“Sometimes it all feels like it’s not real. You think to yourself, ‘how did we end up like this in a tent?’” says Mohammad, gesturing to the tarpaulin-covered shelter made from wood and scrap metal where his family of six live in a settlement in Tripoli, northern Lebanon.
Mohammad, 34, and his wife Asmaa fled conflict in Syria’s Hama governorate in 2013, when their eldest daughter Arkan was just a baby. Now aged 10 and with four younger siblings, all she has ever known is life in an informal settlement, where rain seeps under the flimsy walls in the wet winter months, and the tarpaulin traps the sweltering heat in the summer.
“In the summer, it feels like a furnace. In the winter, it is cold,” Mohammad says. With no wood for their stove during the harsh winter just gone, they resorted to burning shoes and plastic bags. Toxic fumes regularly filled the tent, leaving the kids with chesty coughs. Youngest daughter Sanaa, 2, bears a scar on her head from a recent accident.
“They are sick, and we have no medicine,” their mother Asmaa explains. “My daughter bumped and burned her forehead on the stove, and I could not get her treatment. A rat bit my hand, and I could not get anything for the wound. I have absolutely nothing. Death is more merciful.”
Lebanon’s dire economic crisis – described by the World Bank as one the world’s worst national economic depressions – has had a devastating impact on the most vulnerable families in the country, including Syrian refugees.
With the Lebanese currency in freefall, and the war in Ukraine further exacerbating soaring prices and widespread shortages of food, fuel and medicine, many like Mohammad and Asmaa have had to resort to skipping meals or sending their children to work just to survive.
It is a similar story for many of the 5.7 million Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt, as well as the local communities hosting them. Socio-economic turmoil and the continuing aftershocks of the COVID-19 pandemic have pushed ever more families into poverty, creating unprecedented levels of hardship 11 years into Syria’s crisis.
Maintaining life-saving support for more than 20 million Syrian refugees and members of their host communities will be the focus of an international donor conference on the future of Syria and the region on 10 May in Brussels. For families grappling with rising needs and dwindling economic opportunities, continued international assistance is more vital than ever, despite the myriad global crises that demand donors’ attention.
For Mohammad and Asmaa, their situation is made worse by the fact that currently, neither can work. Mohammad suffers from repetitive strain injuries that leave his arms in constant pain, meaning he is unable to do the manual labour in construction and agriculture that many Syrian refugees rely on. Asmaa used to work in the fields to provide for the family, but now nine months pregnant that is no longer an option.
The assistance they receive from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, does not cover all their needs, and out of desperation, 10-year-old Arkan has now become the family’s main breadwinner.
"I need to help my father."
Her day starts early. She gets up at 6 a.m. and takes a large bag filled with packets of tissues to sell at the roadside. She spends half her day there earning the equivalent of US$1-2 before her father comes to pick her up.
“I’m often teased while I’m selling my tissues, and some kids even pull my hair,” Arkan says. “But I need to help my father.”
While she attends afternoon classes at school, Arkan wishes she could devote her time entirely to her education. “I would like to become a teacher when I grow up,” she says.
As well as worrying about her eldest daughter while she’s out selling on the streets, Asmaa is also anxious about her unborn child. “I worry I will not be able to deliver in a clinic because I can’t afford it,” she says. “It is simply money that we do not have.”
When work and lessons are finally done for the day, Arkan goes outside to play with her siblings and the other children in the settlement. They chase a ball between the tents and, for a brief moment, Arkan can forget about the responsibility she carries for her family and be a child again, dreaming of a better, safer future.