Syrian recyclers help tackle Lebanon garbage crisis

Project aims to reduce Beirut's brimming landfills, and give much-needed work to vulnerable Syrian refugees.

Syrian refugees are helping Lebanon to tackle a mounting garbage crisis.

Standing over a waste-filled garbage cart, Gharam, 36, sifts through plastic bottles and cardboard boxes at a recycling centre in Ouzai, on the outskirts of Beirut.

Gharam is one of six Syrian refugee women who were offered their first-ever paid job at Recycle Beirut, a year-old Lebanese recycling project that aims to contribute to solving the protracted waste crisis that has plagued Lebanon since 2015. The initiative also offers much-needed work opportunities for vulnerable Syrian refugees in the country.

“When we came here, I had to start from scratch, with my children, no husband, no one to turn to. But when I got this job, things started turning around,” says Gharam, who, like all five of her Syrian colleagues, lost her husband in the country’s ongoing civil war.

Lebanon is host to more than a million registered Syrian refugees. Equivalent to almost a quarter of the country’s population, the small Middle Eastern nation hosts more refugees per capita than any other country.

“We are offering a social and environmental service at the same time."

While the Lebanese job market is not open to foreigners in all sectors, Syrian refugees with residency are legally allowed to work in the environmental and cleaning sectors. However, many Syrians struggle to find work amid a limited number of job opportunities.

“The project not only benefits Lebanon by contributing to preserve the environment, it also gives dignity and a chance for the most vulnerable refugees to give back to the community that is hosting them in exile,” says Mireille Girard, the representative in Lebanon for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

“Such creative, solid enterprise should be encouraged and acknowledged. They see positive solutions to every challenge,” she adds.

Gharam’s sister Ola, who also works at the recycling centre, says the job has helped give her life in exile a new sense of meaning. “Before this job I used to spend my days sitting idly by. I constantly felt bored and lonely. But my days have a purpose now – I feel productive.”

Recycle Beirut aims to help solve Lebanon's protracted waste crisis and give much-needed jobs to vulnerable Syrian refugees.

Ola and Gharam each earn US$20 a day to sort through recyclable material such as cans, paper and plastics, and arrange them according to size and quality before they are sent for recycling elsewhere in the country.

“Part of our project is to create job opportunities for both Lebanese and Syrian communities,” explains Beirut Recycle's co-founder, Kassem Kazak. “We are trying to highlight some of the opportunities that have come out of the crisis, instead of looking at it as an exclusively negative phenomenon.”

Lebanon is faced with enormous environmental challenges. For one, a garbage crisis broke out last summer after the closure of the country’s main landfill site. As rubbish piled up across the capital, Kazak saw a need for change, and an opportunity.

“We came up with the idea to invest in the situation and enable Syrian refugees, especially refugee women, to earn a decent living and to positively contribute to the communities they’re living in,” says Kazak.

"The project not only benefits Lebanon … it also gives dignity and a chance for the most vulnerable refugees."

“We now have six Syrian employees, all of whom are refugee women whose social and financial circumstances are very difficult. We are offering a social and environmental service at the same time,” he adds.

The company also works with Lebanese businesses and views itself as a social enterprise, because its aims to make a return while providing a socially positive service.

Recycle Beirut trained the six women in recycling and impressed upon them its purpose and importance. “They were sceptical at first, but working here helped them feel productive and the training encouraged them to recycle their own waste at home,” says Kazak.

Most of Gharam’s salary goes towards paying the family’s rent. Despite having a job, and receiving US$189 in food assistance every month, she continues to struggle to make ends meet.

“Things have changed a lot since we left Syria,” she says. “Back home, we used to own a car and our house was fully equipped. Our children used to go to school, and learn English.” Gharam fled her hometown of Eastern Ghouta with her children in 2013.

Despite the difficulties, Gharam says she is happy. The opportunity to work provides her with a sense of security and hope for a better future.