In a world where one in every 113 people have been forced to flee their homes because of war or persecution, it’s vital we the global community dedicate a day to commemorate the strength, courage, and perseverance of millions of refugees. Today is World Refugee Day, and since so many of us in the west are far removed from the devastation facing so many refugees, I decided to share a story from Lebanon. My intention is not to play to your sympathies. In the same way that you’ve read stories about people climbing everest, you will read this woman’s story of life in Beirut, because her life is no less significant than that of a world class climber.
Statistics and numbers are desensitizing, and bad-news fatigue breeds apathy. I literally started this paragraph with numbers and figures, and when I caught my mistake I decided to leave the opening sentence the way it was to acknowledge my mistake. Let us take a moment, and do an exercise together. I want you to say “Mariam” out loud. That’s it, “Maariiiaam,” make sure you enunciate! She is a person, like you and I. We are of the same make, though her story may suggest otherwise. Mariam is in the situation she is in not because she was born into poverty, lazy, uneducated or unintelligent. She’s in this situation because 5 years ago, the Syrian war made its way into her hometown, Daraa, forcing her to flee to neighbouring Lebanon. She’s in this situation because of a series of unfortunate events… events that could have happened to you or me.
Living conditions are as tough for urban refugees as they are for rural. Syrian refugees living in Beirut are harder to locate, and therefore harder to reach with aid and support services. Urban refugees are also expected to pay astronomical rent prices for substandard living conditions, and are often times confronted with a hostile host community (especially in Lebanon because of a complex history between the two countries). This is especially true for 30 year old Mariam, who lives in a concrete factory just outside of Beirut with a 9 month old baby boy, 4 daughters, and her husband.
This factory is also home to 4 other Syrian families. Mariam’s husband worked in the concrete factory before the war in Syria began. Once the war was underway, he continued sending money home, while his family moved around Daraa for safety. At one point, Mariam and her children were living in a 1- bedroom apartment with 5 other families, which she described as “literally being piled on top of one another.” She didn’t want to come to Lebanon, because she had hope that the war would soon end, but as we know, things worsened. Her husband decided that bringing his family to Lebanon was the only option for his family’s safety, so he and a few colleagues made an agreement with the owner of the factory to live on the premises rent-free with their families so long as they built the homes themselves.
Having a conversation without raising voices is nearly impossible in Mariam’s makeshift home. The noise from the factory, coupled with the copious amount of dust hardly makes this an ideal place for a family to live in, especially for her baby boy. The factory doesn’t pay her husband well, and what little pay he does receive goes toward food, which she says “disappears as quickly as it comes.”
There are much more details that Mariam shared with me, which are really horrible and will make you hate the human condition. Instead, I will stop here, and paint you a contrasting picture. Five years ago, she had a house in Syria, and the little money her husband made went a long way for her family. She lived well, and woke up worry free everyday. Fast forward 5 years, and she literally lives in the middle of a factory with a growing family, an unending war on her mind and an exceedingly desperate situation. She described her situation as being unbelievable to her younger self. Even so, Mariam counts herself as lucky since her family doesn’t have to pay rent. Lucky to live in a concrete factory. To think… this could have been me had my parents stayed in Sudan… had there been a war, this truly could have been my life. Would I ever count myself “lucky” to live in such conditions?
Say this woman’s name again. Mariam. Acknowledge her, honour her, and remember her every time you walk on concrete. She is out here, living, breathing, the same way you and I are. When discussing refugees, never forget that they too are humans who love, fear, laugh, cry, and feel in the same way that you do.