um Ali says. "There are rumors they would use the photos to catch us when we go back [to] Syria."


Sometimes I deprive my family of food in order to pay the rent, because the house is very important.

Her neighbor, Um Mohammad, who lives a few doors down, dismisses these rumors and says she registered for U.N. assistance. 

"I told them I was desperate for the help," she says. "Now, I've got an interview with them. After that, I will receive assistance."

Um Mohammad came to Lebanon from Jdadat Tartous, near Damascus, three months ago with her teenage daughters and 22-year-old son. 

"Our house was bombed and my husband was killed," she says. "So I took my children and came to Lebanon."

Compared to Um Ali, Um Mohammad and her family live in luxury. They have a big room to sleep and live in, and a separate, relatively spacious kitchen area with a plastic table and lawn chairs. There’s even a full-size refrigerator. The walls are newly painted and the tiled floors are spotless. But Um Mohammad is paying a lot for what is still a very small space.

"We pay $500 per month," Um Mohammad says. "It's very expensive, but we couldn't find anything else. Before the revolution, this house was rented for $125 per month."

Um Mohammad says she's lucky, but that her luck may run out soon. Jdadat Tartous has seen a lot of fighting recently.

"In the coming days and months, my family in Syria — my father, mother, two brothers and their families — they might need to come here to Lebanon."

Um Mohammad says her family would obviously stay with her; that's partly why she has such a large apartment, in case more people need a place to live. 

Her sister, who is paralyzed, may also come to stay with the family. Um Mohammad says her son works, but only on and off, since work is hard to find.

"Sometimes I deprive my family of food in order to pay the rent, because the house is very important," she says. "It's important not to sleep on the streets."

Her fears are far from unfounded. In Beirut, it's not unusual to see Syrian refugees sleeping on street corners, underneath bridges and in public places. 

Like the majority of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Um Mohammad says her daughters will not go to school, because it's too expensive.

"I can't even afford transportation to schools," she says. "I'm waiting to return to Syria, and then they will go back to school."

When this photo was taken, in mid-September, Fatima and Mohammad shared their one bedroom apartment, which is not much bigger than a studio apartment, with ten other people, including their four children, Fatima's brother and his wife, their two children, and Fatima's mother. Now, two of Fatima's sister's have also come to stay with the family, increasing the number of people living here to 13. During the summer months several family members slept on the balcony of the rooftop apartment.
Ben Gilbert

In an apartment across town, Syrians Mohammad and Fatima say they are lucky to have found work at a restaurant. They will put their three children in school next spring.

They can do so because they both have jobs, as does Fatima's brother, whom they are living with. They both work as chefs at a fast-food restaurant in Beirut.

"I work 11 hours per day," Mohammad, 54, says. "The Lebanese are taking advantage of Syrians; they make us work long hours and don’t pay us much. But we have to take it, or not work."

Mohammad says he thanks God that he and his family are living in a safe, quiet working-class neighborhood in Beirut called Geitawi. They rent a one-room apartment, with a kitchen and bathroom, for $400 a month. The apartment is small, but it’s on the top floor, so there’s a large terrace, big enough for several beds and a couch and some chairs. In the warm summer months, half the 13 people in the three families living in the apartment sleep there. 

"But in the rainy months it will get crowded inside," says 33-year-old Fatima.

Fatima says the number of people in the apartment can sometimes increase to 20, when relatives leaving Syria use their apartment as temporary housing as they search for more permanent shelter. 

"This is a good situation, though," says Fatima. "Many apartments this size have as many as four or five families living together."

But this is still a big change from what the couple were used to in Syria. They're from Daraya, a suburb of Damascus that has seen raging battles between the opposition and government forces. Usually, they'd get three to five shells or rockets per day. By the time they left, the government was pounding the area with a rocket every five minutes, Mohammad says. 

"It was like an earthquake," he says. 

That's when the couple decided to leave. Mohammad says they packed and fled the town within 24 hours. On their way out, the two were separated, and Fatima and the children were stopped at an army checkpoint. There, soldiers pointed their weapons at them as shells fell on the town. She thought she was going to die. Her young son, Moaz, is still traumatized, Fatima says.

"He's nervous, scared a lot," she says. "He changed since then. I think he needs a psychiatrist. He's not normal."

One floor below Fatima and Mohammad live 58-year-old Um Tahseen and 68-year-old Abu Tahseen. 

Their apartment is spacious, and furnished, with a flat screen TV, satellite box and DVD player. As visitors entered his temporary home earlier this month, Abu Tahseen was ironing a green shirt, a sewing machine beside him.

Abu Tahseen is a tailor who makes the three- to five-hour drive (depending on security checkpoints)  between Beirut and Damascus in order to continue to work in the shop he owns. He says that despite the fact there’s not much business, it's better than working in Beirut.

"I was promised work in a shop here," he says. "I hoped to make money on orders. But it wasn’t very much money."   

The couple is from a village in East Ghouta, outside Damascus, where the government and rebels frequently clash.  

"At the beginning of the revolution the protesters burned the police station," Abu Tahseen says. "Since then there have been government checkpoints surrounding the area."   

The couple came to Beirut in January 2013.  In February, their home was destroyed in the fighting.

The house was a testament to Abu Tahseen's success as a small-business owner and tailor. 

"It had a Jacuzzi and a plasma TV," Um Tahseen says, in a white head cover and red dress. "It was in a new building, with new furniture, and had three air conditioners."

"Three air conditioners!" she repeats, with emphasis, and looks at Abu Tahseen. 

"You worked so hard your whole life for it all," she tells him, and wipes away the tears welling up in her eyes. 

He looks at her, smiles, and says, "We have our lives, that’s the most important thing." 

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