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Syrian refugees face waning support and hope after 13 years


Syrian refugees face waning support and hope after 13 years

Zuhur is among more than 5 million Syrians still living as refugees 13 years into the crisis, but Lebanon’s economic turmoil and decreased humanitarian support have pushed her and others to the brink.
14 March 2024
A woman stands outside in front of lines of washing and a UNHCR shelter

Zuhur, 44, stands outside her family's shelter in the informal tented settlement where they currently live near Tripoli, northern Lebanon.

When Zuhur, 44, fled to Lebanon with her family at the onset of the Syrian crisis in early 2011, she thought it would be only a matter of days before they returned home.

“I carried my youngest son, whom I had just given birth to, and crossed the border with my four other children. We did not even pack a bag of belongings; we truly believed we would not stay in Lebanon for too long,” Zuhur recalled.

But as days stretched to months and then years, Zuhur’s yearning for home was increasingly eclipsed by the day-to-day struggle for survival. Thirteen years after the crisis began, she is one of more than 5 million Syrians still living as refugees in neighbouring countries in the region.

“We have lost 13 years of our lives,” Zuhur said.

In Lebanon, which hosts the largest share of refugees per capita in the world, a dire economic crisis that began in 2019 has caused widespread misery, including for the more than 780,000 registered Syrian refugees. Food prices have more than tripled while unemployment has more than doubled, pushing an estimated 80 per cent of Lebanese into poverty.

For Lebanese and Syrian refugee families who were already struggling before the economic crisis, the last five years have been ruinous. Among Syrians, levels of child labour, early and forced marriages and food insecurity are all on the rise. More than half of refugees live in substandard or unsafe accommodation, and over a third of adults report limiting their food intake to ensure their children are fed.

Like many Syrian refugees, Zuhur and her family live in an informal tented settlement that offers little protection from the extremes of weather that the north of the country experiences. “In the wintertime, the rains flood the tents, and everything we have is drenched. We burn what we can in this stove to keep warm, like plastic bags, shoes, and bottles.”

Zuhur – who worked as a nurse back in Syria after completing her education – blames the sooty fumes released by the burning waste for her daughter’s asthma. Her medical knowledge has come in handy over the past 13 years, allowing her to care for her family and many friends and neighbours.

“I tend to whoever needs help around me, but there are some wounds that you can’t heal,” she explained.

Zuhur’s husband has a disability that prevents him from working, leaving the family entirely dependent on the financial assistance they receive from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and the little money her children earn from menial work such as collecting recyclable materials. Even then, they face a constant struggle to cover the spiralling cost of food, fuel and rent.

A woman hanging washing inside a shelter

Zuhur, a former nurse, hangs washing outside the shelter she occupies with her husband and children.

Such hardship has become a fact of life for many of the over 5 million Syrian refugees in the region. Their plight is compounded by the fact that, while humanitarian needs are reaching unprecedented levels due to economic shocks and prolonged displacement, international funding for the regional plan to meet the needs of the most vulnerable refugees and their host communities has decreased to below 40 per cent. This has forced UNHCR and other partners to make agonizing decisions on how best to prioritize limited resources.

By far the hardest thing for Zuhur over the past 13 years, however, has been to watch her children grow up without the education she herself enjoyed.

“My son picks up plastic from the side of the road for a living. He can barely read or write,” she explained. “My children encountered a lot of discrimination at school. He couldn’t learn anything. It breaks my heart because I am educated. The distances are also a factor, I will not send my daughter to school if it means her having to walk an hour to get there. I fear for her safety.”

As a result, Zuhur has had to make difficult choices to do what she feels is best for her family. One of her sons, Khaled, was considering offers made by smugglers to attempt the dangerous sea journey to Europe in search of a better future, so his mother, desperate to save him from such a risky journey, arranged a marriage for him just shy of his 18th birthday to dissuade him.

“I consider myself to be aware of matters, and I do understand that early marriage is not favourable and even wrong, but I had to arrange my son’s marriage to divert his attention from the boat,” she explained.

“I do not want to lose him. A tent is sometimes safer than the dream of a home,” she concluded. “What matters to me is keeping my family together. Even if it means marriage; I will do whatever it takes to keep us together.”

"We have lost 13 years of our lives."

Zuhur, 44, Syrian refugee and former nurse