The courtyard of the former mall in Lebanon that has become home to around 1,000 Syrian refugees.
In the central courtyard of an abandoned shopping mall in northern Lebanon, Hamad affectionately squeezes the cheek of one of his younger sisters. She briefly feigns disgust before planting a kiss on his cheek, turning on her heel, and running off into one of the many derelict shops that have become homes for Syrians fleeing the conflict in their home country.
Around 1,000 refugees—most of them Sunnis from the Syrian provinces of Hama and Idlib—currently live in the former shopping center, which is nestled in the small village of Deddeh, north of Tripoli. Most residents profess support for the Syrian opposition, though a number are in favor of the Assad regime and others appear apathetic, more concerned with looking after their families the the politics that led to them having to flee.
"Most of the kids here aren't enrolled in school," says 17-year-old Hamad, who fled the northern Syrian city of Aleppo two months ago. "Some attend the local mosque for a couple of hours every day and receive instruction in reading and writing, but most of the time they don’t have anything to do and just try to amuse themselves."
The satellite dishes clinging precariously to the shopping center's walls are one potential avenue of amusement, but the sound of TV news bulletins reporting the rising death toll in Syria doesn't exactly lift the mood. While the kids chase each other around and play with whatever they can get their hands on, a group of older men sit on plastic chairs and upturned pots, chatting over glasses of sweet tea and packs of cheap cigarettes.
"Often it feels like the adults are in the same position," says Hamad. "It can be hard to amuse yourself when there's no work and you have no money to spare. Sometimes this place can feel like a prison."
Work, like educational opportunities, is scarce, making it a constant struggle to pay the monthly rent of nearly $250—an extraordinarily high figure given both the meager living conditions and the fact that it's possible to find rooms for a similar price in some of Beirut’s richer districts.
Hamad holding a young resident of the former mall.
Hamad should be completing school this year, but four months ago his father was killed by a piece of shrapnel from an exploding mortar in Aleppo. The eldest of four children, he has now become the family’s principal breadwinner, working at a nearby quarry and making up to $20 a day. But, he says, work is by no means guaranteed on a daily basis, and making ends meet can be difficult.
"There are so many Syrians here in Lebanon now that many Lebanese are offering as little as $7 for a day’s manual labor," says Yasser Al-Hassan, who hails from the town of Mehardeh in Homs province. He and his extended family of 12 have been living in a spartan room on the complex's ground floor for 18 months. "They don't care if you say no because someone else will always say yes."
Yasser Al-Hassan with his two children.
As Yasser speaks, his daughter emerges from the adjacent room. He picks up the seven-year-old girl, who has blisters around her mouth, and sits her next to him on his battered old Yamaha motorcycle. Like many in the complex she suffers from the skin infection cutaneous leishmaniasis, or "Aleppo boil," which is transmitted by sandfly bites and causes lesions to break out and spread over the body. Although NGOs have a presence in the abandoned mall, Yasser says he is struggling to balance paying the monthly rent with obtaining suitable treatment for his daughter.
"Before the civil war, there was oppression and injustice, but we were happy. We weren't wealthy, but we had jobs—we did OK," he says with a deep sigh. "Now, I can’t even provide for my children’s educational and medical needs."
Residents claim that current aid efforts are insufficient to alleviate even basic nutritional and medical problems, and in an environment now defined by anxiety and tension it's common for arguments to degenerate into physical confrontations. More often than not, restoring order is left to the residents themselves, although the local police have been called in occasionally.
Predictions that Lebanon is due for its most severe winter in a century is causing further concern, especially now that cracks are starting to appear in the walls and ceilings thanks to damp and mildew. There's no central heating in the complex, and no sewage system to permanently accommodate hundreds of refugees.
That said, many Syrians in Lebanon live in worse conditions. According to the UN's Higher Relief Council (UNHCR), there are 780,000 Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, though the Lebanese government puts the figure closer to 1.3 million, taking into account refugees who haven't registered with the UNHCR. If the government estimate is correct, Syrian refugees now account for over a quarter of Lebanon’s population.
Inside one of the rooms of the former mall.
Lebanon has witnessed numerous violent manifestations of the Syrian conflict, and two weeks ago caretaker Prime Minister Najib Miqati announced plans to investigate the legal status of unregistered refugees, saying that doing so will help to "safeguard" Lebanon from "imminent dangers" caused by the continued influx into the country.
Animosity towards Syrian presence in Lebanon predates Syria’s current civil war. It has its roots in the Syrian Ba'ath regime's 29-year military occupation (from 1976 to 2005) of the country under the rule of Hafez al-Assad and his currently embattled son, Bashar. Even around Tripoli, where support for the Syrian opposition is strong, a perception that Lebanon is witnessing a new form of occupation can rear its head, and casual racism towards Syrians is becoming increasingly common.
"We civilians had nothing to do with the Syrian occupation. It was the army and the security services—we didn’t want it to happen to them," says Miriam Khalil, a widow with four children who relies on her brother’s paltry income as a fruit and vegetable seller to survive.
"Although Syria and Lebanon are sister states, between us there is this rift," Miriam says, shaking her head. "Often we're treated like we are the enemy, but we've got used to struggling. We can cope with it—we've had to adapt."
Hamad had told me that when the residents are sleeping, local Lebanese will occasionally appear outside the mall and taunt them and fire gunshots into the air. For her part, Miriam complains of being verbally abused on visits to the local UNHCR headquarters in Tripoli, saying that others have had food stamps forcefully taken from them on similar trips.
"We are treated worse than second-class citizens," she says. "We are robbed of our dignity."
Yusra Al-Ghajjar (on the right).
Those unable to cough up the monthly rent receive little sympathy from the center's landowner, according to Yusra Al-Ghajjar, a 50-year-old from Idlib province. "If you can’t pay rent, they kick you out," she says, placing a couple of peppers in brine outside the third-floor room she shares with seven other family members. "They don’t care if you have to sleep on the ground."
Hamoudi in one of the rooms of the former mall.
Inside the room, Yusra's two-year-old nephew Hamoudi is sleeping on a mattress on the floor. Yusra explains that his father was killed in an aerial bombardment in Idlib last year, one of between 100,000 and half a million (depending on which figures you believe) people who have lost their lives in Syria’s two-and-a-half-year-long conflict.
With no sign of the war abating any time soon, the residents of the former mall—along with the masses of other Syrians taking refuge in Lebanon—seem to have little but the prospect of more purgatory ahead of them, in a country that's becoming increasingly hostile.
Follow Martin on Twitter: @scotinbeirut
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