Play time with cousins, math and Arabic studies, a favorite electric bike: Jabi*, 12, remembers her life in Syria before the conflict that has caused four million refugees to flee the country, and another seven million civilians to be displaced.
Jabi’s family, her mother and brother, fled to Lebanon one year ago with her aunt, uncle, and grandmother. A year earlier, her father had been kidnapped by an armed group. They have not heard from him since.
“My husband is missing; our house was destroyed in shelling; my brother was killed during an air bombing,” Jabi’s mother, Halima, says. “All of our houses were destroyed,” she adds, looking at her mother and sister. “All of my sons in Syria have been displaced,” grandmother Amira says.
“We moved three times before finding this apartment,” Halima says, glancing into the darkness of the breezeblock shelter. The room is a basic shelter, without proper insulation, plaster, or paint. The family has made it a little more comfortable with mattresses, pillows, and blankets, but “during storms, it’s very bad,” says Jabi. “Water pours in through the cracks in the walls and it’s very cold.”
The small extended family shares three small rooms like this for US$200 monthly rent. It does not include electricity, which costs another US$33 per month and is essential to power their lights and recharge their phone.
The family uses mobile phone applications like “whatsapp” to communicate with relatives who have remained in Syria. “Our relatives are very tired. They have been under siege for so long,” Halima says. The mobile also holds memories, photographs of home. Jabi pulls up a picture of her with her brother. They are riding an electric bike.
“I liked riding in front with my brother,” she says with a quiet giggle. Amira, her grandmother shouts from her bed in the corner: “See?! THAT was our life in Syria – an electric bike! That was the dignity we had in Syria.”
The once middle-class family now relies on charity to assist them in purchasing food, paying rent, and covering medical expenses. “Without CARE and the World Food Programme we couldn’t do it,” Jabi’s aunt, Samira, says. CARE has been providing the family with a subsidy of $175 each month for the last seven months.
They worry, however, that expenses will increase when they are required to renew their visitor visas, now every six months. Renewal of Lebanese visas cost $200 per person. “Some people go back to Syria because they cannot pay for the visa. It’s too expensive and there is no money,” says Halima.
To help the family, Jabi’s brother, Ibrahim*, 14, works for a local mechanic, repairing and painting cars, earning a meagre US$30 per week.
Halima would prefer her children were attending school. “They have been without school for two years,” she says. “The first year was when we were displaced inside Syria. I kept them home after their father was taken.” They stayed in Syria as long as a brother-in-law could provide for them. But when the siege grew worse, and his money could not reach them, they fled the country.
Jabi, who completed grade five, loved her studies. “She should be in grade eight now, but she hasn’t been able to attend school,” her mother explains. The costs of education are too high for many refugee families, who cannot afford the expense of transportation, books, or other fees.
To pass the time, Jabi has participated in short courses for French and English language training, provided locally by aid agencies.
She wants to attend school again, but for now she must wait. Still, she has a goal, a dream. “I want to be a doctor when I grow up,” says Jabi. “In Syria I used to sit with my cousin at her work. She was a pharmacist.”
Jabi hopes the future holds something better. “I want this war to end,” she says. “I expect the world is so much bigger, with so many more people. With time, the world changes. I hope the war will be over one day.”
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of individuals.