Strangers in a neighboring land

For Syrian women seeking refuge in Lebanon from the violence at home, the fall of Bashar Assad cannot come soon enough.

syria jr 521 (photo credit: Matilde Gattoni)
syria jr 521
(photo credit: Matilde Gattoni)
“They were five, their faces covered with masks. They broke into the house and went upstairs. A few minutes later, they came down with my son Ali, handcuffed. They took him away with no explanation. ‘Keep your mouth shut, or we will kill you’ was the only thing they told me.”
Sitting on the porch of her new home in the Bekaa Valley, the eastern Lebanese region bordering Syria, Somaya struggles to hold back tears, while recounting the last time she saw her son alive.
Three days after he was taken away, Ali’s body was found in a ditch near Talbiseh, a small village close to the Syrian city of Homs.
“He had 11 gunshot wounds to his stomach, his left arm was broken and both kneecaps had been shot,” Somaya says, her gaze wandering around the bare mountains a few kilometers from the border.
Following her son’s death, early this year, Somaya moved to Lebanon, where she is trying to cope with the loss of her home and the anguish of a mother losing her child. “Ali was a simple taxi driver. He didn’t like politics.
During the protests against the regime he used to stay at home because he didn’t want to run into trouble,” Somaya says. “Since his death, I pray to Allah every day to rid us of [Syrian President Bashar] Assad as soon as possible.”
Somaya’s story is not unique. According to UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), since the start of the revolution against Assad in January 2011, more than 120,000 refugees have taken shelter in Lebanon. Fleeing a revolution that has escalated into full-scale civil war, many crossed the border illegally, defying bullets to save the lives of their children. Today, they live scattered among the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli and the myriad small villages along the Syrian border.
Many tens of thousands of Syrian refugees are unregistered and their situation is desperate.
Housed in basements, farm sheds or tents, they survive thanks to sporadic food handouts from local NGOs. The Lebanese government, which never signed the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees and does not have specific legislation to deal with them, has so far declined to set up proper refugee camps for Syrians, fearing they might be infiltrated by armed groups and rebels, as happened with the Palestinian refugees in the 1970s. In order to survive, some of the young Syrian children work as farm laborers, earning as little as 1,000 Lebanese pounds per hour (roughly $0.65).
“We don’t have money to buy anything,” says Wurud, a 50-year-old woman from the Syrian village of Zahra, who arrived in Lebanon with 22 other members of her family. “My sons are treated like slaves. They get paid half of what a Lebanese worker earns for double the work.” With no means to afford proper accommodation, Wurud’s family lives in a long, brick stable without windows or flooring, with a few mattresses as the only furniture.
“A few days after we came here, my husband suffered a heart attack,” Wurud adds, pointing to a middle-aged man lying on the ground beside her. A few meters away, their 25-year-old daughter Tara is sitting on a pile of bricks, lost in thought. Her husband decided to stay in Syria to look after his parents, but died a few days after she left. So far, nobody has mustered the courage to tell Tara the news. Unaware, she is still waiting for him to call.
Many of the women refugees in Lebanon live a life that can only be described as being halfway between prisoner and ghost. They try to avoid contact with the local population for fear of being caught by agents of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia and political party allied with Assad, who constantly scour the country for dissidents.
“Every time my husband is late home at night, I become hysterical,” says Samira, 28, her dark, expressive eyes gleaming against her olive skin. Six months ago, she lived in Hama with her four children, the oldest of whom is 11. Her husband, an opposition supporter, had already fled to Lebanon months earlier. On the nights when Hama was being bombed by the regime forces, Samira’s only dream was of rejoining him on the other side of the border.
“It was the worst moment of my life,” she says. “One night the bombing was so fierce that we had to hide in the basement. My sons were so traumatized they couldn’t sleep for two days.”
One night, the long-awaited phone call finally came. “My husband just told me to be ready; a friend would come by car to fetch me.”
