Solidarity and exile in Lebanon: Syrian refugees and their hosts

This is the first of three sets. Click here to view the second set.

Seven years into the war in Syria, fears that the conflict would lead to renewed fighting in Lebanon have not been realised. An estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees now live across Lebanon, either with Lebanese host communities or in informal tented settlements. But while Lebanese communities have shown solidarity with Syrians fleeing the war, tensions have arisen over limited resources and growing insecurity.

Captured by photographer Diego Ibarra Sanchez, and Syrian journalist Ali Alsheikh Khedr, these stories - the first of three to be released - give an insight into the lives of Syrian refugees and Lebanese hosts in Akkar in northern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley. 

Nationally, political and media narratives about refugees are becoming more hostile, with increasing calls for the return of refugees back to Syria. Divisive narratives – on reinforcing national borders and restricting the movement of those fleeing war and conflict - are also being echoed internationally, as anti-immigrant sentiments become troublingly mainstream. In this context, the personal stories of Syrian refugees and their hosts are rarely heard. These photos explore Syrian and Lebanese peoples’ experiences of exile, separation, solidarity and support, bringing humanity back to the centre of the Syrian refugee crisis.

Diego Ibarra Sanchez is the co-founder of photojournalism magazine MeMo and an award-winning documentary photographer based in Lebanon. His work has appeared in numerous media outlets including The New York Times, Der Spiegel and Al Jazeera.

Ali Alsheikh Khedr is a Syrian activist and co-founder of Syrian Eyes who has worked for a range of civic and social groups, and as a journalist, filmmaker and photographer for local and international organisations such as Amnesty, DeWelt, Make Productions and ARCS.

Sayid*

77-year-old Sayid* fled the war in Syria and moved to Lebanon in 2012. He has three sons and six daughters, all of whom are displaced across Syria and Turkey. Photo: Diego Ibarra Sanchez

“I fled Syria with my wife in April 2012. Initially my family remained in Aleppo, but when the situation got worse, they moved with their own families to other parts of Syria and Turkey.

Here in Lebanon, I work as a watchman for a forest in Bakaa Valley. Although in the winter I don’t get paid, I get free accommodation in exchange for my work. In the summer, I get paid to do different tasks like watering trees and taking care of the land. So I save as much money as possible through the summer in order to survive the winter. Yet sometimes we still can’t afford to buy bread.

I used to rely on my children to take care of me after I lost my hand in a truck accident in the 1970s. Now I’m 77, the situation is very difficult for my wife and I.

My wife worked in a factory when we first arrived in Lebanon, but she was also too old to work in this way, so she stopped. I used to work as a watchman for another Lebanese landlord. But he asked me to roam the land all day long without rest. He had no consideration for my age or my health, and I was sacked.

Until I met my current landlord - who offered me free accommodation in exchange for work - we received minimal support from this country for us to live. A few months ago, I received a text message from UNHCR to say I will no longer receive food support. If this is the case, our only option will be to return to Syria. However, it’s not that simple now. Without residency papers, my wife and I will have to pay a penalty fine of US$400 for every year we have been here (five years in total). That amounts to US$2,000, which is impossible for us to pay”.

Fayeze

Fayeze arrived in Wadi Khaled, North Lebanon, three years ago after leaving Syria with her two children. Photo: Diego Ibarra Sanchez

“I ran away from the crazy situation in Syria. I contacted a taxi driver who brought us here three years ago. Now in Wadi Khaled, we are so close to the border. We can almost touch our home.

One of my children is 17 years old. He can’t work or relocate for a job without [Lebanese] residency in this country. I’ve had terrible experiences with landlords here. We’ve had to move home three times. Every time we found a place, the UNHCR renovated it for us, but landlords have evicted us after the renovation finished.

However, there are others who have had different experiences. Some landlords in Wadi Khaled have allowed refugees to live on their land for free”.

The legal status of Syrian refugees in Lebanon remains a highly sensitive political issue and source of contention, due to sensitivities about the demographic balance of Lebanon and fears relating to the economic impact of the Syrian refugee influx in the country. This has led to many Syrian refugees struggling to regularise their status in the country. It is estimated that 74 per cent of Syrian refugees over the age of 15 do not have legal residency in Lebanon

Adnan*

Lebanese father-of-eight Adnan lives and works close to the Syrian border. He regularly sees shelling on the Syrian side. Wadi Khaled, where Adnan lives, is one of Lebanon’s villages most-affected by Syria’s war. In 2012, twenty people lost their lives because of a spill over of shelling from the Syrian side. Similar events have also happened since, according to villagers. Photo: Diego Ibarra Sanchez

“Lebanon and Syria used to be one country. In this part of Lebanon, we all have relatives in Syria. For example, I have cousins in Homs, Damascus and Idlib and my sister-in-law is married to a Syrian man from Homs. We are all very close; we used to buy bread and other food supplies from Syria on a daily basis.

The only negative effect of the refugees arriving in Lebanon has been the impact on jobs. There are now fewer jobs for Lebanese workers. Business owners have reduced their rates of pay because Syrians will work for lower wages due to their need for money.

But Syrians are our neighbours; we cannot turn our backs on them in this time of need. They need us today and we might need them in the future in the same way”.


Names have been changed to protect the identities of those interviewed.

These photos and interviews were carried out as part of our research into relations between Syrian refugees and Lebanese host communities. You can read the briefing or the full report.