From Here to There: Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

In January 2018, I toured five shelter sites for Syrian refugees operated by the Union of Relief and Development Associates in Lebanon. The Union of Relief and Development Associates (URDA) is a Lebanese non-governmental organization founded in 2012 to coordinate humanitarian relief for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. URDA has constructed, renovated, or rented 30 shelter sites across Lebanon to house Syrian refugees.

In three day trips during the third week of January, an employee from URDA accompanied me to Akkar, the Bekaa Valley, and Mount Lebanon. I visited one shelter site in Akkar (“Al Inmaa”), three shelter sites in the Bekaa Valley (“Al Awdah”, “Al Yasmine”, “Al Rahman“), and toured apartments, a bakery, a tailor shop, and a community kitchen in Aramoun, Mount Lebanon.

Above: Children stand in the scrapyard of Al Inmaa Shelter Site in Akkar.

Left: A Syrian girl in Al Inmaa.

Right: Satellite dishes, electricity wires, and reinforced plastic tarpaulin sheets seen through a side road in Al Inmaa.

There are no formal Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon. The Lebanese government discourages the permanent resettlement of Syrian refugees. In Lebanon, official refugee camps are reserved for Palestinian refugees only and are recognized by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

Contrary to archetypal UNHCR tent, I saw different types of refugee housing in Lebanon. URDA offers three housing models for Syrian refugees: a) household units consisting of either semi-permanent tents or concrete rooms with steel roofs, b) apartment buildings, and c) prefabricated caravans. URDA’s largest shelter site in Al Awdah, in the Bekaa Valley, was composed of prefabricated caravans while the shelter sites of Al Yasmine and Al Rahman were composed of semi-permanent tents. URDA operated one apartment building, that of Aramoun, in Mount Lebanon.

Above: Three men exit a housing unit in Al Awdah.

My translator informed me that in order for a Syrian refugee shelter site to be established in Lebanon, shelter sites must meet the Ministry of Interior’s requirements. The Lebanese Ministry of Interior requires that a shelter site be away from highways and military bases and have clear borders. It is the shelter sites I saw from URDA that host the most economically vulnerable Syrian refugees. 81% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon can in fact afford to rent their accommodations.

While driving to visit camps in the fertile Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon, my translator pointed out another housing alternative. Some Lebanese landholders permit Syrian refugees to construct shelters on their land in exchange for labor during harvests. However, tenant farming is a precarious livelihood. Seasonal harvests force Syrian refugees to search for income and housing beyond agriculture in the winter months. URDA tries to bolster refugees’ economic independence by creating markets in shelter sites where refugees can sell goods. I saw a convenience store, a women’s clothing store, and a restaurant at the Al Inmaa shelter site in Akkar.

Above: A saleswoman in the tailor shop in Al Inmaa.

Of the shelter sites I visited in Lebanon, I spent the most time at Al Inmaa in the Akkar Governorate. Of the 1,876 residents at Al Inmaa, 60% of the individuals were under the age of 8 and only 15% were men. The demographics of Al Inmaa composed of refugees who were widows, orphans, and disabled individuals. At Al Inmaa, a grandmother invited me into the housing unit she shared with her husband, a disabled daughter, and a granddaughter whose father had died in conflict. My translator added that orphans who had lost both parents during the Syrian civil war often lived with extended family such as aunts and grandparents.

A lightbulb went off in my head regarding the demographics of Syrian refugees. In Greece, I saw more young Syrian male refugees than any other demographic group of Syrian refugees. In Lebanon, I saw elderly Syrians, middle-aged Syrian men, female Syrians, and Syrian children—but far less young Syrian men. It occurred to me that younger Syrian men who were fit would endeavour to make the sea journey to Europe, leaving behind the woman, children, and elderly in neighboring countries like Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan.

Above: A group of middle-aged men converse near the entrance of Al Inmaa. In the distance below is the minaret of a mosque in a nearby city.

I asked two middle-aged Syrian men at Al Inmaa if they would return to Syria after the war. One of the men I spoke with had owned a restaurant-bakery before the war and the other was a cement worker. They both considered returning home too dangerous out of fear of being punished for defecting. Even if the military would leave them alone, they added, they were afraid of getting caught in renewed crossfires. When I ran out of questions to ask the restaurant owner, he asked me what food I enjoyed. He described some regional delicacies in Syria: goat feet from Damascus, semolina pastry rolls with cheese filling from Hama, and minced beef wrapped in fried bulgur wheat from Homs, as well as casseroles made with meat, rice, and grilled vegetables. The restaurant owner cast his eyes down when I asked what he did before the war, but became reanimated by the discussing flavors from home.

Top: A cook assembles tomatoes on a kebab stick to be grilled in Al Inmaa.

Bottom: Smoke from a charcoal and gas grill surround the cook at his grill.

When a humanitarian emergency strikes, images of refugees follow. However, the timing of my visits to Greece in summer and winter 2017 and to Lebanon in winter 2017 meant that I was neither seeing the start nor the peak of the Syrian refugee crises. According to aid volunteers in Greece, I missed by a few years the sight of hundreds of asylum seekers sleeping on the Aegean islands in 2015. According to my URDA translator, I didn’t get to watch “bleeding” Syrians rush to Lebanon to treat war wounds in 2013. As the Syrian government controls most of Syrian territory at the time of my writing—Assad’s government having pushed out the rebels and extremists to shrinking strongholds—I instead witnessed refugee settlements in Lebanon rather than a “deluge” of incoming asylum seekers. On the European side, as European legislation tightens the borders of Greece, I saw refugees stuck in limbo and unemployment rather than arrive by boat.

Despite the title of my photo essay, “Departures”, I have not photographed a single departure. Save for sending off my refugee friends on the port of Leros as they boarded ferries for Athens in June 2017, when I volunteered for an Austrian charity in Leros, I never witnessed the exodus of bodies that characterize media reports of refugee crises. On my end, I photographed the permanence of refugee settlements and daily life. While the refugees I’ve spoken with have departed from their homes, they have not truly arrived anywhere. “Purgatory” may have been a more apt title for my photo essay. 

Refugees in Lebanon and Greece of all nationalities may have escaped war, but their standards of living are below that of the native citizens, and possibly below that of their standards at home. In Lebanon, I walked through yards of open sewage and landfill. I saw children studying during blackouts, mothers sweeping rainwater out of flooded housing units, and men wearing plastic sandals before a snowstorm. My experiences volunteering in a Syrian refugee camp in Greece in July 2017 brought me into daily contact with refugees whose requests for more water, milk, or clothing I had to personally deny.

If conflict journalists photograph war, humanitarian journalists photograph the ghosts of war. Some of my most jarring moments came when I stumbled into an abandoned warehouse lined with human feces in a Greek camp, and when I saw the metal frames of unfinished housing units in the Bekaa Valley. In these moments, I thought to myself: here lies what remains of those who came before.

The photograph below was one of the last shots I took in the Bekaa Valley. My translator from URDA urged me to finish shooting before an impending snowstorm. A few days later, I texted a Palestinian-Syrian friend that I had visited the Bekaa. He expressed surprise and told me that a group of Syrian asylum-seekers had recently died trying to reach Lebanon on the night of a snowstorm. In the early morning of January 19th, the Lebanese army found the frozen bodies of nine Syrians who tried to smuggle into Lebanon under the snowstorm’s cover. I remembered in shock that I stood in the Bekaa Valley on January 18th. On my second last day in Lebanon, I stared at the roads leading to the snow-capped mountains dividing Lebanon and Syria.

I had asked my driver where we were in relation to the border. We were a 20-minute car ride from Syria.

Above: A boy crosses puddles in front of a housing unit in Al Rahman as a winter storm brews.


