Searching for livelihood in Lebanon

This story follows the lives of Ahmad, Sanaa and their children Tamer and Fatima, a family of Syrian refugees in need of a decent living in Baalbek, Lebanon. Faced with economic hardship and an anxious host community, the family seeks out a marginal existence after having fled devastation in their home village three years ago. By focusing on Ahmad’s search for a livelihood, we trace the impact of DRC’s work to provide income to Syrian refugees - and their vulnerable Lebanese neighbours.

By Alexandra Dignan

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The home of Ahmad, Sanaa and their two children –Tamer, 6, and Fatima, 4. Syrian refugees, the family fled air raids and intense fighting near their small rented farm in a village not far from Damascus with only what they could carry. Arriving in Beqaa in the winter of 2013, they now rent a small garage on the outskirts of Baalbek. So far they have managed to avoid living in the informal tented settlements that have sprung up on roadsides and town outskirts throughout Beqaa. Makeshift accommodation at best, the garage will at least shield them from the worst of the region’s cold, snowy weather come winter. In contrast to other areas of Lebanon, the Baalbeck-Hermil governorate is deprived and remote, experiencing dry, hot summers and cold, often snowy winters. Its long border with Syria has resulted in an enormous influx of refugees, numbering over 360,000 in 2016, fleeing the devastating conflict only kilometers away.


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The family watches television in their garage. This small space functions as the family’s bedroom, living quarters, and kitchen. They use an outside toilet a short walk away. Despite the evident inadequacy of these living arrangements, Ahmad and Sanaa pay 100 dollars a month to live here. The huge influx of Syrian refugees into the area has enabled landlords to charge high prices for accommodation even as rudimentary as this, an issue which has also resulted in resentment amongst poorer Lebanese renters. Tamer and Fatima spend most of their time playing with the owner’s children. Gregarious and bright, at nearly seven years old Tamer is just old enough to remember his home in Syria, unlike his younger sister Fatima. Sanaa recalls Tamer asking where his grandparents were when they first arrived in Lebanon; having lost contact with many of her relatives amidst the conflict and ensuing chaos, she was unable to give him an answer. Ahmad and Sanaa were registered with DRC as new arrivals to the region, receiving newcomer assistance in the form of basic household items such as mattresses, kitchen utensils, and hygiene equipment. Hanging on to accommodation they can barely afford, the family feels their vulnerability acutely; because Ahmad cannot find regular work, they are forced to buy essentials like food on credit. The UN estimates that nearly 90% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are, like Ahmad’s family, trapped in a vicious cycle of debt.


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Knowing Ahmad’s families’ precarious financial situation, DRC arranged for Ahmad to fill several spaces on Cash for Work projects in the area, where Syrian refugees and low-income Lebanese workers are paid to work together on projects beneficial to the local community. Direct cash transfers to those facing financial crisis and vocational trainings teaching skills such as carpentry and sewing are, like participation in Cash for Work projects, offered by DRC on the basis of need regardless of documented or undocumented status. This provides refugees living on the margins much-needed access to cash injections. In Lebanon, Ahmad and his family have no special legal protection to turn to. The majority of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are undocumented, meaning that they have not received formal permission to remain in the country. While most crossed the Lebanese border during Lebanon’s open-door period towards Syrian arrivals, in January 2015, Lebanon began to require all refugees in Lebanon to undergo an annual, costly residency renewal procedure. The prohibitively high price of obtaining residency permits - $200 dollars a person – is not one most can afford to pay, leaving hundreds of thousands to live under the constant threat of deportation. Undocumented migrants fear interrogation, beatings, and imprisonment if they are caught.


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Ahmad shares a joke with Nassif, a local resident who owns a shoe sale and repair shop along the road Ahmad helped paint. Nassif recounted how residents were happy and excited that the painting was taking place; he and others brought the workers coffee, a traditional mark of welcome. Milling outside to watch them paint, Nassif and his neighbours also carried equipment for the workers up and down the street. Relations between Baalbek residents and the large number of Syrian newcomers are complex and at times tense, with sporadic localized outbreaks of violence. Yet Nassif describes himself as sympathetic to the plight of Syrian refugees, who flee disaster in Syria to live precariously on the fringes of the Baalbek community. He is pleased that the project of repainting his street managed to benefit both Syrian refugees and his local neighborhood. Many Baalbek residents rely on tourism for their livelihood, though the troubled economic and political status of the region means that many would-be visitors stay away. With the street repainted, the local municipality sponsored a three day artisanal crafts exhibition in the street. 80 local businesses and associations attended to exhibiting their wares, and the event drew people from throughout the region into Baalbek. The Deputy Mayor is already making plans to hold another.


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Ahmad, Sanaa, Tamer and Fatima relax outside their garage. Before participating in the Cash for Work project, Ahmad had been forced to run up a large debt with local food stores to feed his family. The income earned on the project allowed him to repay this, with the remainder put towards next months’ rent. The family has climbed out of debt for now: but while work for a Syrian refugee is still hard to come by, Ahmad and Sanaa’s financial situation will remain precarious. Ahmad and Sanaa’s single largest ambition is to see their children educated; for this, they wish to return home to Syria. For now, the continuing conflict in their home region leaves them trapped in Lebanon.