In a corner of Hamra Street amid the daily hustle and bustle, motorists and passersby may not notice this family of four — a single mother, two girls and a boy. Um Ahmed, in her late twenties, dressed in a blue veil and a burgundy coat, sits on the sidewalk and simply waits while her three young children play around her.
“We arrived in Lebanon three months ago from the suburbs of Aleppo,” she says. “My husband remained in Syria to protect our house but told me it was best if I take the kids and flee to Lebanon. ‘There’, he said, ‘are many organizations that are taking care of Syrian refugees’, but here I am, as you see, on the street waiting for the good hearted people to offer us anything.”
Try handing her money, however, and she will not accept. Instead, Um Ahmed asks for help finding a job, one that allows her to keep her children with her.
“We are not beggars, we are refugees — harsh circumstances have brought us to this humiliation,” she says. “My husband used to work at a texile factory in the industrial city, but it closed as soon as war arrived in the area. We were told the owner had frozen his business until the war ends; we lost our only source of income. We are a respected family — we own a house in Syria and we’ll return to it once my husband tells us it’s safe. We decided to come to Lebanon because we speak the same language, we are neighbors and we didn’t want to be living in tents in Turkey.”
As it is, the four of them live just up from Hamra Street in the Aisha Bakar area, sharing a one-bedroom apartment with her sister-in-law and her two children.
“We registered with the United Nations [UN High Commission for Refugees] but they didn’t tell us what to do after taking our information. The only aid we receive is a portion of food, and hygiene products, distributed twice per month from a Lebanese organization,” she says. “This is not how we imagined it would be before we dragged our children to Lebanon — we were told once we arrived humanitarian organizations would house us, feed us and wouldn’t make us feel any different. Your country is too expensive for us.”
Innocently, Hiba, Um Ahmed’s six-year-old daughter, asks me: “Amo [Mr.], are you going to give us money?”
“Shame on you Hiba,” yells Um Ahmed.
On a walk down Hamra Street, passing by the cafes, banks, bars and hotels, if you listen closely you will hear Syrian businessmen murmuring about their enterprises back home while they sip tea, or as they wait in line at the counter of a currency exchanger. They too, like Um Ahmed, are in stasis in Lebanon.
Until this past summer Aleppo was the industrial hub of Syria, with hundreds of factories providing jobs for tens of thousands of laborers from the city’s outskirts. Since the summer, war has engulfed Aleppo and the factories have almost all been shuttered or destroyed, leaving these people without a job, families without an income and, like Um Ahmed, many have become refugees living at the mercy of charity, waiting to return to their homes, their lives and their livelihoods.
Two years ago while I was sipping an espresso on a Hamra sidewalk café, I met Khodor. Back then Khodor was six years old. He approached me selling lottery tickets, and since that time I regularly see him at the same spot pushing his wares. Khodor is from Manbij, a city not far away from Aleppo. His father had lost his job in Aleppo and decided to move with Khodor to Lebanon for work, providing an income for the family they left behind. Last month I saw Khodor again, this time with his six-year-old brother and 10-year-old cousin, both begging with a few lottery cards as a cover from the police. Khodor said his whole family and his uncles have all moved to Lebanon.
“There were bombs falling around our neighborhood in Aleppo, my father worried for our family so he brought them to Lebanon,” he said. “We found a shack next to the Cola area where we all sleep.”
And such is the life of many a poor Syrian in Hamra: marginalized, living on crumbs and humiliation, awaiting the end of the conflict so they can return home.