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Behind the Fear: The Voices of Refugees in Lebanon

Interviews

by Rouba Bou Khzam

Shortly after Executive committed to conducting interviews with 10 foreigners of Arab origin, a state of anger prevailed in the Lebanese streets that was directed towards Syrian refugees specifically, but also resulted in a buildup of larger frustrations around perceived mishandling of a refugee crisis within the country. 

On April 7th, 2024, Lebanon was shaken by the murder of Pascal Sleiman, a member of the Lebanese Forces Party. The Lebanese military authorities issued a statement on April 8th that read, “The Intelligence Directorate of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) arrested most of the people involved in the kidnapping in Jbeil. Their investigation revealed that the kidnappers were trying to steal the car when things went tragically wrong, resulting in the death of the abducted person. The kidnappers then transported the body to Syria.”  Attacks on Syrians and the damaging of their dwellings and motorbikes erupted in Jbeil and Beirut, while angry protesters—seemingly affiliated to or supportive of the Lebanese Forces—blocked major highways.

Accordingly, I, as head interviewer, faced a significant challenge. All the interviewees were increasingly afraid of being interviewed and having their names or faces scrutinized by readers. They absolutely refused to be photographed.  For this reason, Executive decided to conduct the interviews without pictures and offered the option of anonymity.  Most of the names have been changed except for Kawthar, Mousa and Majida, who consented to the use of their real names. My constant reassurance was, “I’m here to convey your stories and voices and not to hurt you.”  The interviews were conducted both online and in person—in coffee shops, universities where some are students, and in the building where one interviewee works as a concierge. I tried to gather stories from people living in different areas of Lebanon (Beirut, Nabatiyeh, Akkar, and Mount Lebanon) and even reached out to an individual online who is currently in Spain. 

The stories I heard were heavy with hardship. They spoke of discrimination, bullying, and violence. Some considered themselves to be refugees, though a few rejected this label. I sensed the weight of hopelessness in their voices and a desperate yearning for a haven. The common thread? All except one voiced a fervent prayer for a chance to reach Europe, a place they see as offering dignity, human rights, and a secure future, away from the harsh realities they face in both in Lebanon and the places from which they fled.

The majority of the interviewees insisted that, as Kawthar expressed, “we are neither happy nor comfortable here as Lebanese people might think.  We face daily hardships and bear the blame for the actions of others only because we are refugees and can’t return home.”

Through these interviews, I delved into the complex lives of refugees in Lebanon and heard stories that challenged my perceptions, unveiled hidden struggles, and ultimately, reminded me of our shared humanity.

Khalil, a Palestinian refugee

“We came to Lebanon, and all I know is that we are landless and there is no land to which we can return,” says Khalil, a Palestinian refugee currently living in Ain al-Helweh camp. Born in 1996 in the village of Hamama, Majdala District, Palestine, Khalil came to Lebanon just two years later in 1998. 


In 1948, a devastating event for Palestinians called the Nakba or “catastrophe” took place during which, according to the United Nations, 700,000 Palestinians fled conflict or were expelled from their homes in what is now the state of Israel and were not permitted to return. Many sought escape in neighboring countries, including Lebanon.  

Among those who fled to Lebanon in 1948 was Khalil’s father.  Years later, in 1995, he went back to Palestine to reunite with his family and Khalil was born the following year. The family moved to Gaza and after three years returned to Lebanon and took up residence in the Ain al-Helweh camp in Sidon.

Khalil’s early years were characterized by both hardship and a sense of community. He acknowledges the role of UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, in providing basic necessities and education. However, navigating life as a Palestinian in Lebanon presented challenges that continue to this day.

Security limitations are a daily obstacle, Khalil explains. “There are four entrances [to the Ain al-Helweh camp], and there is a check point at each entrance marked by the Lebanese army. We have to show ID and we are subjected to inspection.” These delays, he says, “caused me to miss the first class of many classes” during his university studies.

Finding employment presents an even greater difficulty. Despite holding a Bachelor’s degree in radio and television and a Master’s degree in business administration from the Lebanese International University (LIU), Khalil’s Palestinian nationality has repeatedly disqualified him from jobs in his field of media and communications.

