Update 2/8/2022: To protect the identity of the people in this piece, the names are anonymous.
At a humanitarian conference, hosted by the American University of Beirut, a panel of senior United Nations staff and Lebanese ministers gather to speak. It’s 2019, almost nine years into the Syrian war. A Syrian doctor asks: “who is responsible for Syrian refugees?” The panel unanimously agrees that it is the responsibility of the international community.
Not one Syrian refugee is on this panel. The silencing of refugees and local communities is systematic.
In Lebanon, the gaze is on the Bekaa Valley: the region with the largest ratio of refugees per capita in the world. Humanitarians fixate on quantifiable services, as foreign researchers conduct surveys and focus groups. These actions construct an outsider and formulaic refugee narrative. Meanwhile, local organizations in need of funding are often forced to regurgitate and validate these empty narratives – even if services are misaligned with the needs and interests of Syrian refugees.
The humanitarian system traps refugee populations into aid dependency and strips them of their agency. There is no platform to listen, experience, and engage with their voices. Such human understandings of refugees’ daily life complicate, threaten, and undermine this web of outsider control.
It’s a summer evening in Bekaa on W’s porch. We just devoured barbeque chicken, fattoush, and babaganoush. A wife and mother of four, W, is a crochet trainer at Multi-Aid Programs (MAPs), a community based humanitarian organization where I work. She’s the only breadwinner in her family. As she laments on the high costs of rent, food, fuel, and her children’s education, we continue to design toy crochet dolls. These dolls are for a MAPs initiative that provides an income for refugee women while preserving a traditional Syrian craft.
“Our home is your home,” W tells me that evening. K, her 18-year-old daughter, jumps out of her chair. “Stay the night! You can sleep in my bed!” she shouts excitedly. It is the first time they’ve hosted an American.
With its “Red Zone” travel warning, Bekaa manifests fear and anxiety to many outsiders. Arbitrary travel warnings—and bans—imposed by international governments prevent diplomats and high-level UN and World Bank staff from engaging with refugees. This systematic removal from the field inspired me to thoughtfully engage in humanitarian work and to embrace my desire to connect with a population so widely discussed, but so easily silenced. In joining a local Syrian-led organization directly serving a population of over 150,000 refugees in Bekaa, my understanding of the complicated context grows from personal experiences.
Month after month, discussion after discussion, and 7 lbs later, I’ve become part of this Syrian family.
One evening W curls up next to me on the couch in the kitchen, placing her head in my lap. As she begins weeping, K says, “my mom feels so sad because her children don’t study enough…Mo failed his last exam.” Her brother sits quietly. “Why don’t you study?” I ask them. Looking to Mo, he remains silent with a small smirk on his face. W then lifts her head from my lap looking utterly distraught and says, “I work so hard so they can go to school, I can’t continue to pay for this if they keep failing.”
At 17-years-old, Mo is the oldest son. Engaging in conversation with him was challenging in the beginning, especially since his sister rarely gives him the chance to translate, often interrupting him when speaking. I was eager to hear Mo’s voice. But, the more questions I ask him, the more he retreats. “Yallah, practice your English and speak to her!” his mom often says.
Once, Mo confesses to me that he’s in love with his classmate. During exams, he can’t focus because he’s only thinking about her. “She won’t love you back if you fail out of school,” I remind him. He assures me that the next exam will be different. “Inshallah,” we smile.
Constant sadness goes unnoticed at home. Everyone is suffering. Pain and fear manifest differently for each family member. Emerging from this collective suffering and understanding of the daily angst is unseen solidarity. The tight-knit familial and social networks are what keeps W’s family afloat.
Sleeping arrangements and the number of guests are fluid in W’s home. With eleven people in this little apartment, loud noises and commotion continue until late hours of the night. I usually share the bedroom with K and her two youngest brothers. Mo sleeps in the salon. Their aunt, T, (W’s younger sister), and her young son share one of the twin beds because she’s seeking a divorce.
