"No sweets": For Syrian refugees in Lebanon, a tough Ramadan
It was messy and hectic in Aisha al-Abed's kitchen, as the first day of Ramadan often is. Food had to be on the table at precisely 7:07 p.m. when the sun sets and the daylong fast ends.
What is traditionally a jovial celebration of the start of the Muslim holy month around a hearty meal was muted and dispirited for her small Syrian refugee family.
As the 21-year-old mother of two worked, with her toddler daughter in tow, reminders of life's hardships were everywhere: in the makeshift kitchen, where she crouched on the ground to chop cucumbers next to a single-burner gas stove. In their home: a tent with a concrete floor and wooden walls covered in a tarp. And, definitely, in their iftar meal – rice, lentil soup, French fries and a yogurt-cucumber dip; her sister sent over a little chicken and fish.
"This is going to be a very difficult Ramadan," al-Abed said. "This should be a better meal ... After a day's fast, one needs more nutrition for the body. Of course, I feel defeated."
Ramadan, which began last Tuesday, comes as Syrian refugees' life of displacement has become even harder amid their host country Lebanon's economic woes. The struggle can be more pronounced during the holy month, when fasting is typically followed by festive feasting to fill empty stomachs.
"High prices are killing people," said Raed Mattar, al-Abed's 24-year-old husband. "We may fast all day and then break our fast on only an onion," he said, using an Arabic proverb usually meant to convey disappointment after long patience.
Lebanon, home to more than 1 million Syrian refugees, is reeling from an economic crisis exacerbated by the pandemic and a massive explosion that destroyed parts of the capital last August.
Citing the impact of the compounded crises, a U.N. study said the proportion of Syrian refugee families living under the extreme poverty line – the equivalent of roughly $25 a month per person by current black market rates – swelled to 89% in 2020, compared to 55% the previous year.
More people resorted to reducing the size or number of meals, it said. Half the Syrian refugee families surveyed suffer from food insecurity, up from 28% at the same time in 2019, it said.
Refugees are not alone in their pain. The economic turmoil, which is the culmination of years of corruption and mismanagement, has squeezed the Lebanese, plunging 55% of the country's 5 million people into poverty and shuttering businesses.
As jobs became scarce, Mattar said more Lebanese competed for the low-paying construction and plumbing jobs previously left largely for foreign workers like himself. Wages lost their value as the local currency, fixed to the dollar for decades, collapsed. Mattar went from making the equivalent of more than $13 a day to less than $2, roughly the price of a kilo and a half of non-subsidised sugar.
"People are kind and are helping, but the situation has become disastrous," he said. "The Lebanese themselves can't live. Imagine how we are managing."
Nerves are fraying. Mattar was among hundreds displaced from an informal camp last year, after a group of Lebanese set it on fire following a fight between a Syrian and a Lebanese.
It was the fifth displacement for al-Abed's young family, bouncing mainly between informal settlements in northern Lebanon. They had to move twice after that, once when a Lebanese landowner doubled the rent, telling Mattar he could afford it since he gets aid as a refugee. Their current tent is in Bhannine.
Syrian refugee children in Lebanon
The civil war in Syria means that there are many traumatised and vulnerable Syrian children living as refugees in Lebanon. For them, the few makeshift schools set up to educate them are often the only semblance of normality in their disrupted and difficult lives. Many, however, are not even lucky enough to attend school. Photos by Amy Leang.
Therapy: Syrian refugee children sing a song at the Karam Zeitoun School in Beirut. Creative activities are therapeutic for the children. "They hear the stories of their parents. They talk about the war, about having no money. When they go to school, they can be themselves. They can be children," says Charlotte Bertal, co-founder of a French NGO that runs the school.
'A second life': a pupil turns the pages of her English-language exercise book at the Karam Zeitoun School in Beirut. The long-term goal is to prepare children for Lebanese public schools – if financially and logistically possible. "It's a second life," says 14-year-old Susanne, who wants to be an artist when she grows up. "Without school, my life would be nothing."
Number-crunching: Diana, 11, tries to keep up with a maths lesson at the Karam Zeitoun School in Beirut. "In general, the difficulties that the students face are that the families can't support or teach them at home. They only learn at school," says their teacher Nasser Al-Issa, who is himself a refugee.
