Seven Years of Syria
VICE travelled to the Syria-Lebanon border to meet teen refugees whose youth has been destroyed by war.
All photos by Andrew Quilty
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.
There are tents everywhere in the Beqaa Valley. Drive along any side road and you’ll see them—ramshackle sprays of tents, fashioned from UNHRC tarp. Butting right up against the tenderly managed vines of the valley’s famed wineries, where Lebanon’s super rich stop in for cellar door tastings. They are home to some of the million or so Syrian refugees who’ve spilled over the border into Lebanon since the war began. Here, the influx of people has compacted class divides. Tents fill empty fields beside stately holiday homes that look more like mansions.
It's hard to imagine that just a short drive across the border, Syria is imploding.
Last weekend, dozens of civilians were killed in a deadly chlorine gas attack in the town of Douma, just outside the country's once-glorious capital Damascus. The photos that eked out of the rebel-held enclave were horrific—dead children, their skin burned by poison, foaming at the mouth. In retaliation, US president Donald Trump launched airstrikes against the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, alongside the UK and France. Russia, unflinching in its support of the Syrian president, has promised there will be "consequences" for all three countries.
This year marks the seventh anniversary of the Syrian War. The country remains, after all this time, in absolute chaos.
WATCH: VICE Meets the Syrian Teens Growing Up in Lebanon's Limbo
But across the border in Lebanon, the days move more slowly. Many of the war's youngest refugees have weathered the conflict here, mere hours from hometowns they cannot return to; in a sort of limbo. Keeping busy is a survival skill in the Beqaa. The last thing anyone needs is more time to think about what they’ve gone through, or what might come tomorrow. Purpose can distract from the creeping anxiety about food, supplies, and money. At least sometimes.
"Sometimes... Sometimes I feel the pressure," says Ibrahim, a 20-year-old from South Aleppo. One of six kids, he’s the oldest sibling living in the Beqaa. His two older sisters, both married, live back in Syria. “I'm the only one here providing for my family," he says.
It's lunch time, and we're sitting in the gutted remains of the house he's painting today. The floor is littered with chips of concrete, the windows are all blown out. Images of those bombed out homes of Aleppo come to mind. But this building is being renovated, so the landowner can rent it to refugee families who can afford more than just a tent. Ibrahim's is not one of those families.
"Now I am working and saving up so I can pay the rent for the tent. The tent owner comes and demands his money," he explains. "You don’t even get a chance to rest. Not a day off to recover or relax. We can’t, we keep working. And sometimes, there’s not even enough work to cover expenses for food or rent. You know, it’s hard. It’s a really difficult situation."
Syria’s implosion has pushed the number of forcibly displaced people globally above even the heights of World War Two. Around five million Syrians have fled their homeland since the war broke out on March 15, 2011. According to the UN, some 900,000 of them have been registered in Lebanon, stretching the country to breaking point. According to the locals, the number of people who fled across the border is more like two million. With this many refugees, shelter is a buyer's market. In the Beqaa, landowners are charging up to $100 a month—an almost unfathomable amount of money for someone who's just lost everything to war.
The pressure families are under to make rent has forced Syrian kids out of school en masse in Lebanon. According to Sana'a Maalouf, who works in the Lebanon office of non-profit World Vision, there are some 200,000 Syrians under 18 in the Beqaa. The UN estimates around three percent make it to high school. Drop out rates are through the roof.
"When I first came here to Lebanon... I realised that the most important thing is to complete my (high school) studies," says Ghoussoun, 19, who fled from Aleppo with her family in 2012. "My dream was to grow up and study, and go to university, because a person without their education is not worth the same. Sometimes though, the circumstances make it difficult."
Ghoussoun tried to stay in school after she came to Lebanon, but the long journey there and back proved the breaking point for her parents. Daughters are kept close in the refugee camps of the Beqaa. Sexual violence isn't an imagined threat. According to the UN, "married girls, including child mothers, adolescent girls, unaccompanied and separated boys and girls, women and girls with disabilities, older women, female heads of households, and socially marginalised groups continue to be the most at risk."
"It’s not reasonable to follow my dream now because sometimes our circumstances don’t allow us to pursue or achieve our dreams," Ghoussoun says, sitting in the modest living room of her family's tent. Everything is immaculately clean, cared for. She says she wanted to become an architect, but now readying herself for marriage.