“Rejection from multiple jobs in my area of expertise occurred,” Khalil explains. He recounted an experience with an international organization in Sidon, where he excelled as a volunteer, transitioning to a paid volunteer role. When a media office position opened, he applied. “After the interview, they told me that because you are Palestinian, you cannot be employed,” he said. “They apologized, stating they weren’t aware of my nationality. While I held high hopes for the position, disqualification solely due to my nationality was disheartening.”

Khalil further highlights a paradoxical situation regarding his contradictory status as both Palestinian refuee and foreigner.  “They tell me I cannot register the house [I live in] because I’m a refugee, yet when I apply for a job, they say I’m a foreigner and can’t be hired because of quotas.  So how can I be a foreigner for work but a refugee when it comes to housing? There’s no clear definition of ‘refugee’ in this country, and that’s very frustrating for me.”

Despite the difficulties, Khalil has secured a stable job with a pension, but he is still worried about long term security. “If I were to start a family, I would not want them to reside in Lebanon,” he says. His aspiration is to find a country offering stability and a true sense of belonging, a right that continues to be elusive for him in Lebanon.

Kawthar, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon who was granted asylum in Spain

“I’m like all the Syrian refugees in Lebanon who needed an opportunity to leave, and I finally had it,” says Kawthar over a Zoom interview with Executive. Kawthar is a 24-year-old Syrian woman who had the opportunity to go to Spain with her family for asylum. 

In 2013, the Syrian conflict forced Kawthar’s family of five to flee their hometown of Levant, Syria. The experience left her with lasting memories of the conflict, including the sounds of army aircrafts, missile strikes, and widespread destruction. “Our house was completely destroyed,” she recounts, “and I lost many relatives during that time.”

At the age of 14, Kawthar arrived in Lebanon with her family. They settled in Khiam, southern Lebanon, where her father, a tailor, found work for a low wage, but education was still out of reach for Kawthar. “My father’s income, which could only cover rent, electricity, and basic food, was insufficient to afford my school and transportation fees,” she says.

After five years in Khiam, the family relocated to Nabatiyeh. Here, Kawthar enrolled in free workshops wherever she could find them. She took sessions that taught hairdressing, and others that offered drama therapy and psychological support. During this time, her father has a medical condition requiring two major surgeries and rendering him unable to work. The responsibility of supporting the family shifted to Kawthar and her 18-year-old brother.

Kawthar encountered discrimination while working in Nabatiyeh at a gift and toy shop. “Being new to the job,” Kawthar explains, “I made a mistake. I placed merchandise on the shelf before the owner arrived. When he saw it, he shouted at me and threatened physical violence in front of the entire store. The next day, because I needed the income, I returned to work only to be told I was no longer needed and to go home immediately. I left the store crying in the rain.”

Further hardship struck when Kawthar’s brother was injured. “My brother was the victim of a hit-and-run accident,” Kawthar recounts. “The perpetrator fled the scene, and we were unable to identify them. My brother sustained broken legs and was unable to work for a significant period.”

Following the accident, for a four-year period, the family submitted medical reports to the United Nations. Their intention was to secure assistance with food supplies or medicine for her brother and father. “However, in an unexpected turn of events, the UN resettlement program contacted us, offering asylum in Spain,” she says.

On March 11th, 2024, Kawthar and her family arrived in Spain. They currently reside with a host family and will transition to their own housing within six months. The Spanish government funds her language courses, facilitating her future education. Kawthar aims to pursue a career in accounting in the future. 

“In Spain,” she concludes, “everyone is treated equally. Nationality is not a factor. Here, we feel we are treated with dignity and respect. For the first time, I feel valued as a human being.” Kawthar concludes that, “with this newfound security, I don’t consider returning to Syria, Lebanon, or any Arab country.”

Kareem, a Syrian refugee living in Tripoli, Lebanon

Kareem, a 21-year-old Syrian refugee who requested anonymity, sits down to talk with Executive over a Zoom call. He recalls a childhood shaped by the Syrian conflict. Though his village, Jeb Alis in the Aleppo countryside, remained relatively peaceful, his family fled to Lebanon in 2013 fearing the escalating violence.

“We came when I was ten,” Kareem says.  Their family of six grew to seven with the birth of his sister in Lebanon.