“Is everything ok with T?” I ask K one night, noticing T’s tense face as she vigorously types on her phone. “Her husband wants her to come home, but she’s refusing. Her husband loves her, but he’s a very bad man,” she replies. “What does your mom think?” I ask. “She doesn’t want her sister to go back to her husband, but the men in our family won’t let T live alone, so she has to make a difficult decision,” K calmly replies.
Mi, W’s niece, also lives with us. I first met Mi in the kitchen when her hands were covered in oil, so we exchanged two kisses. “How old do you think I am?” She asked with a giant smile. “27!” I respond quickly. Guessing it correctly, she jumped up and down, this time hugging me tightly. I was also in shock. We’re the same age.
Mi ran away from her abusive husband in the middle of the night with her 2-year-old daughter. One morning she held a propane stove in her hands demonstrating to me how her husband slammed it on her head. Life as a single woman is riddled with challenges: the fear of husbands taking their children; the stigmatization from family members and society; the risk of not being able to support yourself. Mi’s mother (W’s eldest sister) disapproves of divorce. “She thinks it will make my life more complicated,” Mi sighs.
With nowhere else to run, T, Mi, and their children seek haven here, sleeping on mattresses in the kitchen, the salon, or sharing beds. W, forbidden by her brothers to let her sister and niece live alone, leaves her door open: doing what she can to support their pursuit of freedom. All the while, T and Mi anxiously look for second jobs, determined to support themselves. Their monthly salaries from the crochet project do not cover their expensive divorce fees and medical bills.
Mi’s first husband died in the war. After his death, her two sons were taken against her will by the husband’s family. She hasn’t seen them since because the family prevents Mi from setting foot in the tented settlement where they live. Hearing this story over dinner, it suddenly sounded familiar: I met Mi’s sons in their tent where they live with their deceased dad’s sister and mother. “Her sons live with a woman named M,” W says quietly, confirming my suspicion. “Have you seen my boys?!” Mi shrieks. I nod softly, and before I can process this eerie coincidence, Mi stormed to the empty bedroom in tears, slamming the door shut behind her. “Her sons were told their mom died,” K then reveals. We resumed eating, and 30 minutes later Mi approached me, opened armed and with a smile.
Each week, Mi visits new doctors, determined to find the right medication for her anxiety. Arriving home with plastic bags full of new medications, Mi appears hopeful. Showing me her new pill containers, I urge her to stop buying more medicines before waiting to see what may work. She nods her head, but I feel her impatience for an instant result. Curing this degree of anxiety and depression requires more than a pill prescribed by an unspecialized doctor and pharmacist. But access to the necessary psychological treatment is almost non-existent here in Bekaa.
“I will make you a gift!” Mi exclaims one evening, waving her crochet needle in the air. With the needle in her hand, she’s in control—and she can breathe. Her voice is loud and full of energy, the house feels empty when she’s not home. “Natalie look at my eyes!” Mi insists, still waving her needle. We lock eyes as she quickly crochets with precision. Her young daughter from her second marriage is seated in my lap in the saloon. There are no couches, but we are cozy sitting on the floor. Floral futon mattresses make an L shape around the fuel heater. Her daughter and I watch in amazement as she crochets without looking. All of us laugh hysterically as Mi bounces side to side, humming a made-up song about crocheting a backpack while maintaining eye contact with me. Twenty minutes later, she hands me my tiny gift. “You can take it to work!” she jokes.
K struggles, too. Even though she seems comfortable sharing stories with me, she shares selectively and without any attempt to analyze her emotions. I don’t force K to speak; I wait for her cues. “We are used to having people come and go in our lives, friends leave to go back to Syria or Europe. We don’t tell our new friends everything about our past,” K says one day. “What can my new friends do about all my problems?” she questions. “Actually, nobody can do anything about my problems but myself.”