Sources:

2014 Syria Regional Response Plan Lebanon: Mid-Year Update. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, http://www.unhcr.org/syriarrp6/midyear/docs/syria-rrp6-myu-lebanon.pdf.

“Refugees Found Frozen in Lebanon near Syria Border.” Al Jazeera, 19 Jan. 2018, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/01/refugees-frozen-lebanon-syria-border-180119180011632.html.

Vulnerability Assessment for Syrian Refugees in Lebanon 2016. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 16 Dec. 2016, documents.wfp.org/stellent/groups/public/documents/ena/wfp289533.pdf.   

This is Home Now: Stateless Palestinians in Beirut

When does being a refugee become permanent? While refugees connote a temporary state, I discovered generations of refugees in the Middle East. This chapter is devoted to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon whose displacement turns 70 this year.

Photographs from this chapter are taken in two urban refugee camps in Beirut: Mar Elias and Shatila (Chatila). Unlike the shelter sites operated by URDA, the refugee camps in the Lebanese capital are decades-old residential neighborhoods complete with apartment buildings. Gone are the tents and containers associated with new humanitarian disasters. 

To understand the lived experiences of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, I spoke with Fadi, a former camp director with the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, and Rasul*, a Palestinian-Syrian refugee living in Shatila. I was accompanied in Shatila by Huda*, a Palestinian-Lebanese refugee professional working in Beirut. 

The most extensive interview in this chapter is with Arevig*. Arevig’s interview was conducted through a translator provided by the American Lebanese Language Center. Although Arevig is not of Palestinian origin but is Armenian-Syrian, her struggle is representative of those of urban refugees. Arevig resettled in greater Beirut after fleeing Aleppo in 2012. Her interview sheds light on the services available to refugees from NGOs and civil society organizations in Beirut.

The stories of Rasul, Huda, and Arevig (all of whose names have been changed) bring up patterns between Palestinian and Syrian refugees. How Palestinian refugees are prevented from assimilating into Lebanese society is a warning for the current Syrian refugee crisis. Both stateless Palestinians and Syrian refugees fulfill the definition of protracted refugee situations. The greatest refugee crisis in the Middle East today is eerily similar to the largest historic refugee crisis in the Middle East.

Top: Boys walk in front of an arguileh rental store in Mar Elias Camp. “Arguileh” is the Lebanese term for shisha or hookah.

Bottom: Two women wearing burkas seen on the street of Mar Elias.

At the Union of Relief and Development Associates, I interviewed Fadi, a program manager who used to work for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). Fadi was the former UNRWA Director of the Ein el-Hilweh Camp, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, located in the southern city of Sidon. A Palestinian himself, Fadi was raised in Sidon and had lived in Lebanon for 37 years. According to Fadi, approximately 300,000 Palestinians were living in Lebanon in 2011 at the start of the Syrian civil war. There are now 174,000 Palestinians in Lebanon. The decrease in numbers is due to emigration—many have capitalized on migration to Europe alongside displaced Syrians. In fact, according to a 2017 census conducted by the Lebanese Central Administration of Statistics in partnership with the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, there are Palestinian camps in Lebanon where the majority of residents are non-Palestinian. At Shatila Camp, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, 29.7% of residents were Palestinian whereas almost double that figure (57.7%) were Syrian. The two other refugee camps in Beirut, Mar Elias and Burj Barajneh, also hold more Syrians than Palestinians. 

“Ah, so you understand. You and me, we are alike.”

The former director of the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon’s reply to me after I explained my interest in refugees from my background as an immigrant.

Although I walked into Mar Elias, the smallest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, on my own, I was cautioned to not be unescorted in Shatila. When I asked the Syrian receptionist of my Beirut hostel for advice in entering Shatila, he feared that I would lose my way, or worse, in Shatila’s labyrinthine streets. I was fortunate to be introduced to a Palestinian employee at the American Lebanese Language Center whose sister Huda was familiar with Shatila’s layout.

I visited Shatila Camp with Huda on a Wednesday morning. I learned that Huda’s family belonged to the first wave of Palestinian refugees displaced during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. When Huda’s father was four years old, he moved to the city of Saidon in south Lebanon. Yet, Huda was born in Lebanon with a refugee identity card instead of Lebanese citizenship. Her nationality restricts her career options, her ability to own property, and even her access to health services. Like Arevig, an Armenian-Syrian refugee in Beirut, Huda must pay out-of-pocket for private health providers or rely on NGOs.

Above:  Looking up above a street in Shatila Camp: a tangle of electrical wires and the flag of Palestine. 

Inside Shatila Camp, I met a 28-year old man named Rasul. Rasul was born to a Syrian father and a Palestinian mother in Syria. I met Rasul when Huda was showing me a wall pockmarked by bullet holes. A small crowd had gathered to watch me photograph a memorial where victims of the Shatila massacre were shot when an elderly woman came up to the crowd and me, raising her umbrella at us and accusing the Arab League leaders of spying for Israel. When I asked Huda to translate the woman’s shouting, Rasul overheard us and answered me in English. Huda asked Rasul if I could interview him.

Rasul told us that he moved to Shatila from Damascus in 2011. In Damascus, he worked as a traditional dancer and had studied accounting and English in university. While in Damascus, Rasul met and fell in love with a Swedish nurse who he then married. By the time civil war broke out in 2011, Rasul’s wife had returned to Sweden, and while their family reunification documents were processing, his wife died in a car accident. Rather than moving to Sweden, Rasul moved to Lebanon. After recounting his story, Rasul took us from his tea kiosk near the martyr’s wall to a burial chamber of the Shatila massacre victims. Inside the burial chamber, he pointed out a photograph of his uncle who had died during the massacre. Rasul embodied the living history of Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps. His family had ties to Shatila camp, and he himself returned to Shatila after a turn of events in his life.

“That’s life.”

A 28-year old Palestinian-Syrian’s reply to me in Shatila Camp when I apologized after hearing that his  wife had passed away in a car accident. Her untimely death prevented him from reuniting with her in Sweden at the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011.

The Shatila and Sabra massacres occurred in 1982 when Israel-backed right-wing Christian militias killed 800 civilians within three days in Shatila camp and the Sabra neighborhood of Beirut. While I was photographing the wall below, an elderly woman approached me and yelled in Arabic that a family member of hers had died during the massacre. While the Arab-Israeli wars and the Shatila massacre are a distant memory for the West, I found history alive in Beirut’s refugee camps. The most visually striking images of Mar Elias and Shatila were not the narrow streets nor the tangles of electrical wires. I was struck by the political wall art, featuring paintings of Temple Mount in Jerusalem and posters of Palestinian icons like Yasser Arafat and Ahed Tamimi.

Top left: On a wall commemorating the Shatila massacre, an illustration of a child asks, “Tell them about our sacrifice, grandma”. The illustration of an elderly woman replies, “We won’t forget our sons who died for our homeland”. The grandma’s reply is followed by the dates of the Shatila and Sabra massacre (September 16, 1982) and the siege of Tel al-Zaatar (August 12, 1976).

Top right: A wreath placed on the Shatila massacre tomb by the “Palestinian National Liberation Movement”, the full name of Fatah in Arabic.

Bottom: An inscription of the Qu’ran on a wall in Shatila reads, “And do not walk upon the earth exultantly. Indeed, you will never tear the earth [apart], and you will never reach the mountains in height. All that – its evil is ever, in the sight of your Lord, detested” (Al-Isra 17:37-38).

On my last day in Beirut, I met Arevig, a 32-year old Armenian-Syrian hairdresser from Aleppo in her apartment in Naba’a in greater Beirut. Naba’a is a suburb of Burj Hammoud, a working-class town that borders Beirut to the east of the Beirut River. During the First World War, an Armenian community was established in Burj Hammoud by Armenian refugees who survived the Ottoman death marches from Anatolia. These same refugees from the Armenian genocide also settled in modern-day Syria. Today, Armenian-Syrians who have been displaced from Syria like Arevig resettle in the Armenian community in Lebanon.

