Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

‘You feel like in prison here’: imagining a future in Lebanon through Syrian eyes

Sometimes keeping going is the only way refugees maintain hope.

Lea Müller-Funk
8 July 2020
Kesh Malek/Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution. Creative Commons.

Syrian refugees tend to describe Lebanon as a prison. Its legal restrictions and political fragility make realising their key life plans extremely difficult. For many, migration is a tool to imagine a better future elsewhere. Similarly, return is often imagined as a way to return to a lost life style. But being able to leave the country is often a matter of money and social networks. The majority of Syrians in Lebanon feel stuck.

Lebanon has one of the highest refugee to domestic population ratios in the world – an estimated 1-2 million refugees in a country of less than 7 million total people. A large part of these refugees today are Syrians who have arrived since 2011. They face huge legal restrictions. Entering, residing, and working within the country are all exceedingly difficult. They also lack legal protection, as while UNHCR is allowed to register Syrians and provide the most vulnerable with some assistance, the Lebanese government does not legally recognise their status as refugees.

Syrians registered with UNHCR are legally restricted to working in specific sectors, such as construction, agriculture, garbage collection, or hospitality, even though many have trained for other sorts of employment. Consequently, the overwhelming majority of Syrian refugees are now working in informal labour sectors in Lebanon. On top of this, their living conditions are further reduced by Lebanon’s overall economic situation, which has worsened in recent years. These are all reasons for Syrians to leave Lebanon. But since Turkey largely sealed its southern border in 2016 that too has become much more difficult.

“We are afraid about the days to come because there is nothing good coming.”

– Maryam

The Syrian refugees I spoke to in Lebanon often resisted as long as they could before deciding to leave Syria. They talked about what they used to want in life and what had happened to their dreams, wishes and ambitions in a context of war, displacement and exile. They longed for a life worth living and most strongly for a home they had lost – a house, a safe and dignified place to live. Young people were aspiring to start a family, to finish their interrupted studies, or to work in a particular profession. Parents were looking for education for their children. Activists dreamed about a democratic Syria in which the state would finally serve it citizens.

In a context where many had lost too much, families cherished the social ties they had left. Families stayed closely together. At the same time, as more women had to work, gender norms were on the move. The war changed how young people interacted, and what women expected and wanted from their lives.

‘I would be weak in Europe, weaker than in Lebanon’

Syrians’ life aspirations crucially influenced how they thought about migration. “I wish that Syria changes to a free society. That there is a state for its citizens, that there is democracy so that we can build it up and return to it”, said Amr, a young man. Amr was imprisoned after taking part in the demonstrations in 2011, and he left Syria after his parents received a warning that the security forces were looking for him. He said that he would only return to Syria if there were safe regions under the control of the opposition.

Amr sees his work among Syrian refugee communities as a way to continue his activism from abroad – as a way to be part of social and political change. Having a wide social network among Lebanese youth, he feels culturally at home in Beirut. He believes that he can have a more active and useful life in Lebanon than in Europe. As an activist, Amr also feels a personal responsibility for Syrian refugees. “I took the position that we, as activists, are partly a reason for Syrians to be here in Lebanon. Not the big reason, but we contributed,” he said. “All activists went to Europe and only the most vulnerable stayed. Who should work with them? Who should demand their rights?” At the end of our conversation, Amr talked about his determination to study political science in the future – not an easy plan to realise in Lebanon as most universities are private and expensive even for legal residents.

‘Life here is… you run, you run, and nothing follows, here is nothing towards the future’

The ability to flee or irregularly migrate is, to be blunt about it, a matter of money and social networks. Smugglers who can safely cross both internal and external borders are not cheap. Relatively few Syrians have managed to leave Lebanon legally, either through one of UNHCR’s resettlement programmes or by acquiring a visa or a scholarship. Doing so is exponentially more difficult when one is poor – one of the many ways war exacerbates inequalities. Traumatic experiences and poverty not only reduce people’s capability to aspire for a better future, but also coerce people in taking actions that are not safe. Some Syrians described their living conditions as so tough that they considered returning to Syria even though they did not believe it was safe. Others avoided imagining the future at all. They had seen their hopes shattered too many times to dare to think about it.

