Coffee With Refugees

In Lebanon’s Mountains, Syrians Face a Grim Future


The teacher never imagined he would live in a tent.

He once taught high school philosophy in Homs. He holds a Masters Degree. But now he lives with several dozen other refugee families in a huddle of tarp shelters in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley. The walls were made from discarded billboard vinyl. Laughing kids poked their heads in through a hole.

On his phone, the teacher showed me his former home — a wonder of pearly marble, surrounded by orchards. “My life’s work” he said.

The house is long since destroyed by bombing. In Homs, the Assad regime shelled fleeing civilians — the teacher among them.

“I don’t mean to be rude since you’re American, but I have to be honest.” he said, and threw his hands up at Obama’s “red line” on chemical weapons. Shelling had killed many times more people, he told me. When a mortar lands near you, your eardrums can burst.

Outside, I saw a boy with orange burn scars covering half his face. When I asked an adult what happened, he pointed to other children, each with red rashes on their cheeks. “We tried to take them to the hospital, but they wouldn’t treat them. They said they should go get treatment in Syria.”

The teacher and his family. His tent is one of the nice ones, with it’s own generator. Curious kids kept peeking in during our interview.

According to the government, there are no camps in Lebanon. But you only have to drive into the Bekaa Valley to see that this is a lie. Every two hundred yards is another shanty town -- tents, kids not in school, tiny stoves meant for wood but now burning plastic bags. The refugees know this will kill them. They do it anyway. They have no choice. Several refugee children would freeze to death by the end of December. It is cold in these camps that do not exist.

The Lebanese government estimates there are 1.3 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, making them 1/4th of the country’s population. Refugees’ opinions on the revolution are mixed. One refugee told me, “We were fine. Then the Free Syrian Army came. Things went to shit from there.” Another said “God bless the Free Syrian Army.”

At the beginning, Syria seemed like one of the 2011 uprisings that spread from Tunisia to Tahrir Square — crowds in the streets mobilizing against the old world’s cruelty.

But when schoolboys in Dara’a graffitied slogans they’d seen on Tunisian youtube, police arrested them, tearing out their fingernails in jail. The police chief was Assad’s cousin.

You can only machine-gun so many peaceful protests before they become a revolution.

Now, Syria has become the stage for interlocking proxy wars. Assad’s propped up with Russian cash, Hezbollah fighters defending their fellow Shi’ites, and Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Fears of Islamic extremism held the West back from arming the Free Syrian Army. Soon, the original rebels were indeed overshadowed by Islamic extremists. Flush with Gulf money, extremists had better arms and accordingly wielded disproportionate power to their numbers.

Fundamentalist brigades swelled with foreigners come to fight Assad. They brought with them an interpretation of Islam largely alien to Syria. Chechens who could barely speak Arabic demanded little girls wear face-veils. Masked Britons wielded M16s bought for them by programmers in Qatar. When not fighting Kurds, a Dutch jihadi named “Chechclearr” Instagrammed kittens cuddling AK-47s. He hashtagged them #fluffy #mujaheddin.

As foreigners entered the battle for Syria, Syria descended into hell. Cut off from food by a government siege, infants starved in Damascus suburbs. Assad’s bombs targeted hospitals. Polio, once eradicated, paralyzed kids. The Islamic extremists of ISIS staged public beheadings- once mistakenly of an allied fighter. Regime soldiers raped women with rats.

In the age of camera phones, war crimes are harder to conceal.

While the state news agency tweeted rundowns of swank Damascene nightlife, opposition accounts showed starving men butchering a lion from the city’s zoo. Syria’s war is viewable in realtime on social media. Some thought this would lead to empathy. Mostly, it did not.


Syrian refugee child

We stopped at four camps in Barelias, a town in the Bekaa. At each, we drove to the entrance, found a man, and asked him if we can come inside. We must always ask a man. Each time, refugees crowded around us. Kids wanted to practice their English. It was better than the Arabic of many Middle Eastern Studies majors. Adults want to describe their bureaucratic agonies with the UN.

The UN High Commission for Refugees has asked for $1.2 billion to cover Lebanon’s refugees. Of that, 73% has been granted. Because of this, they are focusing “only on the most vulnerable refugees,” which means many families have had their relief cut off. Lucky refugees get $27/month for food. One camp I visited had never seen any aid workers at all.

