North Africa, West Asia

Radio Hakaya Podcast, episode 8: Randa - exploitation in Lebanon

Episode 8 of a podcast series about the socio-political climate faced by Syrians and their host communities through their own eyes as the pressure rises for refugees to return to Syria.

Radio Hakaya
28 March 2019, 7.09am
Illustration by Hannah Kirmes-Daly.

Radio Hakaya is a community radio project started by Brush&Bow in a refugee camp in North Lebanon. Radio Hakaya's podcasts feature individuals whose communities have been directly affected by the war in Syria and the displacement of Syrians to Lebanon. Each podcast presents a subjective opinion that, combined with the rest of the series, provides a mosaic of differing perspectives and experiences, exploring the reasons why people fled Syria, the living conditions in Lebanon and what the future might hold.

All recordings are taken, translated and edited with the help from members of the local community.

Interviews and Editing by Roshan De Stone & David L. Suber.

Editing and Translations by Fadi Haddad.

Illustrations by Hannah Kirmes-Daly.

This is the eighth and final podcast of an 8-part series. It is an interview with Randa, a young Syrian woman from the city of Der Eizzor, telling the story of how she was smuggled out of Syria to escape the war, and of the corruption and exploitation she experienced as a refugee in Lebanon.

In Syria, Randa was a farmer, living a hard but peaceful life in the countryside by the Iraqi border. When the conflict spilled out from the urban centres of Daraa, Homs, Aleppo, Damascus, it didn’t spare those parts of Syrian society who were not politicised for or against the regime.

Fleeing Syria, Randa found herself, like many poor Syrian farm workers, forced to work the land in Lebanon for $2 an hour. Half of her wages is then spent on paying rent back to the farmer for a run-down tent set in a field of his land.

To the eyes of many impoverished Lebanese landowners, people like Randa are a great opportunity for greater income, as the economic crisis in Lebanon has created a situation where many Syrians can be seen as cheap labour rather than a population needing protection. Randa’s testimony helps understanding the workings of a feudal system based on different layers of hierarchy and abuse.

Since the borders between Lebanon and Syria were closed in 2015, Syrians trying to escape the war are smuggled into Lebanon as cheap labour, sold with a huge debt they have to pay back to the landowner hosting them on his land. This debt binds refugees to the landowner, who usually charges for every possible service needed (rent for a tent, electricity bills) and regulates life and work in the camps, often through a Syrian Shawish (a camp leader).

Randa’s opinion of Lebanese landlords and Syrian Shawishes is not representative of the way in which all Syrian camps are organised. However, the majority of camps based around agricultural work present a similar structure.

As Lebanon does not allow for international or government-regulated refugee camps, international relief organisations and the UN refugee agency often end up inadvertently sustaining such a system of corruption and abuse, as the aid disbursed is often impossible to track down, whilst beneficiaries are difficult to hold to account.

When listening to this podcast, it is important to remember that only 20% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in informal camps, with the majority living in garages and small shared flats in cities and towns. In light of this, Randa speaks of only one of the ways Syrians have managed to survive in Lebanon.

Randa’s experience represents only a fragment of the very complex puzzle of memories and positions Syrian refugees have of their displacement in Lebanon. As such, it should be heard in relation to the contents expressed in the previous podcasts.

Listen to the podcast in English or in Arabic below

Read the transcript:

Podcast #8 Randa: Exploitation in Lebanon


Welcome to Radio HAKAYA – حكايا the official podcast series of Brush and Bow. These podcasts report on stories and challenges of the Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian communities in Lebanon. By focusing on individual stories, we hope to convey the complex realities of life here in Lebanon: people’s memories, present experiences and hopes for the future. We would like to remind you that the views published on these podcasts are the participants alone and do not reflect the opinions of Brush and Bow.

This podcast is an interview with Randa, a woman from Raqqa, now living in Lebanon’s Bekka Valley. Randa tells the story of how she was smuggled out of Syria, and of the hardships of crossing the border illegally. In this interview she denounces the oppressive system of work many refugees are forced into, whilst referring to the widespread corruption that not even international organizations can escape.


Lebanon! To think that I didn’t even know what Lebanon was.

We arrived to Damascus first, but the rent there was expensive, very expensive. So we slept on the sidewalk using cardboard to protect ourselves from the cold weather. One night, a bunch of guys came and sat with us, asking where we wanted to go. We told them that we were going to Lebanon. The guys took off their jackets and gave them to us, which kept us warm till the morning, until they came and told us to wake up, saying we had to leave and that they needed their jackets back.

That morning I asked a Syrian soldier to tell me the way to Al Somariyah, where there is a café called Mahmoud’s café which is where people who wanted to go to Lebanon gather. The soldier said he would take us there. The fee from Damascus to Mahmoud’s café is 6000 Lira but the driver took 14000 Lira; he shouted at me, he shouted at me: “give me all the money you have!” as if it was a robbery and we had to give it as we didn’t know what the right fee was.

We stayed waiting at the café from the morning until the night asking who can smuggle us to Lebanon, then we were informed about some smugglers who can traffic families. We negotiated with a smuggler who told us he could take us by car. He crammed so many people in that car. We went with him totally unaware of what was going on. He might have even killed us all. But he kept on saying “the destination is Lebanon, Lebanon, Mount Lebanon!”

