Embarking in Tripoli, Lebanon, where desperate Syrian refugees have sought shelter in embattled neighborhoods reminiscent of the war at home, journalist Eric Reidy traverses one of several refugee trails that ends in Idomeni, Greece. Tripoli is the first stop in our series “Route Mediterranean.”
TRIPOLI, Lebanon – The only ferry from Tripoli, Lebanon to the southern Turkish city of Mersin slipped out of port laden with tractor-trailers. There were no passengers on this Saturday night. Tripoli’s wharf was sparsely populated with about a dozen fishermen spread out along its length, untangling their nets as the sun dipped toward the horizon. The odd family strolled along munching on cooked corn or boiled fava beans hawked from a handful of colorful pushcarts.
Tripoli’s port has been unusually quiet. From midsummer last year till the beginning of January, the sleepy pace of life in this Levantine city was interrupted by the thousands of Syrians who crowded the port that had become their only point of escape from civil war at home and dire living conditions in Lebanon.
“To get to my work I pass the port everyday,” Khouloud al-Ali, a Tripoli resident, told me. “If you passed through here at night or during the day or in the afternoon … I don’t know how to even give a number of the Syrian families who were trying to get to Turkey and Europe.”
In August last year, the number of Syrians transiting through Lebanon to Turkey surged. “There were between 3,000 and 5,000 leaving every week,” Lisa Abou Khaled, a UNHCR spokesperson, said. Some of the 1.5 million Syrian refugees living in Lebanon and a number of Lebanese formed this exodus. Deteriorating conditions in Lebanon and no realistic hopes of returning home after five years of war spurred their departure.
The ultimate destination for most of these people was Europe – via dangerous journeys across the Aegean Sea to the Greek islands, where 850,000 asylum seekers landed last year. With 3,771 recorded deaths, 2015 was the deadliest year for migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe, according to the IOM. Tripoli’s port and Beirut’s airport were early stepping stones along this treacherous trail.
But on January 8, Turkey, home to nearly 3 million Syrian refugees, implemented new regulations requiring Syrians transiting through a third country to have a visa. Before, they could enter the country from anywhere with just a passport.
The move that stemmed the flow of people through Lebanon was followed by the closing of the Greek–Macedonian border in early March and the brokering of the E.U. and Turkey deal that is returning refugees who reached Greece after March 20 back to Turkey.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has expressed concern over these recent developments, saying they make it even more difficult for people fleeing armed conflict to reach safety. In Lebanon, the increasing restrictions on movement have left Syrians in dismal conditions with little hope of escape.
Bab al-Tabaneh, one of Lebanon’s most infamous, conflict-riddled neighborhoods, a mere 15-minute car ride from Tripoli’s port, has become home to desperate refugees with meager means and few options. I met Sihem Nadaf, a tall, 40-year-old Syrian woman in an oddly shaped cinderblock courtyard in Tabaneh. Her calm face and demeanor were betrayed by the shakiness of her hands. Behind her, a faded wooden door concealed the dark, musty room that she shares with her husband and her sister-in-law and her family. Her brother is dead.
Nadaf fled her home in Homs three years ago after being shot in the leg. The area she lived in was under siege. Desperate for food, she tried to travel to an area under the control of the Syrian regime to buy bread. As she approached a checkpoint, regime troops opened fire and she was wounded in the leg. “I left Syria to escape the war, but ended up in a place where there is also fighting,” says Nadaf.
For Nadaf, there is no safety in Lebanon. The recent history of Tabaneh, where she lives, has been punctuated by periods of high tension and periodic clashes with the neighboring quarter of Jabal Mohsen. Separated by a thoroughfare called Syria Street, the neighborhoods are also deeply divided by their respective loyalties to parties involved in the Syrian conflict.
In predominantly Sunni Tabaneh, gunmen with sympathies for Islamist militias fighting against the regime in Syria, including the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, hold sway. On the other side of the divide, militias in the majority Alawite community of Jabal Mohsen support the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, a member of the same sect.
In October 2014, a string of clashes and bombings escalated into all-out fighting, the most intense spillover of violence from Syria into Lebanon to date. For three days, the Lebanese army battled Islamist-affiliated gunmen for control of Bab al-Tabaneh, leaving much of the neighborhood in ruins before the gunmen were defeated. In areas where the fighting was most intense, the freshly painted facades of reconstructed apartment blocks stick out against a backdrop of skeletal, bullet-riddled flats. Tripoli, a mere 50 miles (80km) from its sibling city Homs in Syria and 30 miles (50km) from Tartus by water, is too close for comfort for these refugees.
