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.