I didn’t have the slightest idea what the mountain is. He pulled over at a place that was more of a disgusting garbage yard, saying ‘’wait here’’. We stayed waiting for about 1 hour, then he came saying it was time to go.

We asked: but where?

To the mountain, he replied

So, we hiked up, then slide down, then hiked up then slide down again, holding by the bushes to help us climb upwards.

Yes. And many of us had children with them, and some women were even holding their babies and couldn’t hike up; every step up they slid… Some people were helpful, they would help those with kids, or who struggled more, other were not. We hiked up the mountain always asking for the way…

When the Lebanese security started launching flares, everyone would hide next to some rock or bush, and if a child cried the smuggler would rebuke the mother to silence them, threatening to throw both off the mountain. You can’t neither torch a light nor whisper as the smuggler was ordering: “shut up, shut up! All the time till we crossed the border”

Going down the mountain we saw lights in the distance which told us we were getting close to the Al Beqaa, that we were in Lebanon. On the way down from the mountain they took us in an abandoned house with no doors or windows or anything. Here also, we used cardboard as mattress and our bags as pillows and slept that cold night, hungry without blankets.

Terrified from the journey, I fell sick for 4 days. I’ve never been so sick. I believed I would not survive this situation. The smuggler came saying he couldn’t take us down more because security forces were patrolling the area. So he said we should have stayed there, and then he left

Next day, another man came to find us.

He asked: Where do you want to go?

I said I didn’t know, we wanted to go to some Shawish. I didn’t really know what the word Shawish meant even…

He asked: do you have relatives here in Lebanon?

I said no

Then he asked how we arrived to Lebanon

I said I came among a group heading there, escaping the war with my children seeking for a safe zone to live and find work.

He took me and another woman along with our children and brought us to Akkar.

When we met the Shawish, the man took money from him.

It was an agreement between the Shawish and the smugglers to bring all migrating families to the camp. Don’t believe if they tell you otherwise, as all the smugglers work together with the Shawishes.I

it’s all about money. For example: the Shawish asks the smuggler how many workers he’s got

In our case it was four people. Then Shawish payed the smuggler $200 for us, and the next day he takes us to work in the fields. At that point we are compelled to work, as we possess nothing at all; no tent, no blankets, no anything. We even don’t know what the UNHCR is, for like most of the Syrians, we arrived at Lebanon unaware of what the UNHCR is or does.

The Shawish asked our family documents for registration

When I asked him: “but what do you want it for?”, he said it was to register the children to school.

At first, I felt relieved, someone was going to help us get things rights.

But then we found out that when every family arrives to Lebanon they have an assigned sum of money from the UNHCR to settle up their life, but the Shawish steals it. I give him our documents, happy he was going to register our children at schools, while instead he took our money from the UNHCR for himself.

There is no tent at first, so he tells you he will build one for you, and that the price is around 400 – 500 $. But he doesn’t accept the amount in cash money. Instead, he wants you to repay him with work in the fields. You have to work for him until you repay your debt. Every time you demand for something, he shouts: “you still haven’t paid your tent’s price yet!”

When your first working month ends and your salary is due, the Shawish starts his calculations. He puts you in a tent, and says the price is 500$, to which you have to add the smuggler’s fee, which is 300$, but he makes it 500$. Soon, you end up owing him about 800 to 1000 dollars, which compels you to work 1 year-round just to repay him, whole year round, just to repay him.

In some cases, it happens that Syrian families want to go back to Syria, for example to seek a medical treatment for their sick child they can’t afford here in Lebanon. Before leaving, the Shawish would buy the UNHCR credit card from this family, the card may contain $180, for the nutrition aid, the education aid, or the fuel aid.

So he will steal the money coming on that card from the UNHCR for the rest of the year, because the UNHCR doesn’t know that family has gone back to Syria.

Or for example, he may also sell things from this card to other refugees. Like he might receive a nutrition aid box that might be worth $75 and then sell it to me and charge me $150. This is what happened to us.

There are families that until now, still cannot repay their debts. For example: if they have a dispute with the Shawish or even a fight, they can’t leave the camp because of the debt they have with the Shawish. And because the Shawish is protected by the Lebanese landlord himself, he has all the power – because we do not have a kefala sponsorship, so we are technically illegal here, so he could call the police on us and get us arrested or charged for entering Lebanon illegally. This is how you will remain subdued to him. Or go and look for another Shawish, so that new Shawish buys you from the old one by settling your debts – but then he takes and makes you work in the fields and then that swap is just as bad if not worse…until you get lucky and finally later the UNCHR might start helping you.

When the UNHCR arrives at the camp, they first come to the Shawish. They never come to the tents to check the sufferings of each individual. They would rather go directly to the Shawish, who just says whatever he wants. Everybody is living in fear of the Shawish, but they cannot complain because if they do they will be kicked out from the camp and then where can they go? Some people don’t even know where Lebanon is.

This is what happened to us in our camp. The Shawish forced us to do work, even our youngest children after school. And with the money he made, he opened shops and brought a new car. He made all this money from abusing the Syrian refugees.

The Shawish lives in the camp but you should go see, he has 4 cars and his tent is huge, like a palace. He is supported by his relatives, he slaughters sheep on Fridays and invites the UNHCR officials to meals at his place.

There are monitoring committees, but there is little they can do, because the Shawish is more powerful than them.

For example, the Shawish may decide with the landlord to prevent the UNHCR from entering the camp if they don’t want them to come in.

This is the oppression we live under…

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