One year ago, K attempted to end her life by consuming a bottle of vitamin supplements. “I made a cocktail and went to school,” she tells me with a smile on her face, as if she didn’t believe it was real. Rolling up her sleeves, she shows me the scars from where she cut her arms. It has been six months since I met K. We finished eating our makloubeh and tabbouleh and are sitting on the couch in the kitchen with full stomachs. Her mom and aunt are across from us crocheting dolls which will be sold in Norway. The kitchen door continues to slam open and closed as her siblings and cousins, the neighbors, and their children, run in and out of the room.
Mo’s sadness is clear, but it manifests differently than K’s. “I hate being at home,” Mo tells me. He also tells me that he doesn’t like school. “Why not?” I ask him. “I don’t know, I just don’t like it,” he responds. Cracking Mo’s code also takes patience. He is both unmotivated to study for exams, yet consumed with angst about his test scores and future. “I feel so much pressure to do well,” he tells me. He’s constantly reminded by his teachers and family of the competition to receive a scholarship for studying abroad. “My dream is to study engineering in America!” he smiles. He’s gifted and studies robotics programming after school at MAPs.
After seven months of knowing Mo, he types me a passage in google translate. Handing back my phone, I read: “In Homs where joy spread in our house, my father would care for me, giving me all the care and affection (…) I set a goal in my life that I strive to achieve until I see the joy and pride in the eyes of my father.”
Despite his 6’5 frame, scruffy grey beard, and gaping stomach, A, Mo’s father, has a gentle and easily shown smile. He occasionally picks me up from work in their beaten-up car that needs to be hot-wired. While I’m comfortable with him, we don’t speak much. With my limited Arabic, what should be effortless small talk, sometimes feels exhausting.
Syrians are only legally allowed to work as farmers, construction workers, and cleaners – working long hours for only a few dollars a day. A’s usual work is construction but, since the economy collapsed, Lebanon has halted building. During the day he mopes around the house with nothing to do, waiting for an opportunity to provide for his family. His evenings are often spent playing backgammon with friends. “I want to go back to Syria to work,” A tells me. He still waits for his old boss to pay him for several months of work.
One evening during dinner A saw my eyes glance at his fingerless hand. With pride, he exclaims he lost it in the war. But later that night lying in bed, K tells me that her father likes to lie. “He’s ashamed of what happened to him because his finger was sliced off on the job site and he had to pay the medical bills,” she whispers. “You know, life here is very difficult. The war changed everything. In Syria, my parents loved each other so much. It was love at first sight! Now my dad is always lying and yelling. We don’t like him to be home,” K reveals. I ask K if her mother wants a divorce. “Of course, all women want a divorce here,” she giggles.
Beirut, overrun by traffic, aggressive taxi drivers, garbage, and bombed out buildings, is full of cozy cafes, trendy night clubs, and plastic surgery. Combined with old French architecture, smells of homemade cooking wafting from balconies, street cats, overgrown flower pots, and familiar faces, there is an undeniable charm and comfort. I spend half my time in Beirut, which has become my space for recharging and reflecting. Transitioning between Beirut and Bekaa each week can leave me disoriented. These spaces present not only different visuals, but also unique traumas, social behaviors, and dress codes. They are entirely different boundaries.
On October 17, 2019, when the Lebanese Revolution began, I was stuck on the “other side” in Beirut. For weeks, I was unable to leave the city because of blocked roads and mass protests. The pain and anger of the Lebanese people were palpable, yet their solidarity was inspiring. I was absorbed in Lebanon’s crisis, but my Syrian family was constantly on my mind. They were scared. And I was too – how will the revolution affect the treatment of refugees? I missed the warmth of my Syrian family. I missed my coworkers and their stories about Syria. I missed the energy of the crochet studio.
Weeks later, when the roads reopen, I return to the passenger seat of a rundown diesel van with a sliding door that barely shuts. A lit cigarette dangles from the old driver’s mouth as he uses two hands to swerve up and over the mountains at top speed. Local music blares so loudly the driver can barely hear the passengers asking to be let out. I take a deep breath, finding solace in the fresh air and a change of scenery. This informal public transport system, run by mafias, is my only way to Bekaa.
