What it's Like to Turn 18 in a Syrian Refugee Camp
Photo by Andrew Quilty


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What it's Like to Turn 18 in a Syrian Refugee Camp

This week marks the seventh anniversary of the Syrian War. Meet some of the young people who've grown up amidst its chaos.

In March 2018, VICE travelled to the Beqaa Valley with photojournalist Andrew Quilty and World Vision Australia to document stories of refugees on the seventh anniversary of the Syrian War.

Seven years ago, the Arab Spring was sweeping across the Middle East. A generation of young Arabs called for revolution, toppling governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. Many thought the protests that broke out in the Syrian city of Daraa would spell the end of the rule of President Bashar al-Assad. But things quickly turned violent.


The war that's followed has seen nearly five million Syrians flee the country in fear for their lives, many of them children. These kids are sometimes called Syria's "lost generation." Some of them have crossed continents and oceans in search of safety. Others only made it past the mountains that flank Syria's western border, to the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon.

Australian photojournalist Andrew Quilty travelled with VICE to the Beqaa to meet Syrians who've turned 18 this year, just before the war's seventh anniversary. He photographed them outside their tents, many made from old advertising billboards, emblazoned with the splurges of another life.

These young people were 11 years old when the war broke out. They've spent their entire teenagehood in the Beqaa, some just hours from their hometowns. Most pass the time working in manual labour jobs, very few go to school. Fewer still celebrated their 18th birthday.

Zakaria. Photo by Andrew Quilty

Zakaria, 18

Zakaria is from the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria. He has lived in one of the Beqaa Valley's many Informal Tent Settlements (ITS) for the past two years. He left home because the situation in Syria became too dangerous, thanks to constant bombings from regime aircraft. He also said it just became too expensive to survive.

On his 18th birthday he says he "did absolutely nothing, honestly."

In different circumstances, he says he would've wanted to throw a party and celebrate the day with his friends. The last birthday he celebrated, he says, was his 15th.


Nasir. Photo by Andrew Quilty

Nasir, 18

Nasir is originally from the Syrian city of Afrin, about an hour and a half north of Aleppo. It is currently held by the Kurds but just this week was encircled by Turkish forces, according to media reports.

Since fleeing his home in Afrin six years ago, Nasir has lived as a refugee in Lebanon's Beqaa Valley. He says he left Syria mostly because all of the work dried up when the country's civil war broke out.

He didn't celebrate his 18th birthday. Had he been back home, he says, he'd have invited friends to celebrate under his family's olive trees. The last birthday he remembers celebrating was in Afrin, back in 2013.

WATCH: VICE Australia travelled to Lebanon to meet the young Syrian refugees living in limbo

Mirvat. Photo by Andrew Quilty.

Mirvat, 18

Mirvat is from Raqqa, the former de facto capital of the Islamic State. She has lived in Lebanon's central Beqaa Valley for seven years, since the very beginning of the war.

She did nothing to celebrate her 18th birthday. Partly, she says, this was because her family was still grieving for the death of her sister.

Issa. Photo by Andrew Quilty

Issa, 18

Issa celebrated his last birthday before he left his hometown of Aleppo, six years ago. His family fled Syria after his father rolled the family car while driving through active fighting. Since leaving, he has lived only in the Beqaa Valley.

For his 18th birthday, Issa didn't do anything to celebrate. "If the situation was different we would have enjoyed [it] a little bit," he says, "but there's nothing to do here."


Rajab. Photo by Andrew Quilty

Rajab, 18

Rajab is from Aleppo, Syria. He left his home five years ago because there was no work, and the city was under bombardment. Since then, he's been one of the hundreds of thousands of temporarily displaced people living in the Beqaa Valley.

He celebrated his 18th birthday alone, he says, because his friends are all far away. He didn't have a birthday cake, but he did buy himself some new clothes for the occasion. He says the last time he properly celebrated a birthday was when he was 13. Back then, there was a cake. And music.

Mohammad. Photo by Andrew Quilty.

Mohammad, 18

Mohammad is from Daraa, the small Syrian town where a revolt against the Syrian regime ignited the war that followed. For the past five years, since leaving Daraa, he's lived in this ITS in Lebanon's central Beqaa Valley "because it [his city] was ruined."

He didn't celebrate his 18th birthday, but he does remember the last birthday he celebrated in Syria. It was just a small party with family. They ate sweets, drank juice, and listened to music. He doesn't have any relatives living in Beqaa other than his mother and sister, he explains, so he doesn't celebrate birthdays anymore.

Ramia. Photo by Andrew Quilty

Ramia, 18

Ramia is from Aleppo, Syria but she's lived in the Beqaa in an Informal Tented Settlement "since the beginning of the war" seven years ago. For a while, she says, her family tried to stay in their hometown while a city nearby was being bombed. Ultimately though, they had to leave.

She says she didn't celebrate her 18th birthday because none of her friends are here. But she definitely would have had she been back home, under different circumstances. The last time she celebrated her birthday was back home in Aleppo, the day she turned 11. She had a small party at home and brought sweets to her friends.


Kousai. Photo by Andrew Quilty.

Kousai, 18

Kousai is from Raqqa, Syria, the former de facto capital of the Islamic State. He says he left Syria with his family because the war broke out, and because he didn't want to be conscripted into the national army.

He celebrated his 18th birthday with his friends in the ITS he now calls home. Because he doesn't have any documentation to prove his refugee status, he isn't allowed to leave the camp. So instead of going out, he bought sweets and arguile [hookah] into the camp.

He's one of the few Syrians in the Beqaa who are able to celebrate their birthday. He says it's because his friends have money to spend on such things because they work, and they have nothing else to spend their money on.

Malak. Photo by Andrew Quilty

Malak, 18

Malak doesn't remember the last birthday she celebrated.

Originally from Aleppo, she has been in an ITS in Lebanon's Beqaa Valley for "a long time. Since the start of the war."

She says she didn't do anything to celebrate her 18th birthday. "We stayed at home" she says, shrugging her shoulders. Had circumstances been different, she says she "would have thrown a party."

Ahmad. Photo by Andrew Quilty

Ahmad, 18

Ahmad is from the outskirts of Aleppo. He fled his home six years ago, and has lived as a refugee in Lebanon's Beqaa Valley ever since.

He says he didn't celebrate his 18th birthday. Not even with a cake. In different circumstances, before the war, he says he would've celebrated with his friends. The last birthday he remembers celebrating was when he was back in Syria.


Ghouroub. Photo by Andrew Quilty.

Ghouroub, 18

Ghouroub is from Aleppo, Syria. She fled over the border to Lebanon four years ago with her mother and father, after their house was destroyed, killing one of her brothers. Her surviving brothers and sisters remained behind in Syria. Ever since, she has lived in an ITS in the Beqaa.

Because her family was still grieving for her brother three years on, she didn't celebrate her 18th birthday. She's not even exactly sure of the date of her birthday, she says, because celebrating them has never been a tradition in her family.

Ismail. Photo by Andrew Quilty.

Ismail, 18

Ismail is from Aleppo but says the Syrian War gave him no choice but to leave. He fled six years ago, and has been living in the Beqaa Valley ever since.

He did nothing to celebrate his 18th birthday but he says he definitely would have if circumstances were different. He knows he used to celebrate his birthdays, but he only remembers through the photographs he's seen.

Andrew Quilty is an Australian photojournalist, based in Afghanistan. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram