CHAPTER III: LIVES OF THE SYRIANS
Mazed was missing an eye. The fact was impossible to ignore, and the way it changed his facial topography made his expressions seem more somber. But the solemnity of his countenance wasn’t shown on the side which had been left scarred, it was carried in the weight of the eye that remained. Years of experience with trauma have taught me that working with survivors entails walking a fine line; you don’t want to catalyze a feeling that their whole person is distilled down to this single tragedy, but you also don’t want to brush over the gravity of what they’ve survived. These are humans who have endured, but they are also more then the scarification of their endurance. So when he walked into the dim room, I smiled, shook his hand, and thanked him for being willing to speak with me.
“Mazed was missing an eye. The fact was impossible to ignore, and the way it changed his facial topography made his expressions seem more somber.”
Mazed was brought to us by the shawish of the camp. After Suzan and I had completed our customary dance, the shawish granted us permission to film and said he had someone with whom we should speak. Mazed’s functioning eye bore deep when he spoke, and his tears carried a weight that could be felt in the air of the room. He said he’d been injured when shrapnel struck his face during a bombing near his home. His friends and family tried to drag him to help, but had to abandon him when the gunfire drew too close. He told us he was found lying semi-conscious in the street by the Syrian Army and imprisoned instead of being given medical care. He lost his eye due to infection during his captivity, but even with that he felt lucky to be alive. He was certain many of the men with whom he was imprisoned never left. His eye filled with tears as he sat in a sun-beaten shack he now called a home. He claimed the only reason he was alive was a case of mistaken identity in a prisoner exchange. He said he was “unimportant” but he was let go when a Syrian officer mistook him for another man of the same name and evidently of some importance. The details of that were impossible for us to fully corroborate, but according to Mazed, after more than a year in prison he was able to locate his family and immediately flee to Lebanon. He and his family were now living in one of 50 shacks that made up this particular camp. The loose electrical wires hung above our heads as the tarp walls flapped in the late day breeze. To make enough money to afford rent and food, Mazed tried to find work as a handy man. He’d walk to the town square to sit and wait with other refugees hoping someone would hire them as laborers for the day. Soon his son, who seemed no older than 11, would start working too. The family needed all the help it could get.
In the time I spent in the Syrian camps I found this story was not an outlier. The details of the specific personal atrocity were unique to Mazed, but the scope of brutality and fear that all the refugees I spoke with described leaving was shattering. Families separated, never to be united; children used as human shields; incidents of torture; the loss of everything. Time and again I heard tales of heartbreak in Syria – but also the acknowledgment that even on arriving in Lebanon, the future was uncertain.
“Time and again I heard tales of heartbreak in Syria – but also the acknowledgment that even on arriving in Lebanon, the future was uncertain.”
The quality of the living conditions varied wildly from camp to camp, and it was a mixture of happenstance and luck that ultimately lead refugees to land in one camp or the other. The variance in quality occurred in part because the camps are unofficial and thus there is no central governing authority. Different NGOs have different budgets, and thus the materials used to build a camp could vary from corrugated steel compounds to poorly constructed wood frames wrapped in tarps to self-assembled shacks piecemealed from anything the family could find. The landscape itself brought perpetual challenges; summertime temperatures could peak near 37℃ while winter temperatures bordered on freezing, and even the best camps had poorly insulated structures and little sanitation. I was there at the height of the summer, when the air in most camps wrapped you in the constant smell of sweat, sewage, and refuse, all cooking in the day’s heat. In the winter, I was told, ponds of human waste would sometimes freeze in between the structures the refugees now called home.
“I saw boys as young as ten working full 12-hour work days in local markets to help feed their families.”
Beyond the structural challenges, each NGO also had limited funding to supply food, which meant an additional expense the refugees themselves had to come up with. As a result, often anyone who could do any form of work did, including children. In accordance with most Syrians’ culture, if the house had a husband and sons these responsibilities would fall first on them, meaning that any boy above a small child’s age was often expected to work nearly full time. I saw boys as young as ten working full 12-hour work days in local markets to help feed their families.
This allotment of time made schooling a great challenge and an occasional casualty. But even for those who were still able to go to school while working, the options were slim. Being counted as illegal immigrants, most Syrians could not attend standard Lebanese schools, and thus the only schooling offered was connected to the NGOs operating the camps. Oftentimes that meant the schools were unofficial, so even if children completed their schooling the education they received would not be recognized in Lebanon. This deregulated education system also introduced wide swings in the quality of curricula, so while some children receive a passable education, others spent time at what boiled down to glorified daycares.
“More frequently I heard people give teary-eyed confessions that they didn’t believe a homecoming was possible, and even if they did go back, most said they had nothing left to go home to. Yet the situation for them in Lebanon feels far from stable.”
For the 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, surviving the war was only the first part of their struggle. Nearly eight years after the conflict began the chances of return in the near future seem slim. The notions of hope among the people I talked to varied widely as well. One group of brothers, who escaped with little more than papers showing they graduated from university in Damascus, told me they assumed they would be returning soon, and though they expected it to be hard they were ready to help rebuild their country. More frequently I heard people give teary-eyed confessions that they didn’t believe a homecoming was possible, and even if they did go back, most said they had nothing left to go home to. Yet the situation for them in Lebanon feels far from stable. Most seem to be trying their best simply to survive, and hope that a new tomorrow opens better doors than the ones recent history has shown them.