Education, however, posed new challenges upon arrival in Tripoli. Kareem transitioned between three public schools, initially attending afternoon classes designed primarily for Syrian students. “The frequent changes were due to me adjusting to the Lebanese education system and curriculum,” Kareem explains. These afternoon classes offered a sense of familiarity with classmates who shared his experiences.   “Having other Syrian students around made things a little easier at first,” he says.  However, there were downsides. “The quality wasn’t high,” he says. “Teachers were often recent graduates with limited experience. Plus I missed out on core subjects like English and important electives like art, sports, and religion.”

One specific incident stands out in Kareem’s memory. “There was this class about citizenship rights,” Kareem recalls. “The teacher was explaining what rights people have, but then she said something strange. She said Lebanese people have all these rights in their country, while Syrians don’t because it’s not our home. I was upset – rights are for all regardless of nationality.”

In high school, Kareem secured a spot in the regular morning classes alongside Lebanese students.  This transition marked a positive step. “The Lebanese students were welcoming, and I felt comfortable learning with them,” he says. 

Kareem’s experience of balancing work and studies is a common reality for Syrian students whose families typically face significant economic pressures. A study on child labor among Syrian refugees in Lebanon conducted by researchers from the Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS) at AUB in 2019 found that 58 percent of Syrian refugee households live in extreme poverty, unable to access basic survival needs. This forces children like Kareem to contribute to the family income, often at the expense of their education.

“Every day, I had to work in the mornings in a mini market; attend classes for four hours in the afternoon, then return to work at night,” Kareem explains. “All my earnings went to my family to get food and live.”

Despite these challenges, Kareem persevered. He actively improved his language skills through extra efforts at home reading and studying English. After finishing high school, Kareem secured a place at the Southern New Hampshire University in Tripoli, where he is currently enrolled in his first year of business studies.

Kareem’s future hope lies in Europe. “The situation in Lebanon is worsening,” he observes. “Recent events in Jbeil [the murder of Pascal Sleiman] led to shop closures for many Syrians in Tripoli. While we haven’t faced personal issues yet, the fear is constant.” With relatives in France and America, Kareen hopes that joining them one day will open up better economic opportunities. 

Lamia, a Syrian refugee in Akkar, Lebanon

 “We were baking bread at home,” says Lamia, a 21-year-old Syrian refugee recalling memories of her life in Syria. “There was a huge shortage of flour, sugar, and other essential food items that limited our options. Shops were closed, making daily life difficult.” In 2014, the conflict escalated in her neighborhood due to the siege on her hometown of Homs, and Lamia fled with her family at the age of 11. 

Their arrival in Akkar, Lebanon, marked a new chapter for Lamia and her family. Initially, they shared a single home with relatives, effectively creating a three-family household with each occupying a single room. Lamia described these initial living conditions as “very difficult.”  After two months, her father secured a separate residence, allowing them to establish a more permanent home for their family of seven.

“We registered with the United Nations,” Lamia recounts, “but there was no assistance for us as a family because they considered that my siblings being adults could work and spend.” Left without UN support, the family was forced to rely on their insufficient savings during this initial period.

Education also presented hurdles for Lamia.  Upon arrival in Lebanon in 2014, she was enrolled in a Kuwaiti charitable school in Akkar specifically designed for Syrian students.  She spent a full year there completing grade six, but the school’s certificates were not recognized by the Lebanese education system.  Transitioning to a public school in Akkar for seventh grade, Lamia encountered bullying from classmates due to her accent.  “The seventh grade was one of the most difficult grades for me,” Lamia recalls. “There were many days when I would come home crying and say that I would give up and not continue school because I didn’t understand the subjects and the language was very difficult for me, especially the French language. If it were not for my family’s support, I would have stopped studying.”

Following high school graduation, Lamia secured a full scholarship through the Lebanese Association for Scientific Research (LASeR) Spotlight Scholarship Program. This scholarship allowed her to enroll in online business administration studies at an American university.

Lack of Wi-Fi access at home meant that Lamia had to find creative ways to study online with the laptop provided by the association. “I went four days a week from Akkar to Tripoli [two hours of daily commuting] to access LASeR’s center for internet connectivity,” Lamia says. In her second year at the center, a teacher recognized her potential and offered her an online teaching opportunity as a private instructor in mental accounting for a company based in the Emirates.

“I am happy that I am studying and working but there is fear we experience daily,” Lamia says.  She described an unsettling experience that forced them to relocate within Akkar. “One year ago, we were living in a building with several floors,” Lamia recounts. “Our Lebanese neighbor on the first floor was getting annoyed by the sounds and the garbage [from the building’s residents]. He threatened us with weapons, and told us, ‘You want me to hurt one of you lightly until you learn?'”  Lamia maintains her family wasn’t responsible for the disturbances.