When I asked Maryam about her future wishes, her eyes met mine with an unbelieving stare. “I swear, I don’t imagine anything,” she said. “Every day that comes is worse than the one before. We are afraid about the days to come because there is nothing good coming, the worst is coming. We got depressed, thinking, thinking. It doesn’t help us with anything.” Maryam is a a 39-year-old mother of three from Homs, Syria, who has lived in a disadvantaged neighbourhood in Tripoli, Lebanon, for the past six years. I asked her to compare her life before the war to her life in Lebanon now. “We owned a house, it was furnished, you live happily in your country,” she said. “Then we came here, to the ground. In Syria, your house was yours, you owned it. Whatever you put in your house, you said ‘I am stable’. Here, they can just throw you out of your house or increase the rent.”

Maryam’s living conditions were extremely precarious, both legally and financially. Her two sons, aged 14 and 22, never went to school in Lebanon and were working to meet the family’s daily needs. Her husband worked as a day labourer in construction, leaving him without any income during the winter months. Despite their combined efforts the family could not afford the fees to renew their residence permits. She told me that they were once given the possibility to resettle through UNHCR, but had refused since it would have required her to leave her eldest son behind. “I left my family, I left my brothers and sisters, I left the whole world,” she said. “And then I should leave my children? I won’t leave them, ever.” This left them with few options: stay irregularly in Lebanon or attempt to move back to Syria, where, in Maryam’s estimation, they would never be safe as long as Bashar Al-Assad remains in power. As a result, she refused to think about the future.

Homs 2014-05-graffiti.jpg
Graffiti in a street in Homs, Syria, in 2015. It reads “Be sure that, when I leave, I did everything in my power to stay.” | acebook page Media Field Homs/Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution. Creative Commons.

‘I don’t want to arrive at a point where I cannot go anywhere with my life’

For many people imagination itself is a coping strategy – one imagines better futures elsewhere as a way to deal with a very difficult present. For Syrians in Lebanon, this can often mean envisaging further migration as a way to realise aspirations which are impossible to reach where they are. Some not only imagine alternative futures but manage to make them happen.

Hana was 25 when we first met over coffee at a hip café in Tripoli. She told me how she came to Lebanon. She had been nineteen, and, believing the situation would only last a matter of weeks, had moved in with her grandmother’s family. But the weeks turned into months and she started to volunteer and work with NGOs on informal contracts. Her personality started to change. She said she became more outgoing and more self-assertive. And she even won a scholarship to study business administration in Tripoli.

But she also became increasingly frustrated. She could not regularise her papers nor work in the field she studied. For her, a return to Syria is out of the question. “As a Muslim Sunni girl, I can only be safe and return if I support the regime,” she said. “And this I am unable to do. I cannot go back and here I have nothing which supports me. I don’t have the citizenship or anything else.”

Hana was determined to leave Lebanon and join her fiancé in Europe. “I do not see myself here in the future, even in regards to studies,” she said. “I am 25 now and I now know what I want and can define what I like. I don’t want to arrive at a point where I cannot learn anything. I know where I am going, and what the difficulty is, and that there is no return to Lebanon.”

Fast forward two years: Hana is now in Italy trying to find a way to reunite with her fiancé. She managed to get a humanitarian visa through the Humanitarian Corridors project, a self-financed pilot project which helps refugees to legally enter Italy through humanitarian visas and the opportunity for an asylum application thereafter.

These narratives point to the fact that refugee policies need to take refugees’ life aspirations seriously and build on them, rather than ignoring, crushing or trying to reshape them. Surely, many lives cannot be rebuilt as they were before the war. But many Syrians embrace change and have adapted their aspirations through exile. Policy responses must, at all costs, avoid creating such precarious conditions that hopelessness overshadows all dreams.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 748344.

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