No Place like Home
Stories of Syrian Refugees In Exile

Three years after the uprising in Syria, the country is in the midst of a war with no end in sight.

A Syrian refugee watches television inside an abandoned slaughterhouse near Akkar, Lebanon. The space is shared by sixteen families who live in tents erected inside the building.

Map of refugee settlements & pop concentration:

There are now well more than a million refugees from Syria living in Lebanon. Left to fend for themselves, they are living in cramped rentals on the street or in ramshackle shelters. Syrian refugees are living in almost every part of Lebanon. Those with money rent apartments or share them with other families.

The less fortunate find homes in Palestinian camps or squat in abandoned or repurposed buildings. Those with nothing at all survive in improvised tented settlements on the edges of farmland or roadways. Employment is scarce and clean water and electricity can be hard to find. The strain on families is palpable.

Hidden in plain sight

Lebanon now has the highest number of refugees per capita in the world; a staggering statistic that is pushing the country to the brink, economically and socially. Despite the rapid influx of people fleeing the war in Syria, the Lebanese government has not permitted the UN to establish refugee camps, citing fears of internal strife that stem from Lebanon’s own bloody 15-year civil war. It is now the largest and most complex refugee crisis in recent history.

In Lebanon alone, more than 300,000 Syrian children are registered as refugees. 75% of them haven’t had access to schooling since they arrived.

“Millions of children haven’t been to school for the last three years. Inside Syria, outside Syria. In Lebanon. They are just there. Growing up. Playing soldiers. It is a destroyed generation. It will be a lost generation.”
Wissam Tarif, human rights activist.

Fragile Ground

At one camp in the Bekaa Valley, refugees say they have been overlooked by the UN.

During one of the worst winters on record in Lebanon, refugees were largely left to fend for themselves, with inadequate and leaky shelters, erected on land they can barely afford to rent.

Some of the worst-off are those refugees who have found shelter in agricultural areas, renting pockets of land from farmers. In Lebanon’s lower Chouf area, Nayfa Imad Maatouk, 7, lives with her parents and younger brother and sister. Her family fled the suburbs of Damascus after a chemical attack left her youngest sister recovering from nerve damage and a skin condition. The family lives in a settlement located on the edge of a banana plantation, in a patched-up stone hut with a blue tarpaulin pulled over it. They pay $150 a month to the landowner. They have no electricity or running water. A stream nearby is polluted with pesticide residues and sewage, making clean drinking water an ongoing concern. Approximately 50 families live in this settlement. All are restricted to their homes by an 8 pm curfew imposed on them by the municipality.

In the Bekaa Valley, close to the Syrian border, a new refugee settlement is constructed in a few hours from scrap 2x4s, repurposed burlap sacks and plastic sheeting. Originally from Homs and Hama, these refugees were evicted from their previous settlement after the landowner decided he wanted to use it for farming.

A UN text message informing refugees who have been assessed as ineligible for assistance. Donors to the UN have currently funded only 14% of what's needed to support the refugees. That means that thousands of struggling families have been left to fend for themselves in Lebanon, where there are few options for employment.

Syrian refugees communicate with family in Syria and overseas. In Lebanon, they have respite from the war at home, but few prospects in terms of employment or education for their children. For Syrian refugees, mobile phones are a lifeline. They use them to stay in touch with friends and family scattered across the region by the war, with those unable or unwilling to flee Syria, and with the fortunate few who have managed to be resettled in other countries. Most are left in limbo, waiting for the war to end or for something - anything - to improve.

In Search of a New Home

With few prospects in Lebanon, and no end to the war at home, many Syrians are looking to resettle in other countries, including Canada. At the Golden Beach hotel, a five minute walk from the Canadian Embassy, several families with close relatives in Canada are left in limbo while their loved ones try to navigate Canada’s refugee system. Canada has promised to accept more than a thousand privately sponsored refugees from the war in Syria by the end of this year, but few have actually arrived.

Syrians with close relatives in Canada are denied visas to visit. Now their relatives are spending thousands of dollars in the hopes of sponsoring them as refugees.

Mara waits for news from the Canadian government, keeping as busy as she can and staying in touch with her family in Canada to prevent the creeping anxiety each day brings.

Reporting by David McDougall and Photography by Liam Maloney. Produced by Craig Desson

More Stories about Syria.

Descent Into Chaos

In March of 2011, young Syrians chanted for freedom in the streets. Today, those same streets run with blood.

UN cut off from Syria refugee camp

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Caught In The Syrian Crossfire

An on-the-ground portrait of life under siege in Syria by CBC producer David McDougall.


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