“Doctors visited us. They took our names, numbers, said they’d call us. It’s been eight months and we still haven’t had a call. They said they’d open a school. Nothing happened.” one refugee told me. Another described how he had walked for hours to get to a UN registration site. Refugees stood all day, corralling young kids. At the end, many were sent away with nothing. “With no reason,” he said. “No excuse.”

“My husband joined the Free Syrian Army.” a hard-looking woman told me. “I told him not to. He thinks he’s a hero.” Despite the infant in her arms, the UN denied her food vouchers. She could come back in two months and appeal the decision, but there was no guarantee it would work.

Many tents are made of UN tarp, but, a Kurdish scrap-metal dealer told me, this does not mean that the refugees got supplies for free. The scrap dealer is Syrian but has lived in Barelias for decades. He described himself as “pro-Assad till the end.” He said that, rather than go from camp to camp, the UN would give supplies to male authority figures, who then sold them for profit. The UNHCR would also give vouchers to long-time Syrian residents of Lebanon, on the strength of their Syrian passports.

“A donation is like a snowball. It shrinks and shrinks, until by the time it comes to you, it’s like this…” He pinched his forefinger and thumb.


“ISIS hacked my brother apart,” a former mechanic told me. We stood in a camp whose residents came from rebel-held Aleppo. “He was a cab driver. I don’t know why they did it.”

The largely foreign fighters of ISIS have tried to force their interpretation of Islamic law on Syrians overnight. They banned barber shops (men should have beards) and women’s clothing stores (women should wear abayas). In a country where chain-smoking is a universal pleasure, they imposed a smoking ban at gunpoint. One refugee, Mohammed, said that even fitted trousers, like those of his lovingly-mended suit, were banned. According to Mohammed, ISIS fighters would place their hand on anything they wanted- a car, a house, a woman — and say “Allahu Akbar” three times. Then, it was theirs.

Some oil wells sat on Mohammed’s land. When revolution broke out, his then-neighbor armed his cousins, turning them into a private army to defend his own wells. “He’s rich now,” Mohammed laughed. “I used to lend him money.” Mohammed didn’t have the stomach for violence. He fled.

Mohammed’s son rolled a tire in the mud. Though it was late November, he wore sandals. “They’ve got no schools here” his mother told me. “All the children do is get dirty. I have to clean them.”

In October, Mohammed’s infant daughter grew sick from the toxic trash refugees burn. The hospital charged him $200. But, when he can find work, Mohammed only makes $3/day. The hospital took his ID as collateral. With no papers, he fears arrest.

Child

Mohammed’s wife showed me the camp’s tents. They were neat inside, even lovely. Dirt floors warmed with carpets. Tarp walls edged with fringe and flowers, hung with tiny pillows that say “I Love You.” Several families had satellite dishes. One woman made a vanity from shards of broken glass.

But the tents are freezing in winter. The dirt floors turn to mud when it rains. Before the refugees came, this land held nothing but garbage. After they arrived, the owner flew back from Denmark, put up fences, and began charging them $500 a year in rent.

The refugees have spent their life savings on rent and building supplies. These tents will be their homes for a while.


Fatima and her family

More than two hundred thousand people have been killed. I want a good government and a good president or nothing,” said Fatima, a grandmother from Homs. “Anyone who lived through this revolution can’t go back to the way things were.”

When protests broke out in 2011, Fatima was among the first to attend. Her kids told her to stay home. She didn’t listen. “Usually, it’s the other way around,” Fatima said. “Mothers try to keep their children away.”

Fatima’s family lives in an unfinished building next to the camp. She is one of the lucky ones. The building’s owner, a family friend, lets them stay for free. It’s unheated, but it’s inside.

Two of Fatima’s sons disappeared into regime jails. Her husband lost a leg to gangrene. If it wasn’t for his disability, she told me, she’d be a field nurse back in Homs. Fatima had taught herself nursing during the revolution. She was forced to abandon one patient, an FSA soldier, when regime troops took their area. Assad targets medics. When she returned, her patient was dead, his eyes gouged out.

“I love the Free Syrian Army.” Fatima said. “They are like my children.” I asked her what she thought of America’s reaction to the revolution. “America is a bigger liar than Iran or Hezbollah. They have a vested interest that the conflict is protracted. If they wanted to end, they would have ended it long ago.” In Fatima’s opinion, America allowed the war to keep going because of deals with Iran and Russia. “Meanwhile, we pay in blood.”

