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 in Akkar in North Lebanon and in the Bekaa Valley, these three sets of stories give an insight into the lives of Syrian refugees and Lebanese hosts.
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.
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 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.
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”.
"You know how a mother will go crazy when her child is bitten by a bee – imagine how hard it is to lose two children to a war." - Khalida
Widow and single mother Khalida lived with her children in besieged Homs, Syria, for a year and a half until she moved to Kherbet Dawood in North Lebanon. After losing her two sons in Syria, she now lives on a chicken farm-turned-refugee residence with her daughter. Photo: Diego Ibarra Sanchez
“Back in Syria, my son – who was a construction worker – was shot while at work. They brought his body back to me. My other son was detained in Tartoos six years ago; I still don’t have any news on him. I travelled to Tartoos to find him but had no luck, so I returned to Homs with my daughter. During the bombing raids in Homs, we only went out to find water and firewood. I also picked barley to exchange for food for my children. I’d never done any of these things before in my life. We were the last family to leave Homs.
Now being in Lebanon, I’ve fought hard for my daughter to continue her education. I found a school van driver to take her to school every day. We sold our cow to pay for her education and other living costs, but I’ve raised my children in a very poor environment. You know how a mother will go crazy when her child is bitten by a bee – imagine how hard it is to lose two children to a war. Sometimes I go outside and scream and cry so much that everyone in the buildings around can hear me.
However, I do have very kind Lebanese neighbours. We visit each other regularly. There is a Lebanese family who love me very much and they help me when things get tough. I’m like a mother to everyone in the village and people often come to me for advice. There are good and bad people everywhere; some of us have had bad experiences in this country and others have had good ones.
If the situation improves in Syria, I would like to go back. But I will only go if it’s safe and if we can have help rebuilding our homes. All my memories and beloved ones are there in Syria, including my mother’s grave. To me, there is nowhere more precious than home”.
Rana, a mother of seven, left Idlib, Syria, with her family seven years ago when shelling began. She now lives in Kherbet Dawood in North Lebanon on a chicken farm-turned-refugee residence. Photo: Diego Ibarra Sanchez
“Five of my children were born in Syria. Two were born here in Lebanon with no birth documentation – and now I’m pregnant with my eighth child.
“My husband used to be a construction worker in Syria. After developing a neurological disease and back pain, he became very stressed and ill. Now we rarely see him more than once every ten days, and then he only comes for one night. He gets angry quickly.
“Our situation here is miserable. I can’t afford to buy gas for cooking so I have to burn wood and other materials to cook our meals. We don’t even have sugar to put in our tea.
“I am so thankful to the local chicken farm owner, Mr Fawaz. I often borrow food supplies from his shop, and he waits until I can afford to pay him back when I receive my monthly food voucher”.
"I hope the conflict in Syria comes to an end and these people can safely return to their homes." - Fawaz
Fawaz, 46, had his chicken farm in Kherbet Dawood, North Lebanon, converted into a residence for refugees after the Syrian war began. Photo: Diego Ibarra Sanchez
“In 2011, I retired from the army and built a big chicken farm on some agricultural land that I owned.
When the refugee crisis began in 2012, the people of our village hosted refugees in their homes. People in this area are very kind.
The UNHCR offered to rent my chicken farm building for Syrian refugees to live in. They renovated the building and brought 40 families to settle here. I agreed because there were many refugee families arriving with nowhere to go to. For two years, the UNHCR took care of the basics like water and electricity. Then a village leader stepped in to cover the expenses, and now families pay a monthly rent of 20 dollars themselves.
In my opinion, refugees have not negatively affected our country. Lebanese people have benefited in many ways. For example, I have benefited from renting my property to the UNHCR. I also have a shop there and it’s mostly Syrians who buy from me. This is the same for many other Lebanese business owners. Lebanese people like me who have a better life than those who are suffering must have compassion for the refugees.
The UNHCR has now stopped food support to many families. This was a shock for everyone. Many of those living here are widows. How will they survive?
I hope the conflict in Syria comes to an end and these people can safely return to their homes”.
“Syria is on the other side of this river. You walk just three metres and you’re there. A lot of Syrians lost their lives or parts of their bodies crossing this river." - Malakeh
Lebanese mother of five, Malakeh, from Wadi Khaled, North Lebanon, lives close to the Syrian border. Photo: Diego Ibarra Sanchez
“Syria is on the other side of this river. You walk just three metres and you’re there. A lot of Syrians lost their lives or parts of their bodies crossing this river. On the Syrian side, the earth is full of landmines planted by the Syrian army and there are no signs to warn people. Nobody dares go to the other side. If you don’t die from a landmine exploding, you will probably be shot by a sniper.