Arevig left Syria in August 2012 with her mother. When an airstrike hit the home she shared with her parents in Aleppo, her mother suffered a nervous breakdown, causing her and her mother to move in with Arevig’s grandmother. As a Christian, Arevig described how Christian churches were bombed in Aleppo. Arevig’s father joined Arevig and her mother in Beirut later, but only after the border between Syria and Lebanon became restricted. Today, Arevig is the breadwinner for her sick parents. Although Arevig has a sister who can share the burden of caring for their parents, her sister married and had returned to Aleppo. Arevig’s sister lasted three months as a hairdresser in Lebanon.

When I walked into Arevig’s cramped apartment, I met her mother and father sitting in bed. After Arevig served my translator and I hot chocolate, Arevig related to my translator the illnesses afflicting her parents. Arevig’s mother feels guilt over a miscarriage that occurred before the birth of Arevig’s youngest sister, and has been mentally ill since delivering her sister. There are periods in which Arevig’s mother loses consciousness. Arevig’s father, on the other hand, has had problems in Lebanon with his heart, liver, and kidney. To budget for her parents’ health, Arevig confided that she lets her parents eat better than herself.

In a distressed voice, Arevig recounted to me the costs of her parents’ healthcare. It took two months for Arevig to save up enough money working as a hairdresser for her father to have his liver tested. Arevig was referred to a doctor by a wealthy client of the salon she worked at. The doctor’s test results showed that Arevig’s father’s liver was only operating at half capacity. Last January, her father underwent nine consecutive days without eating while bleeding from his nose and anus. On the ninth day, Arevig’s cousin drove her father to the emergency room of Rafik Hariri University Hospital near southern Beirut after smaller clinics and NGOs neglected to cover the estimated hospital costs. In the emergency room, Arevig was told that without upfront payments, her father’s illness could neither be tested nor would he be placed in the care of the right practitioner. Out of desperation in these nine days, Arevig’s family considered returning to Syria to access subsidized healthcare. Arevig’s family ultimately scrapped the idea to not risk losing asylum status in Lebanon. Returning to Syria would flag to the UN that Syria was safe enough for Arevig’s family and thus they would not need international protection.

Above: A boy and girl walk in front of graffiti that reads, “Straight Outta Mar Elias Camp”.

Arevig’s father believes that half of the Syrians in Lebanon are not registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a figure confirmed by Human Rights Watch. Arevig did not know that she could apply for refugee status during her first three months in Beirut. She was only informed of her rights by an Armenian community center. Lebanon’s treatment of Syrian refugees stands in contrast to the first reception conditions in Greece. As the migration story of Jamil, a Palestinian-Syrian refugee, will reveal, the European Union has mandated that asylum-seekers be told of their rights to asylum upon entry. This is compared to Lebanon where in May 2015 the Lebanese government discouraged the UNHCR from further registering Syrians as refugees. In the gaps left behind by the state, NGOs and civil society groups have taken over to provide refugee services.

Arevig criticized the UN and praised an Armenian political party in Lebanon for their assistance. Even as the UN covered a heart valve operation for her father that would have otherwise costed $400, the UN reduced the welfare payments going to her family. A UN inspector visited Arevig’s apartment in Burj Hammoud and noticed the furniture, which the inspector deemed as sufficient evidence that Arevig could do with an aid cut. Arevig denounced the UN’s decision because the inspector had only seen the state of her apartment and not the inside of her refrigerator. If her refrigerator had been examined, the UN inspector would discover a lack of healthy and fresh foods. Arevig believed she should be entitled to UN cash transfers to purchase meat and dairy. In order to receive food aid now, she takes Tuesdays off from work so that she can wait in line for meals at a church.

Left: A man wearing a red-and-white keffiyeh stands at the entrance of a Doctors Without Borders clinic in Shatila. 

Religious and ethnic civil society groups support refugees in Lebanon alongside international NGOs. While Arevig deplored the UN’s decision to cut funding from her family, she appreciated an Armenian party’s donation to send her mother to the hospital after her mother suffered a nervous breakdown. And with the support of an Armenian deputy in parliament, the Red Cross is able to charge 4,000 Lebanese pounds for Armenians to visit a clinic (the equivalent of $2.67 USD). This price is 12,000 Lebanese pounds ($8) for non-Armenians.

Finally, Arevig has also relied on the kindness of friends in the past. When she began working at the hair salon, a friend at the salon provided blankets, clothes, foods, and cleaning supplies to her family. After my interview ended, my translator inquired if there was some way for her to help Arevig. 

Like other refugees I’ve met in Greece, Arevig has tried to leave for more developed countries. She brought out a stack of papers that showed her family’s application for asylum in Australia. Their request had been denied. Her uncle suggested the family seek sponsorship in Canada, but Arevig’s mother did not have a Syrian passport. Passport registration would cost money as would translating birth and marriage certificates into English. Reaching Canada remains a dream for Arevig’s family. Canada remains an unattainable dream for poorer Syrian refugees who lack financial means or the connections for sponsorship. 

Arevig was my last interview before heading to the airport. Capping the hour-long interview, Arevig explained to my translator that she did not intend to tell me about her family so that I would feel pressured to donate money. I replied that as a university student I couldn’t do much, but that I hoped those who read my research could be compelled to act, financially or otherwise. Arevig’s face lightened and she wished me farewell, adding that I would always be welcome if I were to find myself in Beirut again.

Left: While leaving Mar Elias, my camera catches the attention of a boy with sores on his face.

Right: Children play with sand in a garbage-strewn field outside of Mar Elias.

“Please, I am Syrian.”

On my way to Mar Elias Camp from the westernmost end of Hamra Street, a main street in downtown Beirut, I met three teenage Syrian boys carrying shoe polish. I asked where one of them was from in Arabic, and he replied Daraa. Daraa is a poor city in southwestern Syria where Syria’s  Arab Spring started in March 2011. Historians trace the Syrian civil war’s roots to the Assad regime’s crackdown on peaceful protests in Daraa. When a friend of the boy from Daraa noticed us chatting, he approached me and asked for 1,000 Lebanese pounds (the equivalent of 66¢). After I refused, the 17-year old begged me in English saying “please”, he was Syrian. 

On the car ride to Rafic Hariri International Airport, I thought of Fadi’s words from my time with the Union for Relief and Development Associates. Fadi said that the long-term integration of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is unlikely as the Lebanese government views their stay as temporary. I wondered if Arevig planned to one day return to Syria when she left for Lebanon in 2012. I was reminded of the grandfather of Jamil, a Palestinian refugee I interviewed in Athens, who left Palestine in 1948. Jamil’s grandfather settled in Damascus in 1956 after giving up hope of returning to Palestine. It took eight years for Jamil’s grandfather after the First Arab-Israeli War to make up his mind to settle his roots in a host country. Could Syrian refugees today, seven years into the Syrian Civil War, also be beginning to lose hope of home?

Syrian refugees in Lebanon are facing a similar fate to that of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Syria 70 years ago. Palestinian and Syrian refugees seem to share the fate of reluctant integration. I was fortunate to have explored the case of Palestinian refugees while researching Syrian refugees. Between Arevig and Jamil—despite their differences in age, gender, religion, ethnicity, and nationality—are shared histories of generational displacement. Arevig is the descendant of Armenian refugees in Syria and I met her in Lebanon. Jamil is the descendant of Palestinian refugees in Syria and I met him in Greece. Through Arevig and Jamil, the contemporary Syrian refugee crisis can be placed in the context of a hundred years of forced migration in the Eastern Mediterranean.


