Syrian homesick blues

Social isolation is a growing problem for Syrian refugees in Lebanon

March 20, 2014 7:00AM ET
Syrian refugee children in a tent supplied by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in al-Marj, in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon.
Hassan Jarah/AFP/Getty Images

More than 1 million Syrian refugees — over half of them children under the age of 18 — are scattered around Lebanon, absorbed into local communities or living in informal settlements of five to 500 tents closely packed together. Like far too many other refugees, they struggle with shortages of food, clothing and health care, but their particular circumstances create another problem: social isolation. Living in local communities or informal settlements would not, at first glance, seem isolating. For displaced Syrians, however, isolation has been a challenge unlike any I’ve encountered in refugee camps in sub-Saharan Africa, where I have worked in the past.

Isolation is essentially a social challenge, but it is no less significant than other shortages or crises that tend to affect displaced persons. It is a multifaceted affliction. The first layer is isolation from one’s homeland. Surrounded by torture, mass killings, detentions and summary executions, and lacking sufficient food and medical services, Syrian families have no choice but to flee their homes. In doing so, they leave behind everything that was familiar and all that they loved: family and friends; neighborhoods and communities; customs and routines; favorite places and cherished personal belongings.

This form of isolation is to be expected — I had seen it many times before in my work. But what caught me by surprise in my interviews with Syrian refugees late last year was a second layer of isolation, from the Lebanese community. The absence of formal settlements means that Syrian refugees are scattered throughout Lebanon and remain segregated even as they live among their hosts. Many Syrian families told us that they don’t socialize with their Lebanese neighbors. Lebanese citizens similarly reported that they do not allow their children to play with Syrian refugee children. The Lebanese education system is under enormous strain as it struggles to accommodate Syrian students. Even though most Syrian children are still not attending school, others are being accommodated in shifts — with Lebanese students attending half the day and Syrian students attending the other half. While this is beneficial educationally, it continues to create a divide between the two communities.

Furthermore, the Syrian refugees in the country are putting pressure on already fragile Lebanese health care institutions as well as housing and job markets, creating additional tension between the two communities. This second layer of isolation, while unlike anything I have experienced in other refugee settings, is not particularly surprising, given that more than 1 million Syrian refugees have infringed on the living space of 4.2 million Lebanese.

A sense of community is critical for refugees to begin rebuilding their lives.

A third layer is isolation among Syrians themselves. A great number of refugees reported that they do not talk to or socialize with other Syrians beyond their immediate families or households, even though they have a common language, Arabic. It is the lack of formal collective settlements, not tensions with the Lebanese, that is most likely responsible for this attitude. Many don’t leave their homes; their children play inside. They are so uneasy in their new settings that they don’t want to risk being outdoors. Syrian mothers report that they are fearful for their children, and talk about general safety as well as lack of familiarity with the area. This third type of social isolation or disengagement from other Syrian refugees was ubiquitous, and extreme in many instances.

This final layer of isolation was very much unexpected. In most settings of mass population displacement, affected people tend to bond together and there is generally a sense of camaraderie. Eventually, displaced populations tend to organize themselves into communities, and community leaders naturally emerge. 

Community bonds

What was missing here? The obvious answer is Lebanon’s lack of formal refugee settlements. With a million refugees scattered throughout the country in more than 1,500 locations and with many on the move as the struggle to survive in Lebanon continues, there is little opportunity to interact and for social networks to develop. This is a serious problem, because a lack of community bonds is detrimental to the recovery of the Syrian refugees. Strong social ties provide a sense of solidarity that offers strength. A sense of community is critical for individuals to begin rebuilding their lives.

So what can be done to remedy the situation, given that formal refugee settlements will likely, at least in the near future, continue to be absent in Lebanon? First and foremost, the basic needs of Syrian families will have to be met so that refugees are not struggling daily to survive. To meet these essential needs of housing, food security and medical care, the humanitarian response must be properly funded, but pledges from U.N. member states are still far from the targeted $6.5 billion for 2014, of which $1.7 billion would be earmarked specifically for Lebanon.

An appropriately funded humanitarian response would not only save lives but foster internal engagement among Syrian refugees. If more Syrian children were attending school, this would create an opportunity for Syrian families to interact with each other. It would facilitate the creation of community groups and safe spaces for children to interact with their peers. If the humanitarian response were adequate, refugee families would not feel an omnipresent struggle to survive. This might allow development of women’s groups, community meetings, religious gatherings and other social engagements. While this camaraderie must come from within the Syrian community, an adequate humanitarian response to the crisis is a prerequisite.

So much about the Syrian crisis is complicated, and Lebanon should be praised for keeping its borders open to Syrian refugees. Still, it should be possible to address the social isolation that makes circumstances for Syrian refugees all the more difficult — and undercuts the chances for Syrian children and families to live better lives and to gain strength from each other, as they rebuild for the future.

Susan Bartels is a fellow and visiting scientist at Harvard University’s FXB Center for Health and Human Rights and a member of the faculty at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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