The 80-kilometer trip lasted for 13 interminable hours, during which Samira and her children traveled in four different cars, and had to pay a total of $400 in bribes to Syrian soldiers manning checkpoints on the way to the border.
Today, Samira and her family live on the outskirts of Tripoli, but their problems are far from over. The stairwell of the dilapidated building in which they live is filled with puddles of water and piles of garbage, while their balcony overlooks a rubbish dump. The monthly rent of $100 is prohibitive. Her husband is struggling to find a job and is quickly running out of money. “We don’t know how we will pay the next month’s rent,” she says, before being overwhelmed by tears.
The families who managed to reach Tripoli are the luckiest ones. Predominantly Sunni, the city has become the main stronghold of the Syrian opposition in Lebanon. Here refugees can enjoy proper health services and relative security.
But in Bekaa the situation is totally different.
Divided among Shia, Sunnis and Christians, the region has witnessed raids carried out by the Syrian Army, as well as arrests and kidnappings of Syrian political activists and opponents of the Assad regime. Hezbollah controls much of the region, and makes life difficult for refugees and the people helping them.
“They visited me several times to warn me and search the house, but I don’t fear them.
What can they do to me?” asks Hassan.
Middle-aged, with grey stubble covering his face, Hassan is a Lebanese man who supported the revolution from the very beginning.
He travels to the border daily, collecting the newly arrived refugees, and tries to find them accommodation among his friends and relatives. “It’s a mission for me,” he explains, sitting on a plastic chair in his orchard.
So far, Hassan has managed to settle 2,000 Syrian refugees in a village of just 9,000 inhabitants. His friend Mustafa, a lightskinned and freckled Lebanese with curly red hair, is currently hosting a family in the basement of his home. “In 2006, when Lebanon was attacked by Israel, Syrians helped so many Lebanese,” he says. “Now it’s our turn to help them.”
Among his guests is Mona, a 28-yearold Arabic teacher who escaped from Al- Qusayr, some five kilometers from Homs, with her husband and two young sons. “We fled after my brother-in-law was killed in a bombardment. He was a member of the Free Syrian Army,” Mona says. “There was no point in staying there, it was becoming too dangerous.”
She now stays in the house all day watching TV with her children, but Mona has not given up hope of going back to Syria and teaching again. “Too much blood has been spilled for freedom,” she says.
Mona is not the only one missing school.
Sixteen-year-old Zaynab comes from the neighborhood of Al-Khalidiya, one of the opposition strongholds in Homs. Until last January, she was at the top of her class. “I was very good at Arabic and science,” she insists, struggling to hide her pride.
But Zaynab’s dream of becoming a doctor was brought to an abrupt end when she was forced to quit school after some soldiers kidnapped, raped and killed three of her schoolmates.
Zaynab lives in Tripoli with her father (her mother is dead), brother and a retarded sister she has to look after.
Despite her current situation, the teen’s faith in the future is still intact. “I was expecting the revolution to be brief and successful,” she admits. “But I am still hopeful. Assad will fall soon, and we will be able to return to Syria victorious.”
Her optimism is not shared by other refugees, who are feeling the burden of neverending clashes, deaths and deprivation. “I don’t know how this war will end. We cannot even understand who is fighting whom anymore,” says Badia, a 51-year-old woman who came to Lebanon for treatment for her daughter, after the latter suffered brain damage during a raid by security forces at their home in the Bab Dreib neighborhood of Homs. “If this is the revolution, if it means that I cannot leave my house to buy bread, then I don’t want it.”
“This war is a heavy burden on our shoulders. Many of us have lost husbands and sons, and now we have to take care of our families on our own,” explains 27-year-old Rasha, who fled the village of Soran on March 1 and is now housed with her family in a stark tworoom apartment in Bekaa.
Rasha has no faith in the regime or the revolutionaries. She would rather settle in Lebanon, where she hopes her children will receive a better education and she herself can feel emancipated. “It doesn’t matter who wins this war. In Syria women don’t have rights from the day they are born. As a Syrian woman, I don’t know what freedom means.”