Sources:

Anziska, Seth. “A Preventable Massacre.” The New York Times, 17 Sept. 2012, p. A23, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/17/opinion/a-preventable-massacre.html. 

“Ein El Hilweh Camp.” UNRWA, United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, http://www.unrwa.org/where-we-work/lebanon/ein-el-hilweh-camp. 

Khawaja, Bassam. “Lebanon Policy Leaves ‘Second-Class’ Syrians Vulnerable to Return: HRW.” Refugees Deeply, 14 Mar. 2017, http://www.newsdeeply.com/refugees/community/2017/03/14/lebanon-policy-leaves-second-class-syrians-vulnerable-to-return-hrw. 

Lebanon. European Commission Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection, 6 Apr. 2018, ec.europa.eu/echo/files/aid/countries/factsheets/lebanon_syrian_crisis_en.pdf.   

Namour, Bahiya. “Life in the Shadows: Palestinians in Lebanon.” Al Jazeera World, 13 Apr. 2016, http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/aljazeeraworld/2016/04/life-shadows-palestinians-lebanon-160413082953447.html. 

“Palestine Refugees in Lebanon.” United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, 1 Jan. 2011, http://www.unrwa.org/resources/about-unrwa/palestine-refugees-lebanon.  

Coming of Age: Refugee Education in Lebanon and Greece

During my fieldwork, I encountered initiatives to educate child and adult refugees. In Lebanon, I learned about programs created by the Lebanese government to catch up Syrian children at school. In Athens, I had lunch with an educational consultant at The American College of Greece’s refugee scholarship program. At The American College of Greece, I then met a refugee student who invited me to photograph the graduation of another adult refugee education program at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. My final interview in Greece occurred at the Melissa Network of Migrant Women in Greece. At the Melissa Network, I participated in workshops for refugee and migrant women and girls.

Despite the classes, scholarships, and community spaces I have seen for refugees, there remain barriers to education. The limited capacity of educational programs as well as the affordability of education in both money and time are barriers that prevent refugees from learning host languages and employable skills. If refugees do not learn to adapt to their host countries, generations of refugees may risk marginalization. Although education is a human right, accessible education can be a privilege for refugee men, women, and children.

Above: A map of pins representing the origin of students at the Foreign Language Education for Refugee Students program at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens.

Educating Syrian Refugee Children in Lebanon

In January 2018, more than half a million Syrian refugees were under 18 in Lebanon. As the conflict in Syria approaches its seventh year, Syrian children in Lebanon below the age of seven are born stateless. On my third day in Lebanon, I visited the American Lebanese Language Center (ALLC) in Beirut to hear how Lebanon was educating Syrian children. In Lebanon, domestic and international organizations partner with UNICEF (the UN children agency) to implement the Lebanese Ministry of Education’s programs.

ALLC is a private language-training center that assists UNICEF in reshaping Lebanon’s curriculum and training schoolteachers, to the tune of 600 teachers trained every three months. Additionally, the ALLC sends 300 employees across the country on examination days to proctor standardized tests. Exam proctors help administer an average of 10,000 diagnostic and proficiency tests to grade-school students in Lebanon. According to ALLC’s Marketing Director and Project Manager of Business Development, Syrian refugee children overwhelmed Lebanese public schools as early as the first year of the Syrian civil war.

Above: Two sisters do homework using natural light during a blackout at Al Rahman Collective Complex in Mount Lebanon. 

Prior to the Syrian refugee crisis, training for Lebanese teachers in public schools was already underfunded. The addition of Syrian students placed additional pressure on the limited teaching staff. To accommodate expanding class sizes, the Lebanese Ministry of Education modified the teaching schedule in 2014. The new average school day in Lebanon has two “shifts”. The first shift teaches Lebanese students in the daytime and the second shift teaches Syrian students in the afternoon and early evening. School-age children are now accepted in Lebanese public schools regardless of their legal status. 

In addition to the “second shift”, the Ministry of Education and UNICEF created the Accelerated Learning Program (ALP) in June 2016 to catch-up students who have been out of school for more than two years. In the ALP, a curriculum worth an academic year is condensed into three months of learning. While the second shift and ALP programs are now majority-funded by foreign donors, the combination of first shift, second shift, ALP, and student retention schemes (aiming to tutor students at risk of dropping out) have strained Lebanon’s teaching capacity. Mixed ages and nationalities further challenge teachers in classrooms. Furthermore, when teachers are hired in an emergency response setting, they do not expect long-term career pathways after the refugee crisis. If on one hand Syrian students have caused a shortage in teaching staff, Syrian students may have created another, positive effect on the Lebanese public school system. The innovations in education that Lebanon developed during crises may increase Lebanon’s capacity to educate its own domestic students in the long-run.

Top: Boys chase my camera after coming out of a school bus in Al Yasmine Shelter Site in the Bekaa Valley.

Bottom: In the schoolyard of Al Awdah Shelter Site in the Bekaa Valley, a toddler boy grabs unto my camera hood. A crowd of primary school children gather to watch.

Despite the government’s initiatives, four factors discourage Syrian students from enrolling in Lebanese schools. These four barriers are the temporary nature of Syrian families residing in Lebanon, the additional languages of instruction in Lebanese classrooms, the opportunity cost of time spent on education, and the competition posed by radical education initiatives. Firstly, Syrian parents are disincentivized to send their children to school in Lebanon when they believe that their families will remain in Lebanon for a limited time. Secondly, Syrian children who were accustomed to learning exclusively in Arabic in Syria must adjust to learning core subjects such as math and science in either English or French in Lebanon. Thirdly, some Syrian students stop going to school after grade six to work in agriculture, but this last barrier to education should be reduced by Lebanese labor laws that prevent child labor. 

The final barrier to refugee child education is alternative and competing education from political parties. According to the American Lebanese Language Center, education initiatives spawned by politically radical groups, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, lure Syrian students away from public school. Political groups promise food aid to the families of the Syrian children in exchange for sending children to their own programs. ALLC recounted that on the day of placement exams for the Accelerated Learning Program, radical groups had deterred Syrian students from taking the tests by threatening to withdraw benefits from the students and their families. Through persuasion and intimidation, radical groups try to mold Syrian students to support their line of thinking over that of the state curriculum. 

In summary, while Lebanon has created initiatives to incorporate school-age Syrian refugees in public schools, cultural, linguistic, economic, and political barriers prevent the full enrolment of Syrian refugee students. Efforts led by the Lebanese Ministry of Education with assistance by organizations such as the American Lebanese Language Center have significantly facilitated the access of Syrian children to primary and secondary education in Lebanon. It would be unimaginable to see children selling trinkets or begging in developed countries, but in Beirut, a Syrian refugee boy eagerly cracked a walnut for me to taste while a girl followed me from near the American University of Beirut asking for a banana. Syrian children need to not only be enrolled in school but to receive education that prepares them for life. Education, like other services provided to refugees with resource limitations, requires innovation.

Above: A teenage Syrian boy sells walnuts on Hamra Street in Beirut.

Educating Young Adult Refugees in Greece

Barriers to education also exist for adult refugees who wish to continue their education in Europe. During my first week in Athens, I sat down with an education consultant at the Camp to Campus Program at Deree – The American College of Greece. The US Embassy in Athens provides scholarships for refugee students to take two courses at one of three US-affiliated universities in Greece. Courses available to refugees at The American College of Greece include English classes, academic classes based on the students’ prior backgrounds, and vocational training. Fifty refugee students were accepted to study at The American College of Greece for the fall 2017 semester and an additional fifty students will have been accepted to study in spring 2018.