Fatima’s grandson toddled around, asking for one of my markers. “I have a cat.” he shrieked. His kitten fled.

The media often bathes refugees in pathos — big-eyed, brown-skinned, children — their faces dirty and their hands outstretched. But this pitiful image negates their stories of courage and resilience. It negates Fatima, rebel and a grandmother, her laughter booming as she poured coffee into our cups.

If the media ignores refugees’ heroism, many governments deny their humanity. Refugees are often people with no place. No passports, protection, or pull. They don’t fit into neat boxes. To the state, it would be better if they didn’t exist.

In Greece, asylum seekers, fleeing war in Afghanistan, are held in internment centers that the media is banned from at gunpoint. Australia quarantines Sri Lankans on Christmas Island. Mexicans escaping cartel violence end up in the sadistic prison camps of Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Already, Lebanon is beginning to quarantine Syrians. In some towns, Syrians, who do many menial jobs, are banned from going out at night. Lebanese villagers burnt a camp. Some Lebanese fear that the Syrian refugees will bring the war with them, much as Palestinian refugees were seen by some as bringing Israeli attacks on Lebanon’s south during the country’s civil war.

While I was in Lebanon, the Assad regime shelled the Lebanese border town of Arsel, supposedly to punish rebels. In the month since I left, Beirut­ has been hit with two car bombs, in tit-for-tat retaliation by two sides of the Syrian war. Dozens were injured or killed.

“I’m scared we’ll stay refugees, like the Palestinians” Fatima said as we gave our goodbyes. There are 500,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, descendants of those driven there by the creation of Israel in 1948. The Palestinians had intended to stay for weeks. It’s been sixty five years.

Chatila

The next day, I visited Chatila, a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut. In 1982, Israeli soldiers let Christian Phalangist militiamen slaughter hundreds of the Palestinians they were supposed to be guarding. Posters of victims still hang in the streets. One reads “Our martyrs’ blood runs through our veins.”

According to a Lebanese friend, the penalty for bringing a brick into Chatila used to be months in jail. Because proper construction was forbidden, the camp grew inwards. Some streets are so narrow you must walk single file. The sky is blocked by a spiderweb of tubes- some for water and some for electricity. They fall on residents during storms.

I bought coffee from a street vendor. He told me that he used to be a cab driver, but the police took his cab away. You were not allowed to drive a cab if you were Palestinian.

Palestinians are legally discriminated against in Lebanon. They are banned from most decent jobs. They cannot register property or receive treatment in public hospitals. They might have been born here. Their parents might have been born here. They will never have the rights of citizens.

Accompanied by the coffee vendor’s son and Mae, a Lebanese Red Cross volunteer, I sat sketching. Street kids crowded around me. I drew them. Then a boy, perhaps eleven but taller than me, hissed that I was making maps “so the Jews could bomb the camp”. He told Mae that she was a Shi’ite who would be slaughtered. He grabbed my arm, hard, trying to gouge out skin.

We turned to leave. He grabbed my hair — harder. Grabbed my ass. The other kids shoved him away.

Chatila. The streets are covered with images. Posters advertising Hamas, portraits of Arafat, and murals of Al-Aqsa mosque, with the text “We will return.”

In the car, Mae was distraught. Those children were stuck there, she said, in crumbling homes with no futures. And what had journalists done? Journalists had covered Palestinians since 1948, and yet Chatila was still like this. She once loved Steve McCurry, who took the iconic photo of Sharbat Gula, “The Afghan Girl.” National Geographic made millions off that photo. Now Mae hated him. The photo had benefited Gula herself not at all.

Are journalists vampires? We go to Syrian refugee camps, and brave, generous people tell us how their brothers were hacked to death. Then we get another article. We speak on another panel. They stay in tents.

One justification, perhaps less true in the age of social media, is that without journalists, the world can forget refugees exist. Or at least forget them more completely than they already do.

The Lebanese government bans Syrians from living in metal-roofed shacks (called box shelters). They must remain in tents. Anything more permanent might encourage them to stay.

Under tarps, Syrian families wait for winter.

On the second week of December, snow began to fall.


Thank you to George and Firas, who worked as fixers and translators for this article. Fixers do the hard stuff. Western journalists just hop along for the ride.

All refugees’ names have been changed.