Entering Bekaa, an hour northeast of Beirut, my van passes a military checkpoint without inspection. Hezbollah flags hang from electricity cables, military tanks roam, and sheep cross the roads. The van tailgates a pickup truck where children and young women, wearing dirty baseball caps over their hijabs, sit among piles of potatoes. We also share the road with four by fours stamped with the United Nations’, and other international non-governmental organizations’, logos. Taxi drivers swarm the van as the passengers pile out, hoping one of us is traveling to Syria. “Damascus! Damascus!” They shout. The Syrian border is minutes away.
At the office, I first make my way to the crochet studio, where the artists are busy at work. W and I embrace tightly. One by one the artists excitedly dangle their completed dolls in the air for me to see. We all marvel at the new designs, oohing and aahing over every little detail. The energy in the room is addicting. The artists resume proudly and I confirm new orders with W. “What time will you finish work today?” W asks. “And what do you want for dinner?” Laughing, I remind her that I love everything she cooks and return to my desk downstairs.
On the other side of W’s hall, you can hear laughing. The neighbors, another Syrian family from Homs, also sit in their kitchen. These families constantly interact: their front doors are always left a crack open and invitations are never required. W’s family and I lounge with G and her six adult daughters almost every night, usually smoking hookah. Their hijabs are always off across the hall, revealing the quickly greying hair of the young women. I’m told the father is “disappeared,” code for most likely dead in a Syrian prison.
Like W’s children, G’s daughters dream of enrolling in university. But, again, it’s impossible. They don’t have money for tuition or access to scholarships. Nor do they speak English, the language of Lebanese universities. With little opportunity to study or work, the young women apply for vocational courses at local organizations. The daughters keep binders of their training certificates, hoping that these pieces of stamped paper will land them a job in the future.
They also fantasize about finding successful husbands to start a family with. Exhaling her hookah smoke in rings, the 20-year old daughter tells me that she ended her engagement to a Lebanese man she met on Facebook. “He lied about having money and a fancy car,” she sighs.
K is more hesitant about marriage and motherhood. She often reminds me of how she doesn’t want children and that her education is the priority. “I’m waiting for real, real love,” K tells me. “I will only get married to a man who won’t lie,” she continues. She laughs, slapping her legs and tells me, “But all men lie, so I want to live alone!”
As she waits for real love, K receives messages from unknown men on Facebook and Instagram. Unsure of how to respond, she seeks my advice privately. I understand her excitement and curiosity to engage in conversation. She goes to a religious all-girls school, and she is not allowed out of the house alone because of fear of male harassment. But I encourage her against replying and remind her of the neighbor’s lying ex-fiancé. “You are like my sister I never had,” K exclaims.
K dreams of becoming a psychologist. When I asked her if she’s spoken to one before, she told me that she had one session with her school’s social worker. “It wasn’t helpful at all,” she assures me. W was listening to our conversation with her back to us standing at the kitchen sink. “Translate!” W laughs. As K summarized our discussion, W turns, nodding her head. As she walks closer towards me, she explains how S, her middle son, had difficulties communicating when they arrived in Lebanon due to war trauma. W brought him to a social worker who asked S to draw a picture of the family. S depicted his dad alone in the corner of the paper. “The social worker told me the issue is his father and suggested no solutions,” W frowns.
S still struggles to communicate. He’s also failing school. One night, I ask S to get his workbook and pen, motivating him to study for his science exam. W anxiously watches as S opens his book. But it’s written in English. S looks at me with desperation. He has no idea what is written. I hug him closely, reminding him that it’s not his fault he fails. I can’t control the tears running down my cheeks. K passes me a tissue “Don’t cry, this is normal!” she laughs.
Since attempting suicide, Ki spends more time memorizing the Koran. At 2 am I can hear her rehearsing verses through the bedroom wall. At first, I understood this as a fully self-imposed spiritual revival. But, one evening K mentioned how she studies the Koran to make her mother happy. She’s also bored at home and needs to keep her mind busy. Memorization, K and Mo tell me, helps them with stress. I also learned that it was W who pushed for K to enroll in a religious school. “My mom thought religion would help me with all my problems,” K sighs.