When it comes to the pressures faced by refugee students, the education consultant I spoke with gave an example of a student who was relocating from his camp near the port of Athens. The student had missed a week of classes and worked with his teachers to catch up. In another example, as temperatures were dropping in the fall, the consultant noticed a student who only wore light layers. The scholarship program then purchased a winter jacket for this student. The consultant describes working with refugee students as her most rewarding educational experience to date. The unique challenges that refugee students face are overshadowed by the students’ eagerness to learn.

The teachers at the college echo this positive sentiment. The respect displayed by refugee students towards teachers, receptionists, and cleaning staff has shifted perceptions surrounding refugees. The consultant also attributed improved attitudes to the students’ well-groomed appearances, which differ from media stereotypes of “desperate” refugees. Furthermore, students are cordial to each other. Afghan refugees may feel discriminated against when certain European governments consider Syrians to be legitimate refugees and Afghans to be migrants. The consultant added that if there is any antagonism between Syrian and Afghan refugees outside of the classroom, students of different backgrounds are supportive of each other inside the Camp to Campus Program. (In the next chapter, “Domestic Life”, I recount an Afghan refugee’s grievances against Arabs and Syrians as he relayed them to me.)’

The consultant concluded our conversation with an anecdote. A high-ranking official from the US government had a “powerful” encounter with a refugee student while touring the Camp to Campus Program. In a discussion during the government official’s visit, a refugee student had politely voiced that he wanted people to understand that refugees fleeing war want more than anything to return home. This student’s homesickness stands in contrast with descriptions of refugees as opportunistic, invasive, or welfare-abusing. From the American College of Greece’s interactions with refugee students, I came to understand that education is not merely a way for refugee students to gain knowledge. Education also acts as a public sphere where refugee students encounter classmates, faculty, and staff of different backgrounds. These encounters between refugee students and others on campus dismantle previous ideas about refugees and provide refugees with learning opportunities in engaging with homogeneous European societies.

Above: Two women chat to one another amongst an audience of men at a graduation ceremony of 400 adult refugee students in Athens. 

Educating Refugee Girls and Women in Greece

If refugees are vulnerable in society, refugee women are even more marginalized. I asked a co-founder of the Melissa Network for Migrant Women about the experiences of refugee women in Greece and where the Melissa Network comes in to help. The Melissa Network for Migrant Women is located conveniently near Victoria Square in central Athens. In recent years, the neighborhood surrounding Victoria Square has been transformed by the refugee crisis. Refugees of all backgrounds live in affordable apartments and hostels near the square, or in the square itself where homelessness is not uncommon. The square also acts as a public meeting space for refugees.

Overwhelmingly, I noticed that it is refugee men who hang out in Victoria Square. As well, in a photograph I took at the Foreign Language Education For Refugee Students (FLEARS) graduation ceremony at the University of Athens, my camera only captured two female students sitting amidst rows of male colleagues. I questioned the Melissa Network’s co-founder and two of my (male) refugee friends in Athens on why refugee women are underrepresented in the population and in media.

Farhan*, an Afghan refugee whose story is told in the next chapter, replied that Afghan families do not raise female children to have mindsets of self-reliance. Without ever developing autonomy from their family or male kin, Afghan refugee women are afraid of running errands alone in public even where it is safe to do so in Europe. Refugee women are likely to remain indoors and unseen. Jamil*, whose story is in the chapter following Farhan’s, added that women are unlikely to migrate to Europe on their own for fear of being harassed or assaulted on the journey or inside the camps. Jamil hinted that human smugglers can easily become human traffickers. I was previously curious as to why all the unaccompanied minors I met in Greece were boys, and now I had my answer.

Finally on the topic of underrepresented refugee women, the Melissa Network’s co-founder criticized the media for reproducing refugee gender hierarchies. I noticed this phenomenon myself when my translators, who were all males in Greece, directed my questions to the heads of refugee households I was interviewing. The heads of household would also be male. Between a man asking my questions and a man replying to me, I bypass the female refugee voice in the room. In one instance when I addressed an Afghan woman directly, she responded to me but glanced at her husband for support or approval. The European refugee discourse is thus dominated by men when a) women are less likely to travel alone to faraway countries, b) the women who do arrive spend most of their time at home, and c) the media can more easily access and report male voices in patriarchal cultures. My photo essay is devoid of a single interview with a refugee woman of my age. 

Above: Children crossing the street near the Melissa Network for Migrant Women in Greece.

To my relief, I discovered that the Melissa Network teaches refugee women strategies to advocate for themselves. In 2014, six women from Greece, Nigeria, Russia, the Philippines, Albania, and Zimbabwe co-founded the Melissa Network. The doors of the Melissa Network opened in July 2015 after the EU-Turkey Accord was passed in March of that year. Melissa offers a transitional space for women to build independent life strategies after arriving in Athens. The Melissa Network co-founder I interviewed points out the difference between survival on the migratory route and survival upon resettlement, the latter of which the Melissa Network equips refugee women to do. The Melissa Network calls survival during migration a “communal” process where the needs of one refugee are likely to be similar to that of another. However, resettlement is an “independent” process in which each refugee decides how to build their future according to their own circumstances and desires. Therefore, the Melissa Network developed a curriculum to help migrant women integrate and thrive in Greece. The curriculum is named “Alef” after the first letter in the Arabic, Farsi, and Urdu alphabets. A typical refugee woman engages with the Melissa Network’s curriculum and programs for 4 to 5 hours a week.

Alef is composed of six strands of action. These strands of action are psychosocial support, capacity-building, creativity, self- and communal-care, information, and advocacy. Under capacity-building and self-/communal-care, refugee women learn Greek and English, how to deliver first aid and psychosocial first aid, and how to identify and handle domestic abuse, as well as childcare techniques and coping strategies for stress and anxiety. Under advocacy, the Melissa Network trains refugee women to interpret and monitor the news in their home and host countries to identify false information and use social media. And under information, refugee women are introduced to methods of interfaith dialogue, peacebuilding, and conflict resolution.

On the day that I visited the Melissa Network, an information session was scheduled on the topic of early marriage. I came across child marriages in both Lebanon and Greece. In Lebanon, I heard of Lebanese Muslim men marrying Syrian teenagers as their second wives. In Greece, I met Afghan refugees who were married as early as age 13. Integration pathways such as the Melissa Network’s Alef offer accessible and culturally-relevant resources for refugee girls and women to use in daily life.

Right: Children drawing in coloring books on blankets spread atop a sewage-spilled backyard.

Left: A boy feeds bread crumbs to pigeons at an apartment reclaimed as a refugee squat near Exarcheia, Athens.


Sources:

“‘Education Unites: From Camp to Campus’ – A Scholarship Program for Young Refugees in Greece.” The American College of Greece, 18 July 2017, http://www.acg.edu/news-events/news/education-unites-from-camp-to-campus-a-scholarship-program-for-young-refugees-in-greece/.

Roots, Fran. “A Growing Need to Educate Syrian Children in Lebanon.” Jusoor News, Jusoor, 28 Sept. 2016, jusoorsyria.com/a-growing-need-to-educate-syrian-children-in-lebanon/. 

Syria Crisis January 2018 Humanitarian Results. UNICEF, Jan. 2018, http://www.unicef.org/appeals/files/UNICEF_Syria_Crisis_Humanitarian_Situation_Report_Jan_2018.pdf.

United States, Department of Labor, Bureau Of International Labor Affairs. “Child Labor and Forced Labor Reports: Lebanon.” 2016. http://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/lebanon.  

Domestic Life: At Home with Refugees in Athens

In Athens, I was invited to dine with two refugees who I will call Farhan and Abdullah. I met Farhan and Abdullah while I was volunteering on the Greek island of Leros in June 2017. The two men were then living on Leros island’s “hotspot”, a detention center for irregular migrants arriving by sea. Hotspots were created during the height of the European migrant crisis in 2015 and can be found dotting the coastlines of Greece and Italy.

