While stuck in yet another traffic jam in the city of Beirut, I look at the cars around me: a BMW here, a Hyundai there, a Toyota, a Range Rover, nothing out of the ordinary. But then I pay more attention, looking closer. I spot the variety of license plate colors, the usual white and blue Lebanese plates, the red taxi plates, and the green rental car plates.
Then I notice certain ones that would have definitely stood out to me a few years ago. But now, with the Syrian cars populating the streets of Beirut, the black and white plates seem synonymous with the rest.
Another noticeable change on the streets is the increase of Syrian refugees in Beirut, knocking on people’s car windows to either beg for money or sell the cheapest gum, tissue paper, or candy they can get their hands on. Drivers have become immune to it, since it has become so standard at traffic lights and busy intersections that more often than not people seem to not even acknowledge their presence. On the rare occasions they do, a few thousand Lebanese pounds (1,500 Lebanese pounds accounts for one dollar) would be spared through a cracked window. A short-term fix, for a long-term problem.
One of these people spending their days on the streets is Sahar, a young 20-year-old mother of three. She sits despairingly on the sidewalk leaning back onto a light pole for support. One child is in her arms while the other rests his head on her lap. It is the beginning of January, with temperatures dropping to 10 degrees Celsius (about 50 degrees Fahrenheit), the mother and two of her children seek warmth under one thin blanket while the third child, a green-eyed girl, sits on the cold pavement. Her large green eyes unblinkingly stare at me, as her teeth clatter against each other from the cold.
Sahar was forced out of Syria and into Lebanon about 6 months ago. Some of her family is still back in Syria, dangerously accepting to continue life in the war-torn country, but Sahar was determined to bring herself and her three children to safer grounds.
When clashes between the rebel and government fighters erupted in her neighborhood, Sahar knew it was time she left Syria.
“I was pregnant and lost the baby because of the fighting,” she said.
Although Sahar was supposed to flee the country with her husband, he was caught at a checkpoint, presumably to be drafted into the army, forcing her to travel to Lebanon alone.
She currently rents out a small room with her kids. There are about 10 other families that live in the same area, each family renting out just one room. In some cases, a single room is packed with more than 10 people.
This is a familiar situation many Syrian refugees are forced to go through, scavenging to find whatever form of shelter they can, whether it is a tent in the Bekaa Valley or a small room in Beirut. Both these accommodations pose their own unique challenges and hardships. None of them can be called home, and little support is offered by the Lebanese government or international aid agencies to ease the burdens all these asylum seekers face.
With children accounting for one million of the refugees, many of them are physically and mentally traumatized by the war. In the case of Sahar’s children, those who have had their lives interrupted by war rarely get a chance of an education.
Sahar’s children do not go to school, but instead spend their days by her side as she begs people for money. In fact, a video by Save the Children recently went viral, shedding light on what many Syrian children are forced to go through.
But children are not the only ones traumatized by the war.
“After the war started, I have been scared of everything,” Sahar said.
Yet Sahar was one of the few people who agreed to be interviewed. After asking nine Syrian refugees if they would answer some questions, only two women agreed to help. Two other women were willing to be interviewed at first, but when they saw a cellphone being used as a voice recorder, they quickly covered their faces with their hands or veil. Even after explaining that the phone was just for voice recording, they still refused.
Their fear for being photographed and recognized can be a testament to life under a tyrannical regime. The fear of imprisonment, torture, and even death, was a noticeable concern for all those I attempted to interview. Living outside of their devastated country, the pillars of oppression were still very much intact.
“No no, I don’t want to,” was a recurring response from most I asked to speak to.
Although the United Nations High Commissioners for Refugees has registered approximately 980,700 refugees in Lebanon, many Syrians remain unregistered. Sahar has not registered with the UNHCR because she said she does not have the information on how to do so.
“I don’t know where to go,” she said. “If someone can help me and show me where to go, I will go.”
This is also an issue with other refugees who do not have enough information on how to register with the UNHCR.
Another Syrian mother of two, Layal, who also begs for money on the streets, does not know where to go to register as a refugee.
As of Feb. 2014, the UNHCR has appealed for $4.2 billion, and has only received 14 percent of the funding necessary for food, shelter, and other supplies.
With no end in sight to the Syrian conflict and the growing refugee problem, Layal and Sahar still have hope of one day returning to their homeland, sharing a similar dream of peace for the future.
“My hope for the future,” said Sahar, “is to go back to Syria.”
Hope seems like the only shining light amongst all the desolation endured by Syrian refugees. For the rest of us, hope cannot be our guiding light to address this problem, rather, we must act with all our powers to be a changing force in the miserable plight of the Syrian people.
*Since those interviewed preferred to remain anonymous, the names provided in this article are false.