Before the war, we used to cross easily to Mishrfeh village in Syria and we bought all our supplies there. Even healthcare was cheaper and better in Syria. But since 2012, this has become much more difficult because of the new border point.
Syrians have opened a lot of businesses in Wadi Khaled. Before their arrival, we had no market or bakery. But since their arrival, everything has become more expensive and school fees are now much higher. Before, we used to receive support from aid organisations but now we’ve been forgotten. My husband is a bus driver who travels to Tripoli. That's the only income we have – we need it to live and to pay for our children’s education”.
Kawthar, 35, is a Lebanese mother of four. She hosts meetings and activities at her home conducted by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and Syrian activists who are working to improve conditions for Lebanese and Syrian communities. To earn an income, Kawthar makes food to sell in the market. Photo: Diego Ibarra Sanchez
“As a family, we are very active on a social level and we volunteer in many activities. When Syrians started arriving in Bar Elias, I volunteered to help vulnerable people and families link up with charities and organisations that could help. My husband works for an international NGO so he has many contacts who help us do this work.
Today we are hosting a focus group of Syrian and Lebanese activists for them to identify common issues for all communities in Bar Elias, whether they are Syrian or Lebanese. In this way, different communities can find solutions together.
We love to be positive and productive in serving the community. For example, we have always been involved in social activities like vocational training for Lebanese women.
The town of Bar Elias has hosted the largest population of refugees in the Bekaa region. This is our duty towards our fellow humans. Our home country of Lebanon is tiny but it can accommodate so many.”
Originally from Homs, Syria, Yusra married in 2001 and moved to her husband’s family property in Sit Zaynab, Damascus. She worked as a pharmaceutical assistant. She says that life was wonderful at that time. They had to leave their house when fighting reached their neighbourhood in 2011. Photo: Diego Ibarra Sanchez
“Our son Mostapha was born with the beginning of the events in Daraa and then the demonstrations moved to Homs and Damascus. We only heard things in the news until the conflict reached our area and battles took place in the neighbourhood. This is when we left our place. Mostapha was only 8 months at the time.
We moved to a camp managed by the Syrian army in Swaida, near Damascus. We lived in very difficult conditions for five months without enough food and with multiple restrictions on our freedom of movement. Finally, we decided to move to Lebanon.
When we arrived in Lebanon, we had no money and we lived in a simple and miserable tent for six months. We borrowed money from our cousin. Later on, I met a Lebanese shop owner who helped us a lot and gave us food and supplied us with electricity for over three months. She then helped to register us with the UNHCR so that we could move to a better place – our current wooden structure.
Initially when we registered, I was refused support. As my husband has a hearing impairment he was unable to find work in Lebanon so I started looking for a job, I worked in a factory and then in an agricultural farm planting vegetables and harvesting. It did not pay well so I left and started working as a housekeeper for a Lebanese family. I worked from 8am until 4pm for six dollars a day. Then, after meeting a group of volunteers in the area I volunteered on a home gardening project, and then I was offered a job at one of their projects as a bakery manager.”
As a refugee in Lebanon, Yusra has been successful in receiving two grants from two organisations to set up her own business – so she currently has her own shop selling 1$ items, and she is working with a group of volunteers in an organic agriculture education project.
“Unfortunately, I got into conflict with a Lebanese neighbour who also owns a shop and thought I might steal his customers. He threatened to close my shop if I continued selling similar products to his. Thankfully it worked out, and now I try not to sell anything that he sells.
It’s been very difficult for me to handle all the stress of our situation as refugees. I have taken on the role of both mother and father in the family. I am afraid for my son’s future; he is growing up in this uncertain atmosphere with no education, and he is always out on the street. I’m only looking for a better future for my son.”
Abdallah*, 62 is a Syrian grandfather who lives with his wife in a refugee settlement and works part-time in construction. Photo: Diego Ibarra Sanchez
“My wife and I are grandparents. All these kids you see around us are our grandchildren. I lost two of my sons in Syria. The situation here in Lebanon is very difficult; some days I work and other times I go a month or two without working. We only have one grandson who is able to work in construction and he carries a big responsibility to provide for us. The UNHCR informed us that the food support will stop next month.
Syria is a beautiful country, we really want to go back soon. Here we are humiliated, no matter what our conditions are. It feels like a big prison – if you go out, the Lebanese army might stop you to ask for residency documents. Sometimes we work and never get paid. We’ve become like beggars here”.
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of those interviewed.