"I’m not going to lie, when I was in Syria I wasn’t planning on being in a relationship at this age... I mean, I am 19 years old," she says. "I wanted to study first and then think about marriage after I finish studying. When we came here, and I realised that we aren’t doing anything, I told myself there’s no longer a reason to postpone my marriage to focus on studying."
I ask her if here, in the Beqaa, it feels like her life is on pause.
"It’s not exactly like that. How can I phrase it? Well, if a person does not have a dream or a goal they are actively pursuing, then there’s no point," she says. "I mean, yes, at the moment our lives are based on hope, but if I don’t have a goal that I’m working towards, then I’m living with no purpose. And here, right now, there’s nothing that I am pursuing or trying to achieve. As I have said, our dreams have died, in terms of studies or otherwise. Everything is gone."
According to Sana'a Maalouf, the situation for Syrian refugees in Lebanon is getting worse, not better, as the war stretches on. The world has moved onto other conflicts, other tragedies unfolding—in Bangladesh, in Uganda. "The impact of the funding cuts have started to show in the increased vulnerability of refugees in terms of having less food security, less assistance," she explains. "Families are resorting more to taking children out of school so they don't pay any costs that they might be incurring, and so that children support in income generation."
For young people with no education, work usually means manual labour. And according to local NGOs, most displaced Syrians in Lebanon are only earning $2 to $3 a day. “Lebanon runs on cheap Syrian labour,” a young Lebanese aid worker told me, his face souring.
It’s not rare to see boys, young boys, picking their way up rickety scaffolding—paint tin hanging from one arm, brush in the other. Mothers and their children toil in the green fields of the Beqaa, tending to the vines of the region’s award-winning wineries. In Beirut, kids build the homes and office buildings of the capital’s elite, pour roads, and fix sewers. Syrians are everywhere in Lebanon, at once invisible and inescapable.
So why don’t they leave? Well, their answer would be: and go where?
For most, despite news reports of people returning to Aleppo, going home to Syria is still too dangerous. There are no jobs. No schools. Hospitals lack vital supplies. And that’s in the cities that aren’t being bombed into the ground by the Assad regime, or taken by Turkish forces, or still being held by IS.
“We can’t go back now. If the war does not end in Syria, then we cannot go back. I’m 20 years old, so I’ll be facing army conscription,” Ibrahim says. “If you're 20 you'll be called for army duty, to fight.
"I don't want to fight. I don't want to walk towards death with my own two feet."
Passage to Europe with a smuggler is now almost attainable only by the rich. Plus, the Mediterranean's death toll during the 2015 migrant crisis won't be soon forgotten. "It would be dangerous to travel by boat and very expensive," Ibrahim explains. "For one person it would be around US$7,000, and they would have to go by sea. There is no guarantee they will live. They have to risk their lives."
But staying comes with its own risks. Tension has been rising between Syrians and Lebanese locals for years, as the country strains under the weight of having the highest per capita concentration of refugees in the world. There are more than a million Syrians in Lebanon, plus 500,000 Palestinian refugees who’ve been sheltering from their own conflict for decades—this in a country that had a population of just four million before the war.
Can you imagine that happening elsewhere? It would be like six million refugees arriving in Australia, or some 81 million pouring into the US, in the space of just a few years. There would be riots on the streets.
The history between Lebanon and Syria is fraught too. In 1976, Syrian troops entered Lebanon under the pretence of stabilising a country rapidly tumbling into civil war. They stayed for nearly 30 years, a period many Lebanese see as an occupation. Only in 2005, after the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, were Syrian forces pushed out by protestors who believed their government was complicit in Hariri's death. Then, just a few years after the soldiers left, millions of Syrians came fleeing back across the border.
But somehow Lebanon hasn’t descended into chaos. In many ways, it’s incredible to see how the country has sheltered wave after wave of Syrians driven from their homes. Even as the influx of people has seen rents rise, hospitals overflow, and electricity blackouts become commonplace. The country’s garbage crisis—a can kicked down the road since the end of its civil war nearly 30 years ago—now spills onto streets and beaches.
It’s estimated the Syrian refugee crisis has cost the Lebanese economy $18.15 billion, hitting young people particularly hard hit. Youth unemployment is between three and four times that of the broader population rate. In Wadi Khaled, on the country’s northern border near the Syrian city of Homs, it’s hit 58 percent.