According to Lamia, the tensions between Lebanese and Syrians that accelerated after the murder of Pascal Sleiman in Jbeil led to the closure of many Syrian-operated shops in Akkar. These tensions, along with struggles to file and update paperwork, cause concern for Lamia’s future. “My passport is not renewed and we don’t have residency,” she says. “These situations create anxieties as we look toward the future, with the possibility of my father or brother being detained or even all of us being deported.”

Mousa, an Iraqi law student seeking medical treatment for his daughter

Mousa, an Iraqi national and father of two daughters, has been coming to Lebanon since 2012 for medical treatment for his eldest daughter, who has cerebral palsy. He initially made periodic visits but settled in Lebanon in 2018. This decision aimed to facilitate his daughter’s regular physical examinations and pursue a degree at the Islamic University of Lebanon, where he is currently a law student.

Mousa emphasizes his legal status in Lebanon. “I am not considered a refugee,” he clarifies. “I have a student residency permit and maintain a private business in trade back in Iraq. My primary reason for being in Lebanon is my daughter’s health. I return to Iraq every month or two for work and family vacations.”

Treatment costs in Lebanon are a significant concern for Mousa. While acknowledging the lack of specialized physical therapy centers in Iraq, he notes the higher expenses associated with treatment in Lebanon. “The situation was better when a dollar was equal to only 1,500 Lebanese pounds,” he says, referring to the Lebanese currency depreciation following the country’s economic crisis. The dramatic weakening of the Lebanese pound has significantly inflated the cost of treatment in Lebanon, creating a double challenge for Mousa where he is responsible to afford his daughter’s care while also paying for his studies at the Islamic University of Lebanon.

Mousa’s younger daughter attends school in Lebanon and is currently in the third grade. “While she’s definitely improved in her language skills,” Mousa says, “the annual tuition fee of $3,500 creates financial strain for the family. This burden is particularly heavy considering the overall rise in living costs in Lebanon.”  Mousa worries about his ability to continue affording his daughter’s education, especially with the potential for further tuition increases.

Despite not experiencing the continuous personal discrimination that many refugees speak of experiencing in Lebanon, Mousa perceives a difference in treatment based on his nationality. “While I haven’t faced issues in day-to-day interactions,” he says, “there are situations where my Iraqi background seems to affect how I’m treated.” He cites examples in healthcare, where he says costs can increase after he reveals his nationality; and in public security, due to the lengthy and often frustrating residency renewal processes.

“Last year,” Mousa recounts, “I submitted our residency papers for renewal in January.  Despite expecting a one-month turnaround, I wasn’t able to receive the passports until August. This eight-month delay significantly hindered my travel to Iraq for work, creating disruptions to my business and impacting my ability to support my family.”  The stressfulness of these bureaucratic hurdles make it difficult for Mousa to manage his life in Lebanon.

Mousa’s future plans remain uncertain. The availability of improved medical care for his daughter in Iraq is a compelling factor for return. Technological advancements and the establishment of specialized centers there offer hope for his daughter’s continued progress. However, his educational pursuits in Lebanon complicate the decision for Mousa, who has invested time and effort into his law studies. Leaving before completion would, for him, represent a significant loss.

Ali, a Palestinian refugee university student 

“My grandfather came with a dream of returning to our land. But after all this time, even that dream feels out of reach.” These are the words of Ali, a Palestinian refugee who has called a tent in Burj al-Barajneh camp his home since 1948, when his grandfather fled Palestine during its occupation. 

Born in 2004, Ali benefitted from UNRWA schools and completed 12 years of education.  With the help of the Unite Lebanon Youth Project (ULYP) Bridge Program’s SAT prep course, he secured a scholarship to AUB, LAU, and universities in Canada and Turkey. 

While exciting, the scholarships still left a financial gap, like the Canadian one which covered only 70 percent of the expenses.  Ali chose to pursue a nursing degree at AUB with additional assistance from the Palestinian Student Fund (PSF). In January 2024, after four semesters, Ali reluctantly transferred to Beirut Arab University (BAU) where the financial burden would be less strenuous.