Abdullah left the Leros hotspot for mainland Greece in July 2017. He boarded a ferry to Athens when his asylum application was approved and his travel restrictions lifted. Farhan followed Abdullah to Athens in the fall. I reconnected with Farhan and Abdullah in the winter to see how they were faring in their new homes.

Farhan and Abdullah’s stories can be compared side-by-side. While both men are 23 years old, Farhan is an Afghan refugee from Herat and Abdullah is a Syrian refugee from Aleppo. Farhan migrated with his sister’s family and Abdullah migrated alone. When it comes to accommodations, Farhan lives in an NGO-provided apartment in central Athens and Abdullah lives in a refugee camp in the port.

Through Farhan and Abdullah, I came to see how refugee communities of different nationalities took root in Greece. While Syrians submit the most asylum applications in Greece, Afghans constitute the third largest group of asylum-seekers (with Pakistanis in second place). I learned of the animosities between Afghans and Syrians through Farhan and then through Jamil, a Palestinian-Syrian friend of Abdullah’s whose story is recounted in the next chapter.

This chapter, “Domestic Life”, reveals the daily life of Farhan and Abdullah in Athens and the tensions that color their experience as refugees. Along the way, we meet Farhan’s sister, who I will name Fareeda. It is through Fareeda’s eyes that we see the underreported domestic sphere of refugee women.

Above: Abdullah looks for directions on his phone in the neighborhood of Exarcheia in central Athens.

Farhan’ Story

I spent three days with Farhan in January 2018. Like many of my interviews, Farhan and I began by meeting in public. Farhan chose Victoria Square in Athens as a meeting place. While Athens’s Omonia Square was known for its drug dealers, Exarcheia Square for its anarchists, and Syntagma and Monastiraki Squares for their performers and street vendors, I heard a sizeable homeless refugee population resided in Victoria Square. On our first of three days together, Farhan and I had brunch. We then walked to the apartment of his older sister, Fareeda, where I spent the afternoon meeting Fareeda, her husband, and her two children. Fareeda invited Farhan and me back to her apartment for lunch on my second day with Farhan. On our third and final day, Farhan introduced me to a teenage friend who brought us to Malakasa Camp, a camp in central Greece with predominantly Afghan residents.

Farhan’s proceeding story is divided by each day that I spent with him.

Day 1 with Farhan: The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan

Farhan is a tall, thin young man with a trimmed beard and kind eyes. Although Farhan and I met in Leros and connected on Facebook, I knew little about him other than his origins from Afghanistan. When Farhan and I reunited in Athens, we ate brunch at a cafe in Victoria Square. Here, Farhan gave me more details from his past.

Above: Farhan, a 23-year old Afghan refugee, picks up a child in Malakasa Camp.

Farhan was born in Afghanistan and raised in Tehran, Iran. At the age of 14, Farhan moved from the Iranian capital back to his native country. It was in Herat, a city in western Afghanistan, where Farhan befriended a boy who later became kidnapped. According to Farhan, when he and his friend were 16 years of age, his friend was kidnapped by human traffickers and sold as a slave. In an attempt to locate and rescue the friend, Farhan himself became threatened by the criminals.

In Afghanistan, prepubescent boys can be kidnapped and forced to dance and sleep with “masters”. The masters may share their dancing boys with acquaintances or business associates. When these slave boys enter puberty, they are deemed no longer attractive and are retired to work as security guards or assassins for their masters. Never once do these sex slaves attend school. If the boys attempt escape, they are at risk of recapture and murder.

Farhan summarized the history of dancing boys in his country. He blamed Soviet soldiers for introducing the practice of keeping boy slaves to Afghans. Yet when I performed a Google search, I discovered that boys have been used for sexual entertainment in Central Asia long before the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979. Farhan added that later under the Taliban’s strict gender roles, homosexual sex with underage boys became more common as men’s ability to meet women in public decreased.

Today, Farhan claims that dancing boys are most frequently kept by military commanders who are above the rule of law, and by older men in the north of Pashtun ethnicity. The veracity of this statement was outside the scope of my research. Farhan was quick to note that foreign militaries occupying Afghanistan today do not partake in the practice. In Farhan’s words, Pashtuns “hate Americans” and would never invite foreign soldiers into their homes were boys can dance and be shared at parties.

As our meal came to an end, I asked Farhan if children can be voluntarily sold to human traffickers by destitute parents. Farhan affirmed that no parent would do such a thing. I then inquired why boys were preferred as erotic dancers and slaves over girls. Farhan chuckled, “they (the masters) do not like girls”. We wrapped up our brunch and were off to meet Farhan’s older sister, Fareeda, with whom I spent the afternoon meeting her family and neighbors. Fareeda would invite me back for a family lunch she’d prepare the next day.

Day 2 with Farhan: From Tehran to Athens

On the second day that Farhan and I met, Farhan had previously spent five hours in line at the Greek asylum office. This was Farhan’s fourth attempt to pick up his residence card. He was finally successful. In Athens, there exist only two asylum service centers, one in the port of Piraeus and another near Katechaki Metro Station. Lines are notoriously long for submitting applications, picking up documentation, and attending asylum interviews. Farhan gave me an anecdote of how overwhelmed the asylum service centers are. A friend of his had once slept by the doors from 10pm the night before the asylum office opened just so that they could be third in line the following morning.

Despite Farhan’s morning at the asylum office, we took up his sister’s offer for a family lunch. After arriving at Fareeda’s home, Farhan flashed his new residence card. It was met with admiration from Fareeda and her husband. Farhan translated from Dari so that I could understand Fareeda and her husband. I discovered that Fareeda was married in an arranged marriage when she was 16 and her husband was 22. Their oldest child had been smuggled into Switzerland more than a month before we met. The multi-family apartment I was invited to now was a temporary accommodation established by the UNHCR, the EU, and a collection of NGOs.

Above: Fareeda, the sister of my Dari translator Farhan, prepares kabuli pilau for a family lunch I was invited to. Kabuli pilau is an Afghan steamed rice and lamb dish. The kitchen Fareeda uses is shared with other Afghan refugee families in an apartment rented by the UNHCR, EU, and local NGOs.

When I met Fareeda’s husband, he was returning from speaking to smugglers to see if he could bring the rest of his family to Switzerland. Before leaving for Greece, Fareeda’s husband worked as an architect in Tehran. While Fareeda prepared our lunch in the kitchen, Fareeda’s husband showed me photos of his work on his phone. We scrolled through apartments and garages with stone facades and intricate lighting. The architect beamed with pride when displaying the home he designed for his family but had to leave behind.

I learned from Farhan that his brother-in-law moved to Tehran for better opportunities a decade ago yet two years ago, his brother-in-law’s clients began to refuse pay for contracts. Farhan’s brother-in-law had little power to enforce contracts as a foreigner in Iran. As the money ran dry, the family decided to leave for Europe. It was then that Farhan travelled from Herat to reunite with his sister’s family in Tehran before the group set out for the Iran-Turkey border. The last set of photos shown to me were taken during this desert trek. In one photo, I saw Farhan’s brother-in-law pour tea from a kettle in a makeshift fire in the sand. Farhan looked over my shoulder at this photo. He chuckled, “We Afghans can’t live without tea”.

Above: Fareeda sets the dining table in front of her younger brother, Farhan. Fareeda, her husband, and their two toddlers live in a single room with sparse furniture but many stuffed toys.