Even in Beirut, among some of the country’s most privileged young people, there’s growing discontent about their future, if the war continues. Students coming out of the country’s top school, the American University of Beirut, struggle to find work. And that’s with the help of wasta, two young Lebanese men told me in a dim bar in Gemmayze, explaining the complex system of favours, friendships, and bribes that makes Lebanon tick.
I asked them if there was a direct English translation for wasta. One, an AUB student soon to graduate, chuckled. “Corruption,” he explained, simply.
His friend, a young lawyer at a big four accountancy firm, weighed in, stone-faced. “You need to tell the truth of what is happening here,” he said to me, laying out how hard it had been to find a graduate job in this economy.
And the truth of what’s happening here is that, in a country that runs on wasta, serious problems will come when young people graduating from the country’s most elite university worry they’ll never find jobs. Smart young people with very few prospects, starting to question why things are the way they are. In May, many of them will vote for the first time ever in Lebanon’s parliamentary elections, which haven’t been held for eight years.
We finished up our drinks, but the student stopped me. There was something he wanted to clarify. His problem wasn’t with the Syrians, he explained, but the bigger forces at play here that are wreaking havoc on all their young lives. “I didn’t choose to be Lebanese, just like they didn’t choose to be Syrian,” he told me. “It’s just like I didn’t choose to be Shi’a or Sunni, and neither did they.”
The frustration these young men feel is echoed in the Beqaa. There’s a whole generation of young people there who’ve spent the better part of a decade waiting for their lives to begin again. Syria’s “lost generation,” as the media has taken to calling them. It’s not clear what being an adult is meant to look like when your youth has been destroyed by war.
Aahed, 19, lives in one of the Beqaa’s many ITS’ with her parents, brother, and her young daughter, Douaa. “It means prayer… In Islam, we make douaa, or call upon our God,” she explains pulling her toddler into her lap. "My husband chose this name, not me.”
He died in Aleppo, her husband, when a bomb fell on the home they shared. If things had been different, she would have mourned his death for months, not really speaking to anyone outside her family as tradition instructs. But every day the war was getting worse. "There was no one left for me over there," she says, over in Syria.
With a seven-month-old Douaa in tow, Aahed set off from Aleppo towards the mountains that divide Syria from Lebanon. The plan was to find her parents, who'd fled to the Beqaa Valley a year and a half before. In the mayhem of war, a trip that should've taken hours stretched out into days. Eventually though, the family was reunited, something Aahed says she'd thought might never happen on the day her parents left Syria.
Su-ree-yah. There’s melancholy in the way the name sounds in Arabic.
How many other ways are there to tell the story of the Syrian War?
In the seven years since it began, so many journalists have tried to pull this matted conflict apart. Each and every thread followed; across the Middle East, into Europe, and beyond. They gave the world a front row seat as refugees risked life and limb—facing beatings, persecution, unimaginable tragedy, racism, and the crippling bureaucracy of the world's humanitarian resettlement program—all in desperate search for somewhere safe. But there's escaping the constant threat of death, and then there's actually living.
"They just destroyed Syria, you know?” my driver in Beirut told me, quietly, as he wove through the city's streets, signalling each lane change with a blast of his horn. I didn’t feel the need to ask who they were. Everyone has their own theory of who should be blamed for all this horror the world is still grappling with seven years on.
In some ways, the Syrian War is a story of how the people who professed to love a country actually destroyed it. How a leader with despotic tendencies in fear of overthrow, rebel infighting, the rise of a new global terror threat, and ruthless proxy wars literally tore a country apart.
In other ways though, this war has become the story of how a country can never really be destroyed. How something persists—even through the chemical attacks, the abductions, mass rapes and beatings, the bombings, torture, murders, through crucifixions, the fire of hell cannons, the disappearances, and the public executions. How some things can’t be killed, because they were smuggled out across the border long ago.
“Syria is my mother,” Aahed’s mother, Sourayya, told me one afternoon in the small kitchen at the back of their family's tent. Nearby, Aahed lit a portable stove to make lunch for Douaa.
“There's a lot I will tell her about Syria,” Aahed chimed in, motioning to Douaa. “I'll tell her about the way we were living. The way our lives were, and what they became after the war. All the beautiful parts of our lives that we experienced before.”
She stilled. She looked, for a moment, like a 19-year-old kid.
“I hope her life will be a lot better than ours,” Aahed continued, looking at her daughter, “by the will of God. I wish I could return to Syria. I would go today, if I could. I hope to see the situation there settle down, so we could go back to the way it was, and make it even better.”
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