Echoing the frustrations of many Palestinians in Lebanon, Ali pointed to the lack of basic rights for refugees.  “We cannot find good job opportunities,” he said. “There is no opportunity to open a private business. If we want to buy a house, we have to register it in the name of a Lebanese person we trust. It cannot be registered in our name.”

Ali’s decision to study nursing—a field facing a shortage in Lebanon—was strategic; he hopes the need for nurses will outweigh his refugee status. Ali currently earns income as an online private tutor to help cover his university fees. Alongside his work and studies, he also founded the FEKRA project, aiming to provide vital academic guidance and deliver online classes and SAT sessions to students in need and raise awareness around issues facing vulnerable communities. 

Ali shared the emotional toll of the ongoing war in Palestine; “Palestinians like us are destined to endure oppression and injustice indefinitely.” Ali explains that this sentiment arises from personal losses, including deaths of relatives and others with whom he’s lost contact. 

In order to travel outside of Lebanon or apply for a visa to a foreign country, Ali must first secure a Palestinian travel document from Lebanon. Refugees who are not registered with UNWRA can only be granted a document valid for one year, while those registered with both the General Directorate of Political Affairs and Refugees as well as with UNRWA can apply for a five-year travel document.  Despite repeated visits to General Security and long waits of over 12 hours, Ali found himself caught in a bureaucratic maze, his paperwork repeatedly rejected without clear explanations. “Every time, officials questioned my education at AUB, mockingly asking ‘Who pays for you? Do you speak English? Describe a situation in English,’ and they laughed.”

“Building a life here isn’t possible,” he says.  His hope lies in a program offered by the PSF every two years, a chance for Palestinian nursing students to work in England.  This opportunity is driven by a desperate need for safety.  Ali painted a grim picture of his current camp – dangerous electrical wiring that often runs through accumulated rainwater and claims lives through electrocution, and a constant threat from loose weapons and thefts, often attributed to the influx of Syrian refugees.  He concludes with a statistic highlighting the demographic shift: “Out of 50,000 residents, 35,000 are Syrians, leaving just 15,000 Palestinians. This situation needs control.”

Abu Ahmed, a Syrian concierge in Verdun, Beirut

In the heart of Beirut’s bustling Verdun district, sunlight streams through the entrance of a modern apartment building, illuminating the kind face of concierge Abu Ahmed. He greets each resident with a friendly word, a helping hand with groceries, or a quick fix for a squeaky door. 

By 2010, life in Abu Ahmed’s hometown of Al-Hasakah, Syria, had become a relentless struggle for Abu Ahmed. Juggling his duties in the Syrian army with long hours at a local sweets shop and private transport work, Abu Ahmed struggled to make ends meet.  But it wasn’t just the workload; simmering political tensions and frequent panic-inducing situations related to the impending conflict created a climate of fear and instability. Newly married with a young son, Abu Ahmed made the difficult decision to leave his family in Syria and build a more secure future for them in Lebanon.

The construction industry was booming in Lebanon, and Abu Ahmed found steady work in various Baabda workshops until finally landing a job as a concierge in Verdun in 2011. Despite the stability, Abu Ahmed still hoped to be reunited with his family.

In 2014, he embarked on a perilous 1200-kilometer journey back to Syria. Passing through Raqqa, then under ISIS control, he encountered hostile faces and a newly unfamiliar landscape. Recalling one encounter at the border, Abu Ahmed says, “When the foreign official was looking for my civil ID I gave it to him and asked him if I could smoke a cigarette.”  What Abu Ahmed saw as a simple request was met with aggression.  “He started screaming at me hysterically and threatened to cut off my head,” Abu Ahmed says.  “He kept repeating, ‘You are a corrupt generation. You are a corrupt generation.'”  In addition to the threats, the sounds of shelling nearby added to the raw fear.  Witnessing this violence firsthand left no doubt – he had to get his family out of Syria.

“On the bus back to Lebanon,” Abu Ahmed remembers, “strict rules were enforced.” He says that women were segregated at the back, completely covered, adding, “My son didn’t even recognize his mother because of the full blanket.”

Since then, the dream of returning home has remained unfulfilled. In 2021, Abu Ahmed and his wife took their four children back to Syria, “to return to my country… forever.” However, the reality on the ground was far from welcoming.

Kurdish control in his area presented a new set of challenges. “There was a fierce battle,” he recounts. Schools, now under Kurdish control, offered a curriculum incompatible with his values. Overcrowding, constant clashes, and a sense of volatility made the situation untenable.

