I met with Hussein and his family in their home, north of Beirut, where he told me about leaving Syria and getting to Lebanon. They come from a village outside Haleb (Aleppo) in Syria, where Hussein used to work as a lawyer. They left 3 years ago and they have been in Lebanon ever since.
Leaving Syria on the first attempt, Hussein was asked to pay $30,000 by smugglers to get him to a safe country. He could not afford such a sum. One of the smugglers, that respected Hussein, told him to forget it and to leave as soon as possible. That smuggler claimed the others were going to kidnap him and simply demand that money in ransom, should he be unable to pay it himself.
The smugglers claim the money was ‘for the revolution’ against Assad but Hussein believes they were gangsters extorting money. He also claims they did likewise with other professional and educated people, simply to extort money. He took his friends advice and left for Lebanon.
The border between Lebanon and Syria was easy to pass during peace times. Many crossed, back then, without a passport. Such was the relationship and climate. In recent times of course this has changed. Hussein and his family managed to cross the border and settle in Lebanon.
Now, having secured his own and his family’s passage out of Syria, he lives one hour north of Beirut. He left Syria with nothing except essential documents and some small savings. Everything else was left behind, as can be seen from the spartan apartment the family of six live in, and he has no idea what has happened to his family home or their belongings since.
They now live on $13 per person per month, from the UNHCR. It used to be $30. That means he must feed and fend for himself, his wife and his four daughters on $78 per month. He makes up the difference by taking odd jobs in construction and living off the kindness of local people. He claims local people have been very good to him and his family, yet the Lebanese Government have not.
Beirut is an expensive place to live, even coming here on an Irish wage. It is estimated that monthly food costs can be as high as $2,000 per month. Of course you can live cheaper, but it gives you some idea. This is compared to the lifestyle they had in Syria where Christians and Muslims socialised freely, there was essentially free healthcare and you could live well on as little as $200 per month
Lebanon is not like this. Hussein has to pay $500 per month on rent, feed his family and pay $200 per year to renew his visa. He managed to bring some savings from Syria but these are all but depleted and their situation is getting critical.
They get no help from the Lebanese Government and in fact he feels they are humiliated by them as they make them wait long hours outdoors when applying for their visas to be renewed.
He is now quickly running out of money and he does not know what to do. He feels that staying in Lebanon is hopeless. Ideally he would move back to Syria but this is not realistic as returning there could mean death at the hands of Daesch (ISIS). They have already threatened with decapitation, anyone who tries to leave the area. So returning to his village, without the protection of a professional security firm, would be foolhardy to say the very least.
He reports that some families are being asked for as much as $4,000 per person by smugglers to get them across the sea to Turkey. For this money they would cross in an open boat, like so many before, and risk their lives in the process with no garauntees of a new life or new start. He is not prepared to put his family at such risk.
Ideally he would move from Lebanon but it is difficult to do so. It is difficult to get on the UNHCR’s short list that they use when moving people abroad. And at the moment, Hussein’s main priority is protecting and looking after his family and hoping for a different solution.