Beirut, Lebanon, Dec 17, 2014 / 02:09 am
After losing their homes and their livelihoods, Syrian refugees in Lebanon are now finding their plight worsened by the financial costs, medical stresses, and prejudices that can accompany living in a foreign land.
"You can imagine how a person feels after working 35 years and losing your shop and house, basically losing your future. That's all gone," Mariam Hasan Hallak, 66, told CNA Nov. 1 in an interview at a Caritas Lebanon medical center in Beirut.
"We left Aleppo because of the security situation. There is a lot of bombing there. My husband's shop and our home were destroyed," she explained.
Hallak and her family are among the many victims of the Syrian conflict. Since March 2011, conflict between Syrian government forces and rebel groups has killed over 200,000 people and displaced millions more from their homes. At least 1.4 million Syrians now live as refugees in Lebanon, a country of only about 4.1 million residents.
Hallak and her family left Aleppo in early 2013.
She now lives with seven other relatives in a small Lebanon apartment: her husband, her three sons, two daughters-in-law, and a four-month-old grandson. Each married couple has a room of their own, while everyone else must sleep in the living room or outside on the porch.
It is a "huge difference" from their home in Syria, where they lived a "very comfortable" life, she recalled. Financial obligations are also accumulating.
"We are thankful for Lebanon but the cost of living is very high."
Her plight is a familiar one. The presence of so many refugees in Lebanon has put pressure on rental prices and the costs of other basic necessities, which have doubled or more in price. Increased competition for work means wages are half or less what they were before the Syrian crisis.
Hallak said the support her family receives and what income they can earn is "definitely not enough for a house of eight."
"The refrigerator is empty," she said. "We're indebted to everyone. $300 for groceries, rent for last month."
One of her daughters-in-law, 18-year-old Hasna Mohammed al Shaw, gave birth to a son named Mohammed four months before.
He was "very weak" and had to stay in an incubator at a cost of $7,000. While assistance from the United Nations provided $5,000, the boy's father had to go into debt.
The baby was unable to breastfeed for several weeks because he was in an incubator. The delay meant Hasna stopped being able to nurse, making the family reliant on baby formula.
"His father has asked to be paid in milk and diapers," Hallak said.
"It is impossible to continue in this situation," added Hasna.
Hallak's youngest son had sought to seek a waiver for an expired work permit. Lebanese officials told him to return to the Syrian border to renew his permit. However, if he visits the border he risks being conscripted into the Syrian army.
Another son worked for two months but was not paid by his employer. Refugees are at increased risk of exploitative labor practices.
Hallak's husband has a spinal injury and cannot work. Her own health has also suffered. She had a uterine growth that required expensive surgery. A doctor at the Caritas Lebanon clinic performed the surgery at no charge.
"Thanks be to God," she said.
However, she still needs a $400 surgery and problems with her joints have become "very expensive."
"I can't afford half-priced painkillers," she lamented. "Even if it's $13 dollars, I can't afford it. I prefer to buy food for my children and grandchildren."
Cedric Choukeir, head of operations for Catholic Relief Services' Lebanon program, told CNA that financial stress on refugees only increases the longer they are there. While initially they were relieved simply to be safe from war, their costs "start piling up," he said.
Caritas Lebanon's St. Michel Medical-Social Center is working to help with refugees' medical costs. It has served almost 3,000 families over the past two years.
The center, located in Beirut, provides for Lebanese, Syrians, Iraqis and others. Medical care and consultation is free for Syrian and Iraqi refugees, according to the center's director Zalfa Abi Antoun, a registered nurse. The clinic also aims to provide at no charge medications for chronic and acute medical conditions, though at times it charges half-price.
The center was originally a Catholic Relief Services facility run by the Chaldean Catholic bishop of Beirut. The center still shows these connections: a donor list in the center lobby notes support from the U.S.-based Chaldean Catholic Diocese of Detroit. Some offices still show the special flag of the Chaldeans in Lebanon: a Lebanese cedar overlays the traditional Chaldean flag.
The medical center was originally built in 2003 to help first wave of Iraqi refugees. Its management was later transferred to Caritas Lebanon.
Hallak's daughter-in-law Marwa, 18, said she is interested in the medical field.
"I was hoping to become a doctor later on," she said. She still wants to be a doctor "to help other people."
Marwa had finished her studies through grade 11 but had to stop her education because of the Syrian crisis.
Two of Hallak's daughters are still in Syria. While one was not suffering, the other lost her home and now lives elsewhere.
"I'm mostly worried about my children and grandchild," Hallak said.
She also voiced concern about the difficulty in registering her son's marriage and her grandson's birth.
"I'm worried about having children, seeing that we can't register," added Marwa. "We want the baby to have citizenship."
Hallak said the Syrians suffer discrimination in Lebanon.
"The Lebanese see us as part of Daesh," she said, using the Arabic word for the Islamic State group.
"We have nothing to do with them, we don't even know who they are."
Militant Islamic groups, including the Islamic State group and the al-Qaida affiliate the Al Nusra Front, are active in Syria and have been recruiting sympathizers in Lebanon.
Hallak said her family was "very scared" to hear that the Islamic State group had a presence in Tripoli, near Lebanon's eastern border, considering all the violence they have already fled.
"There's no place to run after that," she said.
Hallak has a cousin in Sweden and a neighbor in Germany. She hopes to leave with her family for Europe.
"It doesn't matter which country, it's important to get out of here," Hallak said. "I only pray to God that we can emigrate out."