“I stayed there for only 28 days,” he says. Lebanon, once viewed as a potential refuge, now felt like the only option.

The thought of escaping to Europe has crossed his mind, but the fear of losing his family at sea is a powerful deterrent. “All I can do now is focus on my children’s education.” He diligently teaches them foreign languages at an afternoon institute in hopes that these skills will one day pave the way for life in a European country where Abu Ahmed imagines a brighter future for them.  “For me,” he continues, “the dream remains – a return to a peaceful Syria, not as a transient visitor, but as a man rejoining his family, finally whole again. Lebanon has provided shelter, but here I’ll always be an outsider,” Abu Ahmed concludes. “The danger of being Syrian, it never truly leaves us.”

Hanan, a Palestinian mother born in Syria and now a refugee in Lebanon

Hanan, her voice hushed, talks about the events that led her to Lebanon.  Born in Syria’s Yarmouk camp, a Palestinian refugee by origin, she is no stranger to displacement and hardship. Yet, she says nothing prepared her for the horrors that unfolded in 2011-2012.  “Every time [we heard a bombing] my little daughter asked me, ‘Should we go to the shelter now?'” Hanan recalls.

Eventually, one fateful strike destroyed their entire home, leaving them with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Hanan, her husband, and their daughter, and some extended family members fled Syria in 2013, seeking refuge in Hanan’s grandmother’s house in Nabatiyeh, Lebanon. It was a desperate scramble for safety, and they were forced to share the cramped space with eight other families. Here, basic necessities were a luxury. Without electricity, the two light bulbs of the residence were powered by a single UPS. During the winter, the only source of heat came from a coal furnace that offered a small measure of comfort.  Pregnant at the time, Hanan describes the anxiety that accompanied the physical discomfort, “I even slept with my hijab on because there were many men with us in one house,” she whispers.

Hanan explains that with the help of Hezbollah, her family was able to secure a small apartment for $350 a month. “Hezbollah gave us the rent for 3 months and they helped us with blankets to sleep on,” Hanan says. Her husband and brother, determined to provide for their family, took on work as plumbers. “They worked day and night and were very tired for a very, very small amount of money that only brought basic foods,” she says.

Lebanon’s economic strain and social tensions fostered an environment of prejudice towards Syrians.  Hanan says she faces constant verbal abuse, fearing to even walk the streets.  This atmosphere of hostility extended to her daughter, whom Hanan says is ostracized by classmates at school.

The uncertainty surrounding her husband’s fate adds another layer of anguish.  In 2022, in a desperate attempt to build a better life for his family, Hanan’s husband hired a smuggler to help him reach Germany. His first step was to reach Turkey, a common transit point for refugees seeking to reach Europe.  From there, he connected with a smuggler, striking a deal for passage to Germany.  When the smuggler demanded double the amount that was initially agreed upon at the Turkish border,  Hanan’s brothers—already in Germany—appealed to friends for help and managed to transfer the additional funds.

Upon reaching Greece, a key entry point for many refugees into Europe, Hanan’s husband was apprehended by authorities.  Detained and eventually returned to Turkey, he found himself trapped in a cycle of repeated attempts and failures. His communication with Hanan during this time was sporadic.  He tried various routes, but was ultimately captured again and transferred back to Idlib, Syria. “The last message I received from him was at the first of Ramadan [March 10th, 2024], that he is now in Idlib and do not call him on this number,” she says. The lack of communication since then has left Hanan fearful and uncertain.  

The toll of war and exile has been immense.  “We are fighting death to get out of here,” Hanan concludes.

Norma, a Syrian student at a public school in Verdun, Beirut

In the heart of Beirut lives Norma, a 17-year-old Syrian student with a determined spirit. Unlike most teenagers, her memories of Syria are gleaned from photographs and stories, not lived experiences.  Born in Lebanon in 2007, just 20 days after her family arrived, Norma considers herself Lebanese in all but nationality. “We don’t consider ourselves refugees,” she clarifies, “We have residency, a sponsor, and legal papers. We visit Syria regularly, and no one bothers us.”