Day 3 with Farhan: Tensions between Camps

As with the two days before, my last day with Farhan began in the same meeting spot: Victoria Square. I was waiting for Farhan at a corner store when a boy with a friendly smile approached. The boy asked if I was waiting for Farhan. He introduced himself as the friend of Farhan’s that would be taking us to Malakasa Camp. After a quick lunch of chicken gyros, the three of us boarded the train to Malakasa.

Malakasa Camp is a UNHCR-registered refugee camp situated 42km north of Athens. As of March 2018, it hosted 733 residents, 62% of which were Afghan nationals. Malakasa struck me as the Afghan equivalent of Ritsona, the predominantly-Syrian refugee camp which I volunteered at for three weeks in July 2017. In March 2018, Ritsona refugee camp hosted 581 residents, of which 74% were Syrian. Ritsona was located 74km northwest of Athens, which meant Malakasa and Ritsona were closer to each other than they were to Athens. I knew from my time volunteering that camps attempt to accommodate refugees of the same nationality together. I had also heard of the antagonism between Afghan and Syrian refugees, a likely motive for separating the groups into different accommodations.

The Afghan-Syrian divide was evident when I met another friend of Farhan’s living in Malakasa. The young man told me he requested to relocate to Malakasa after being initially placed in Ritsona. When I asked why he requested the change, he claimed that he “did not like it there (in Ritsona)” with a look of disgust. During my conversations with Farhan, he himself stated matter-of-factly that he despised Arabs. Arabs represent the ethnic majority in Syria. Farhan admitted he chose not to hang out with former volunteers from Leros when the volunteers also invited Syrian friends for reunions in Athens.

Farhan’s thoughts on religion seemed to be the cause of his animosity towards Syrians and Arabs. During the train ride from Athens to Malakasa Camp, Farhan and I discussed religion. Farhan initiated the conversation by asking for my faith. I acknowledged that while my friends have invited me to church and that I would occasionally pray with my Christian roommate, I did not adhere to a particular faith. I then asked Farhan for his faith. Farhan described that he was Sunni Muslim and that his friend, the Afghan teenager with us, was Shia Muslim. I listened as the two spent some time asking each other about how they interpreted various teachings.

Our conversation then took a turn to Farhan’s view on Islam. Farhan was convinced that Arabs were responsible for the “Islamization” of Afghan culture. Farhan explained that prior to the spread of Islam, Persians (ancient Iranians) and Afghans were of the Zoroastrian faith. Farhan believes that modern Arab countries install mullahs (Muslim clerics) in Afghanistan to spread ideas and control the Afghan population. He contrasted the Arab’s ideological soft power to that of former Soviet hard power in Afghanistan. If military occupation can suppress dissent through hard power, Farhan reasoned, brainwashing by religion is cheaper to subdue a country’s citizens. Religion is at the root of Farhan’s acrimony towards Muslim Arabs. Farhan feels deeply that radicalism and terror in Afghanistan is spawned by outsiders, and that outside influences seek to undermine Afghan authority and autonomy. 

I was fortunate to hear both sides of the story. During my summer in Leros, I had met a 23-year old Palestinian-Syrian Muslim Arab by the alias of Jamil, who like Farhan, I reunited with in Athens. Neither Jamil nor Farhan knew of my conversations with the other on their thoughts of the other. Jamil, whose story is featured in the next chapter “The Young Men of Athens”, was born near Damascus into a Palestinian Sunni family. Jamil thought that Afghans viewed themselves as ethnically superior to Arabs. From Jamil’s viewpoint, Afghans associate themselves as ethnically Persian, thus originating from the Persian civilization from Iran. I ran a fact-check online on ethnicities in Iran and Afghanistan. While there are overlaps in the ethnic minority groups between the two countries, there are also clear ethnic majority groups that differ between the two neighbors. This fact renders the Afghan ethnicity argument void—the majority of Afghans are not Persian. Even if Afghans descended from Persians, I did not understand why Jamil would think Afghans consider Persians better than Arabs.

Farhan and Jamil confirm that hostilities exist between Afghans and Syrians, even if the hostilities may be baseless. When it came to tensions between refugee groups, Jamil pointed out further antagonisms between additional refugee groups; namely, between Arabs and Kurds and between Syrians and Palestinians. In the first case, the Kurds, an ethnic minority inhabiting southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, northern Syria, and northwestern Iran, believe that Arabs are “all talk and no action”. According to Jamil, this Kurdish view is prevalent on issues like the containment of the Islamic State (the US armed predominantly Kurdish, not Arab, militias in Syria and Iraq in the fight against ISIL). Then in the case of Syrians versus Palestinians, Jamil portrayed how both sides had blamed the other for “flooding” Europe and thus forcing Europe to set up migrant quotas that benefit neither Syrians nor Palestinians.

Farhan and Jamil’s grievances counter the stereotype of a singular refugee identity. Whose views you believe in these skirmishes depend on your religion, country of origin, and ethnicity.

Above: A family of Afghan refugees invites Farhan and I to their container for tea. I was asked about my interest in helping refugees and about my family, including the number of siblings I have and if I were married at my age.

When Farhan and I departed at the end of our time together, he had one month left on his 6-month apartment lease. Like his sister, he was staying in temporary urban housing for vulnerable refugees, although he did not disclose to me why his case for asylum was considered especially vulnerable. Adding to his stresses, Farhan estimates that his UNHCR-issued cash card only cover his expenses for the first two weeks of a given month. In the gaps between when he receives deposits from the UN, Farhan increases the share of eggs in his diet to make up for lost meals. I cautiously asked Farhan what he would do when his free housing ended. With employment for refugees being rare in Greece, refugees without a source of income turn to the informal sector or return to the camps. Some resort to sleeping on the streets, squares, and parks where I have seen tents and sleeping bags.

The next chapter explores the streets of Athens accompanied with photographs of public spaces and Jamil’s story. Means of employment in the informal market are discussed in my final chapter. I now turn to Abdullah, a Syrian refugee who recounts his journey from Aleppo to Athens. Abdullah is frustrated at how Greece and Syria’s neighbors treat Syrian refugees.

A View from the Street: The Young Men of Athens

According to the Greek Ministry of Migration Policy, the largest demographic group of asylum-seekers and refugees in Greece are 18- to 34-year-old males (data between June 2013 and March 2018). The prevalence of young male refugees is evident in Athens. This chapter includes photographs of unaccompanied minors and young adults taken in Athen’s public spaces. From bus stops to squares and parks, migrant teenagers and men are transforming the social fabric of one of Europe’s oldest cities. The text of this chapter tells the story of Jamil, a 23-year old Palestinian-Syrian from Damascus. Jamil is the alias of a friend I met while volunteering on Leros.

Above: Refugees wait at a bus stop on the highway near Skaramagas Camp. Public buses connect Skaramagas Camp, in the port of Piraeus, to central Athens in 40 minutes.

I met Jamil when volunteering for a refugee charity on Leros island between May and June 2017. Jamil was residing on Leros’s “hotspot” migrant detention center and took classes at my charity’s community center. During my second week on Leros, Jamil departed for Athens after his asylum case was processed. The last time I saw Jamil was in the port of Lakki as the volunteers bid farewell to refugees heading to mainland Greece.

When I reunited with Jamil in Athens in December 2017, he had attempted to leave Greece three times in the period between his arrival in Athens and my return to Greece. His most recent attempt occurred a week before my return. Jamil had tried to board a plane heading to Brussels, without success. His next and fourth attempt at departure occurred during my first week in Athens. After our brief reunion, Jamil left for Patras, Greece’s westernmost port, on a brisk Thursday morning.

All of Jamil’s attempts to leave Greece were illegal. Born a stateless Palestinian in Syria, Jamil has never been issued a passport and was mistaken as Syrian when he landed in Leros by boat in November 2016. A few days after Jamil left for Patras, I was surprised to see him again in Athens’s Omonia Square. Jamil was downtrodden—he told me he had been detained by the port police in Patras for two days, after which he made his way back to Athens.