Filling empty tummies: children eat lentils in the courtyard of the Karam Zeitoun School in Beirut. "One room in this neighbourhood costs €300–400 to rent," says Rev. Andrew Salameh of the Nazarene Church. In partnership with the NGO, Yalla! Pour Les Enfants in Syria, his Church runs the non-religious, non-politically affiliated school. "If you're paying that much rent, you have no more money for food."
Apartment buildings are reflected in a classroom window at the Karam Zeitoun School in Beirut. "The families live in the neighbourhood," says Rev. Andrew Salameh. "Some rooms are under stairs or on roofs."
Creative writing: Ashta, 12, looks out the window during a creative writing exercise at the Karam Zeitoun School in Beirut. "Writing workshops and creative activities allow us to assess the psychological needs of the students and refer the child to a specialist if necessary," said Charlotte Bertal, co-founder of Yalla Pour Les Enfants in Syria.
A lost generation? Syrian parents help their children with their maths homework in their rented room in Beirut. "I brought them here because I was afraid they would never learn. I want them to be educated," says their father, who was a farmer in Syria and now does odd jobs in Beirut. "It's a big mistake. If they don't find a solution, this generation will be lost."
Killing time: Syrian-Armenian refugee Simon, 3, plays in the tiny flat he shares with 10 other family members in Beirut. Refugee children who do not attend school or supplemental educational activities often spend all day at home watching television or playing. "There are 400,000 children," says Charlotte Bertal, "but only 90,000 are going to school. It's a huge problem the UN and NGOs have to address."
School of hard knocks: Mohammed and Ahmed try to make money polishing shoes. They haven't been in school since 2011. "Of course, we miss school," said Ahmed. "At the school here, they told us if we registered as refugees, they will accept us. But my father has an illness and has to go to Syria to treat it. If he registers, he might be caught by the regime (at the border). That's why we can't go to school."
Street life: Nariman, 7, tries to sell packets of tissues to customers at the entrance to a restaurant in Beirut. Nariman was in second grade in Syria before fleeing with her family to Beirut. She gets the packets from her uncle and has to earn 12,000 Lebanese pounds (roughly €6) every day by 6 pm. She spends most of the day unsupervised on the street.
Hard to concentrate: a young child daydreaming during class at a school recently set up by the non-governmental organisation SAWA for Development & Aid near the Syrian border in Bar Elias, Lebanon. "The children have gone through so much fear and so much stress that they don't care anymore," says teacher Shams Ibrahim, herself a refugee from Damascus. "They've broken the fear barrier."
This year, Syrians marked the 10th anniversary of the start of the uprising-turned-civil war in their country. Many refugees say they cannot return because their homes were destroyed or they fear retribution, either for being considered opposition or for evading military conscription, like Mattar. He and al-Abed each fled Syria in 2011 and met in Lebanon.
Even before Ramadan started, Rahaf al-Saghir, another Syrian in Lebanon, fretted over what her family's iftar would look like.
"I don't know what to do," said the recently widowed mother of three daughters. "The girls keep saying they crave meat, they crave chicken, biscuits and fruit."
As the family's options dwindled, her daughters' questions became more heart wrenching. Why can't we have chips like the neighbours' kids? Why don't we drink milk to grow up like they say on television? Al-Saghir recalled breaking into tears when her youngest asked her what the strawberry she was seeing on television tasted like. She later bought her some, using U.N. assistance money, she said.
For Ramadan, al-Saghir was determined to stop her daughters from seeing photos of other people's iftar meals. "I don't want them to compare themselves to others," she said. "When you are fasting in Ramadan, you crave a lot of things."
The start of Ramadan, the first since al-Saghir's husband died, brought tears. Her oldest daughters were used to their father waking them for suhoor, the pre-dawn meal before the day's fast, which he'd prepare.
A few months before he died – of cardiac arrest – the family moved into a one-bedroom apartment shared with a relative's family.
This year, their first iftar was simple – French fries, soup and fattoush salad. Al-Saghir wanted chicken, but decided it was too expensive.
Before violence uprooted them from Syria, Ramadan felt festive. Al-Saghir would cook and exchange visits with family and neighbours, gathering around scrumptious savoury and sweet dishes.
"Now, there's no family, no neighbours and no sweets," she said. "Ramadan feels like any other day. We may even feel more sorrow."
Amid her struggles, she turns to her faith.
"I keep praying to God," she said. "May our prayers in Ramadan be answered and may our situation change. ... May a new path open for us." (AP)