Narrow, intertwining alleys that make up the old souk at the heart of Bab al-Tabaneh lead to Nadaf’s house. When gun battles raged on the other side of the wall, fighters would use entrances on both sides of the courtyard to move without being detected by the army. “This house is not safe … the gunmen will come through the house again,” Nadaf says. “The people always say that there will be more fighting.”
Security is just one of several difficulties that Nadaf is facing. Rent is high. It has been difficult to find work. She is afraid to move around Tripoli without the right papers. Lebanon’s expensive and complicated residency system requires Syrians to have a Lebanese sponsor. “The situation is very bad … It’s hard to live,” she says.
In another part of Tabaneh, 32-year-old Manahel Awaj from Idlib sits on a threadbare carpet on the cement floor of a converted storefront that currently serves as her home. Four of her 11 children are gathered around her, and others flit in and out doing chores and playing in the street. Her youngest son, five and a half months old, is asleep wrapped in a blanket, in a baby carrier behind her.
UNHCR provides aid for five of the children. She receives nothing for the others. Only two of the children are in school, and her oldest girls, aged 13 and 14, work 16-hour days cleaning old shoes to be resold in the market. “They have pain in their hands and legs. They’re all thin and malnourished,” she says gesturing toward the kids, who are visibly gaunt. Her husband tries to work as a day laborer. Jobs are hard to find, unsteady and underpaid.
To make matters even worse, her youngest son was born with medical conditions that required multiple hospital trips. To afford the medical care her husband took out a loan about $1,300. The family cannot afford to pay it back. “We are living in very bad conditions here,” Awaj says.
“These are not just our conditions. These are the conditions of all Syrian refugees in Lebanon,” Nadaf said.
While Tabaneh might be a particularly precarious setting, Nadaf’s statement rings true for a majority of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. More than 70 percent are now living below the national poverty line, according to Leila Abou Khaled, UNHCR’s spokesperson in Lebanon. In 2014, the number was 50 percent. Like Awaj’s family, 90 percent are now in debt.
Khouloud al-Ali, the Tripoli resident I met at the port, is the director of a youth center in Tabaneh operated by a Lebanese NGO called the Rene Moawad Foundation. Many of the children in the center’s programs are Syrians who fled conflict. Through her work, al-Ali has regularly witnessed the economic and social hardships that the refugees living in the neighborhood and other parts of Lebanon face.
“We’ve seen more kids working on the streets. We’ve seen women begging. We’ve seen children out of schools,” she says.
Syrian children selling packets of tissues, gum or cheap flowers, and mothers cradling infants with outstretched hands have become ubiquitous features on urban streets throughout Lebanon.
Multiple Syrian families live in small apartments or converted spaces across the country, but especially in Tabaneh. Those who cannot afford rent live in abandoned buildings, often in extremely unhygienic conditions that lead to health issues and contagious diseases. With little separation between the cohabiting spaces of adults and children, boys and girls, strangers and family members, sexual harassment and assault have become prevalent, says al-Ali.
It’s also difficult for Syrian refugees to access medical care, she adds, because of the costs. She recalls visiting a woman who was seven months pregnant and had not seen a doctor. The woman didn’t know where and how she would give birth.
The difficulties of basic sustenance in Lebanon were the driving reason for people leaving for Europe from Tripoli last year. But, the majority of Syrian refugees, like Awaj and Nadaf, are too poor to make the journey. “Most of the families who were transiting were middle-income families,” people with passports and money or assets such as houses that they sold to afford the cost of travel, said Abou Khaled.
Now, with the new visa restrictions, leaving the country is nearly impossible for anyone. They must either wait for the war to end or hope for resettlement through a UNHCR program.
Resettlement is a slow process, and there aren’t enough spots available in receiving countries to keep up with the need. With only 6,285 people resettled from Lebanon in 2014, reaching a third country legally seems like a distant possibility for Lebanon’s Syrian refugees. “I don’t know a single family that has been resettled,” al-Ali says.
Without enough money and the closing borders, people like Nadaf, Awaj and their families are stuck in a cruel and indefinite limbo.
Route Mediterranean is our series that follows one of several refugee routes that form the Mediterranean Crossings.