Should Jamil have been successfully smuggled out, he would have taken a boat from Patras to Bari, a port city in southeastern Italy. From Bari, he would’ve attempted to hop a bus from Rome to Brussels and apply for asylum in Belgium. But Jamil never made it out of Greece. The Patras port police discovered Jamil travelling without a passport. Jamil was slapped with a 30-day probation period in which he would be sentenced should he commit further offences in Greece. Jamil’s fingerprints and headshot were taken at the police station, and Jamil was issued a criminal record that would complicate any of his future applications for legitimate travel documents.

Above: Three teenagers support their unconscious friend as onlookers pass by on a street near Victoria Square. Jamil and I were walking between Omonia and Victoria Squares when we caught sight of a possible drug overdose. A group of boys seemed to be discussing what to do with a fourth boy whose body was limp. Jamil commented that undocumented migrants are unlikely to report crimes or check into hospitals. Undocumented victims fear seeking help for the risk of being deported should authorities discover they lack papers.

Being now grounded in Greece, Jamil confided that he would focus on “living rather than leaving”. Jamil hoped to work as an Arabic to English translator. While on Leros, Jamil passed the final level of English proficiency in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. He wished to further certify his English in order to be employed by one of the many refugee NGOs in Athens.

While employment is the goal for many refugees, expenses are today’s harsh reality. Beyond handouts from the United Nations and occasional remittances from family, refugees face daunting unemployment due to language barriers and a lack of skills. During my final week in Athens in January 2018, Jamil called me one night with urgent news: his landlord threatened to evict him and his roommates in three days if they fail to start paying €100 more per month. The landlord claimed Jamil’s apartment had a high electricity bill. Jamil’s news reflects the tenuous living situations, and the low bargaining power, of refugees in Greece.

Above: A group of young men warm themselves by a fire in Exarcheia Square. A group such as this one called me “my friend”, a common address to English speakers, and cautioned “no photos”. When I asked that group why I couldn’t take photos in a public space, one teen replied with a smile, “Because it’s Exarcheia”. The neighborhood of Exarcheia was described as the “heart of the political uprising in Greece” by a PhD philosophy graduate I had met at the National Technical University of Athens. I was told to put away my camera twice during the night I was in Exarcheia Square due to fears that I would capture the violent activists active in the area.

The second stranger who approached Jamil and me to stop shooting said he was “telling us nicely” and others, such as the anarchists, may “break your camera”. Photographing Exarcheia Square was as dangerous as it was emotionally intense. Jamil and I had visited Victoria Square on the same evening where I captured the unconscious boy in the photo above. That morning, I visited Eleonas Camp where I photographed a Pakistani man who had lost his fingers from frostbite while crossing Turkey. It was on this day of shooting that I felt the most predatory during my 25-day trip to Greece and Lebanon.

Jamil’s story is one of countless refugee stories in Athens. Jamil, 23, arrived in Greece in November 2016. He floated to the shores of Leros in an inflatable plastic boat with approximately 30 other refugees. Jamil’s migration began from his home in Rif Dimashq, the governorate surrounding the Syrian capital of Damascus. His family paid for the agricultural chemistry student to be smuggled into the north of Syria and eventually through the Turkish border. At the Turkish border, Jamil attempted multiple border crossings with a group led by a smuggler experienced in evading border police. After spending two weeks in Turkey, Jamil was on his way to Greece by crossing the Aegean Sea.

When Jamil arrived on Leros, he was informed of his rights to asylum in the yard of the Leros hotspot. Hotspots are island detention centers operated by Greek police to process asylum-seekers before transferring asylum-seekers to refugee camps. Jamil had his fingerprints taken on his first day in Leros and was ushered into a prefabricated container to live with six other asylum-seekers. Jamil spent his first 25 days in Europe inside the barbed wire fences of the hotspot where all migrants arriving by sea are detained. Jamil would go on to spend seven months on Leros while he awaited the results of his asylum application.

“I want to disappear.”

A 23-year old Palestinian-Syrian in Athens on the evening before his attempt to reach Belgium via Italy, December 2017.

A notable incident in Jamil’s memory of Leros occurred on the night of a soccer match in the spring of 2017. After watching a Real Madrid versus Barcelona match at a Leros bar, Jamil with approximately 15 other Arabic-speaking men were attacked by Greeks on the roadside to the hotspot. A group of local men had ridden motorcycles to club Jamil and his acquaintances with metal and wooden bars. The group sustained injuries on their backs, heads, and faces ranging from bruises to wounds that required stitches. Jamil himself obtained a bruise on his jawline.

Adding insult to Jamil’s injury was the police’s response to the hate crime. After being attacked on the street, the group knocked on the door of a nearby Leros home, where the homeowner alerted the police. The police arrived to escort about ten members of the injured group to the hospital while those with minor wounds returned to the hotspot on foot. After the hospitalized group was attended to, the police escorted the hospitalized group to the police station while also collecting the individuals who had returned to the hotspot earlier. The police then informed the entire group once reunited of the procedure to file a complaint, but according to Jamil, the officers left the group outside the police station to wait for an appropriate officer to arrive. Jamil’s group remained outside between 3:30am and 7:00am in the cold, with injuries, for an officer to come who could handle assault complaints. Despite requests to wait inside the station, Jamil’s group was only brought inside in the morning.

The group filed an assault complaint. A few days later according to Jamil, the police entered the hotspot announcing that the persons responsible for the attack have been briefly jailed. The police also suggested that the asylum-seekers should drop their complaint, lest the court proceedings involve travel between Leros and Kos, a nearby island holding the court that administered several Aegean islands. Travel between the islands for court proceedings would be “difficult” because of the asylum-seekers’ travel restrictions. The attack on Leros left Jamil with an impression of injustice by Greek police against asylum-seekers and refugees. Jamil believes the reprimand handed to his Greek attackers was too light.

Above: Men and women lounge and smoke at Monastiraki Square. Monastiraki Square is a busy touristic and commercial area located within walking distance of the Acropolis. I passed the square several times during my stay in Athens and I used the square as a meeting spot for some of my interview subjects.

Today, Jamil is an outsider residing in a country mired by two ongoing crises: debt and refugees. As a visible minority, Jamil faces barriers to integration in ways that were less palpable when he was a Palestinian Arab in Syria. When Jamil and I and entered stores in Athens, I sensed the occasional hesitancy directed towards Jamil by native Greeks.

“A real Greek tragedy.”

A recent philosophy PhD graduate from Greece’s on his country’s refugee crisis.

Jamil’s story differs from other Syrians in that he is twice a refugee. Jamil fled forced military conscription under the Assad regime as a young man nearing the completion of his university studies. Yet, Jamil is not a Syrian citizen. As a grandson of Palestinian refugees in Syria, Jamil was born stateless in Syria without Syrian citizenship. Jamil told me that in 1948 after the First Arab-Israeli War, Jamil’s grandfather left Jerusalem to settle in Syria. At first, Jamil’s grandfather believed, like so many other Palestinians, that displacement would last a matter of months. By 1956, Jamil’s grandfather re-established the family house in Rif Dimashq after losing hope of returning to the homeland. Jamil’s voyage echoes that of his grandfather’s half a century ago. Two generations later, war has yet again uprooted a young man at the start of adulthood.


Works Cited:

“Statistical Data of the Greek Asylum Service (from 7.6.2013 to 31.03.2018).” Hellenic Republic Ministry of Migration Policy, Asylum Service, 31 Mar. 2018. asylo.gov.gr/en/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Greek_Asylum_Service_Statistical_Data_EN.pdf.