Story Two – Young Syrian Refugee Couple in Lebanon

Peter Kearney continues with his series of articles on life for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Peter Kearney blogs @ Interpolitiks.


Homs 1

“two simple Syrian people,
middle class yet not wealthy”

Zeina and her husband Ghazwan are from Homs. They are both 27 years old and Zeina, who is 7½ months pregnant, is expecting their first child – a girl.

They describe themselves as “two simple Syrian people, middle class yet not wealthy”. Both university graduates, Zeina had finished her MA in Dentistry and Ghazwan had completed Pharmacy. Despite the enormity of their situation, they are positive, joyful and upbeat.

Before the war they lead a normal life, had the same dreams and aspirations as any other 27-year old couple and they had friends from different religious backgrounds. In some cases they did not even know the religion of their friends until they visited them in their homes.

Coming to Lebanon

When war came, Ghazwan was a student and therefore exempt from military service. However, the longer the war progressed the more they knew he would either have to fight or flee. Military service is not optional in Syria but Ghazwan is a Pharmacist, not a soldier.

When his studies were complete, Ghazwan lived a restricted life in Homs, to avoid military detection. Ghazwan and Zeina describe themselves as “people of peace”, so joining the army was never an option.

Ghazwan managed to negotiate a postponement of his military service to allow him a window of escape. This negotiation was secured at great risk, as pharmacists are much in demand in the army. While waiting for this postponement, Ghazwan was effectively confined to his hometown, as he could no longer travel as a student. Detection at military checkpoints would result in immediate conscription.

Eventually he left, with just $200 in his pocket. “He is the important one,” says Zeina. Important, as escape meant not having to fight and avoiding death or injury. Zeina would soon follow. They left at the start of 2014 and reunited in the north of Lebanon.

Homs mosque
Memories of War in Syria

They lived through three years of war in Syria. Ghazwan says he has recurring nightmares about the war and the threat of being conscripted. Even the noise of a simple firework is enough to bring back bad memories. When in Homs, the bombing was so terrifying that gunshots were a welcome respite.

But they suffer from more than emotional scars. Ghazwan lost 60% of his hearing in a car bomb explosion. It happened near a gas station as he returned from visiting his brother, who had been shot. Afterwards he made his way to the hospital on foot, as there was no ambulance, where he witnessed a bloodbath. Limbs blown off by the explosion were collected and dumped into plastic bags like garbage.

The wounded walked the hallways with rocks and masonry, blown up from nearby pavements, portruding from their chests and other body parts. It was carnage. Initially cursing the partial loss of his hearing, he soon felt lucky to have survived.

All of which was exacerbated by the fact that Homs’ top doctors had already left. The bomb victims would have to settle for less than the best. Ghazwan is not fully sure what is wrong with his hearing nor how to treat it. Hearing loss was simply not a priority compared to lost limbs.

Conditions and treatment in Lebanon

“In Syria I was a pharmacist,
here I am nothing”

Although they are out of a conflict zone life is still not easy. Ghazwan can only get work as a construction site labourer and Zeina does not work at all. “In Syria I was a pharmacist, here I am nothing” he says.

This work would be fine except he is not qualified to do it and he feels he is given the menial tasks that the Lebanese will not do. He feels he is treated worse than his Lebanese colleagues and claims he is paid half that of his Lebanese co-workers.

He needs to work at least 20 days per month just to pay the rent. However, he must also provide for his wife and newborn baby, so he must keep going. This has been complicated by the fact that he has damaged a nerve in his hip, which makes it difficult for him to do heavy lifting.

In addition to these working conditions, that Ghazwan must endure at work, they are also faced with discrimination by local Lebanese.

They find the poor people in their neighbourhood are kind. However, not all in the neighbourhood are so welcoming. Business owners are not and on several occasion they have been thrown out of shops because for being Syrian. They also report hearing countless comments, in the local Souks (markets), along the lines of ‘I wish they’d go back to where they came from’.

Their current situation

Both Zeina and Ghazwan want nothing more than to pursue the careers they studied so hard for. They also want to raise their baby girl in an environment they feel safe in. Simple yet important matters that we often take for granted.

Zeina and Ghazwan do not know what is coming next. As Ghazwan is working, they do not receive any financial support from the UN. No financial support despite the fact that he earns a very basic living. Also, because he is working, Lebanese authorities will not renew his residency permit. This leaves them in the precarious position of needing a guarantor to stay in Lebanon. This is highly unlikely. Precarious also as it means they could be deported, without warning, back to Syria and back to war.

Zeina fears this would mean certain death for her husband and father of their unborn child. They were told by the Lebanese General Security Office that they could not have their residency renewed as Ghazwan was working. They claim they were also told that residency would only be renewed for the over 60s.

Zeina shudders at the thought of them returning as Ghazwan would be forced to serve in the army. Zeina says she could not live without him. They claim they would be returning to an area controlled by extremists that would force Zeina to cover her face and wear the Niqab. Similarly Ghazwan would be forced to grow a long beard and to say his 5 prayers per day at strict times. Failing to do so would result in severe punishment.

Stark as this is, it is their current reality. They could be deported and forced to return to Syria, as no other country would accept them at such short notice. There are already stories of Syrian refugees being  Disappeared from refugee camps in the east of Lebanon, on the Syrian border, and being tricked into returning back across the border to Syria on the basis that they will be allowed back in. Of course they are not allowed back in so either they stay in Syria or attempt another escape with the help of smugglers.

What’s next?

Their baby is due at the end of October and they are hopeful that a new home can be found for them by then, but they are not overly expectant.

Zeina says she would risk travelling the Mediterranean to find a better life for them and their baby. Ghazwan is much more cautious and claims he would give his life rather than take the chance of crossing the Mediterranean and losing his wife and unborn child.

They have already been interviewed by the UN for re-settlement. They were interviewed to see if their qualifications and skills were a good fit for a new country.

That was over one month ago and they have heard nothing since. The wait for Zeina, Ghazwan and their unborn child continues.

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