Norma has fond recollections of her early school days at Shakib Arslan public school in Verdun, Beirut. She excelled academically, developed strong friendships, and was well regarded by teachers, and school officials. For Norma, her Syrian background wasn’t a barrier, but rather a facet of her identity.  However, the 2019-2020 school year coincided with a period marked by a confluence of crises in Lebanon.  The country was teetering on the brink of economic collapse, with widespread protests erupting in October 2019.  Then, the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 both exacerbated the spiraling economic situation and forced schools to transition to online learning.  “It wasn’t the same,” Norma says.

Her dream of becoming a doctor, fueled by a desire to help others, faced a new obstacle – instability.  Adding to the chaos, teacher strikes demanding better pay began in earnest in 2020.  These strikes resulted in frequent school closures and a fractured curriculum, significantly impacting the learning experience for students like Norma.  “These disruptions affected my grades,” Norma explains, “as did my father’s financial situation.  A private medical university is simply out of reach.”

Despite the setbacks, Norma remains undeterred.  She’s set her sights on a new goal – pharmacy.  “It’s less expensive,” she explains pragmatically, “and there’s a need for pharmacists in my hometown in Syria.”  A flicker of hope lights up her eyes as she talks about the possibility of returning and contributing to her community.

Norma’s father, a symbol of resilience, embodies the complex relationship between Syrian refugees and Lebanon.  Despite the hardships, he resisted calls to register with the UN for potential resettlement in Europe.  “He sees Lebanon as a second home,” Norma explains, “a place with shared Arab customs and traditions.”  He worries about raising his children in an unfamiliar cultural landscape.

Recent events in Jbeil, where tensions against Syrians flared up, have troubled Norma.  “It upsets me,” she says with quiet conviction, “that one mistake by a Syrian makes people think all Syrians are bad.  It’s wrong.  Lebanon is home, and just like there are good Lebanese people, there are good Syrians too.  We just want to live in peace and dignity.”

Majida Al Shahab, a 22-year-old Syrian refugee university student

“Lebanon, this multicultural country that allowed me to learn, gain experience, and network with others, is also the country that I’m planning to leave from because of difficult financial and societal reasons.”  These are the conflicted words of Majida, a Syrian refugee whose story reflects the tightrope walk many refugees face in Lebanon.

Majida, originally from Deir al-Zuhur, Syria, once lived a normal life. Her father, burdened by a chronic back problem, managed to support their family of nine through agriculture. But the war tore their world apart.  Their home was destroyed, and on top of the constant dangers, they faced additional threats due to her father’s past. In the 1990s, he had spent time in Lebanon, and certain groups in their Syrian region now considered him an outsider. Fearing persecution, they fled to Lebanon in late 2012, leaving their homeland behind with no chance of return.

“When we first came to Lebanon,” Majida explains, “we were registered with the United Nations due to our need for income and protection. Initially, they provided us with a monthly stipend of around $45 per family member. But this assistance has dwindled to the point where we no longer receive any support.”

Despite the hardships, Majida sought normalcy for herself and her family.  She enrolled in public schools in Aainab, Mount Lebanon, where they lived, as these schools were practically free. However, her experience there was far from ideal.  Majida faced racism from her classmates.  They ostracized her, refusing to talk to her.  This culminated in a disturbing incident during an exam.  “When my classmates were cheating,” Majida recounted, “they threw their cheat sheets to me when they thought the teacher wasn’t looking. The teacher assumed I was the one cheating and punished me.  My family had to intervene.  This experience made me feel like a target, like they saw me as an easy mark.”

Majida says she responded by pouring herself into her studies, where she felt she could excel.  She also actively participated in volunteer activities, telling Executive that her hope was that her accomplishments and dedication would bridge the gap with her classmates.

Her hard work paid off.  Majida’s high grades secured her an 80 percent scholarship to study medical lab sciences at the University of Balamand.  Financial aid covered an additional ten percent, and to bridge the remaining gap, Majida works part-time at the university lab.

Despite her academic success, her future in Lebanon feels precarious. Unannounced raids on their home and recent events in Jbeil have heightened anxieties within the Syrian refugee community.  Majida dreams of a stable future abroad, a job with a pension that allows her to support her family and eventually bring them to safety. “We condemn crime,” she says, “but not all Syrians should be punished.” Her story exemplifies the ongoing challenges faced by refugees in Lebanon, where even academic success can’t guarantee a sense of security.

The interviews were originally conducted in Arabic. 

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Rouba Bou Khzam

Rouba is a journalist at Executive magazine
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