Despite K’s determination to cure her psychological distress on her own, panic can still consume her life. At 11.30 pm on a weekday in January, K begins hyperventilating. Trying to understand if this has happened before, the family tells me she is sick with a fever. Touching her forehead as her eyes roll behind her head, it’s clear there’s no fever – but a severe panic attack. Twenty minutes of confusion and worry later, we drive K to the hospital. A Lebanese doctor provides oxygen and tells us that K needs to see a “good psychologist.” But “good” clinicians are too expensive, especially since quality treatment requires routine sessions.
Mi too has panic attacks. Her family says she suffers from a “broken heart”. This diagnosis is used repeatedly by the family to describe a type of raw pain and suffering that can’t be reduced to western mental health terminology. It’s hard to know what causes her frequent fainting. Some days Mi eats not even a parcel of food.
W also suffers from a broken heart, but silently. Her family drowns in death, including the death of her youngest sister who suffocated by gas in the shower just two years ago in Bekaa. I am told that W’s mother and the sister’s husband died soon after from “broken hearts.” K tells me this while eating dinner. “My aunt taught me how to cook this dish,” she says. Tears poured down her face as she gasped for air. I put my spoon down to rub her back, and I thanked her for sharing this story with me. I also reached for W’s arm, and as we locked watery eyes, she remained silent across the small foldable table. The dish was a favorite of her deceased sister.
I’ve attended endless humanitarian conferences in Beirut. From well air-conditioned conference rooms, I listen to well-paid foreign humanitarian workers and academic researchers attempt to make sense of Lebanon’s refugee crisis through complex frameworks and pie charts. They rarely ever stepped foot in the field yet assume the authority to construct and present their version of refugees’ reality.
Seated in the audience of these conferences, I imagine a world where the international community supports platforms for active listening to Syrians and where refugees could be understood as equal capable agents of change and development. A world where initiatives like MAPs were valued for restoring dignity and hope in unprecedented circumstances, and credited for its effort in resisting the systems reinforcing dependency.
In claiming that the international community is responsible for Syrian refugees, the high-level expert panel reminds us how this narrative of refugee dependency is institutionalized: donor demands reinforce this depiction of Syrians as needy, vulnerable, and incapable of solving their own problems. Calls for proposals targeting “resilience-building” for “vulnerable refugees,” force local organizations to reduce the complexity of life into quantifiable indicators and standardized language. This glimpse into W’s family reminds us that vulnerability and resiliency are interacting categories, changing each day.
For Syrians who survived cluster bombs, starvation, torture, and the loss of family, the outward appearance of Bekaa’s matrix, or “Red Zone”, is hardly intimidating. “The Lebanese are crazy!” they laugh, as cars shamelessly drive on the wrong side of the road. Though humor is often a survival tool here, it’s hard to find ways to laugh about the lack of security or stability. This is a reality where planning a future is impossible because opportunities to leverage potential or earn money are systematically denied. Humanitarian stakeholders, reluctant to face refugees’ daily plight, are also failing to hold governments accountable. Left unprotected and deprived of their human right to live in dignity, refugees are forced to fend for themselves.
As the catastrophe continues, refugees in Bekaa wait in this open-air prison, crying, laughing, giving, and receiving love: trying to live one day at a time.
 Inshalla is a commonly used Arabic phrase meaning ‘God willing.’ Depending on the context, it can also be understood as ‘hopefully’ or ‘ok’, and can imply that something won’t happen.
 A traditional Syrian dish consisting of meat, rice and eggplant placed in a pot which is flipped upside down when served, hence the name makloubeh, meaning “upside-down.”
 The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is the agency mandated to protect refugees, and assist with asylum, local integration, resettlement and safe repatriation. In 2015, the Lebanese government stopped UNHCR from registering refugees: an estimated half a million refugees remain unregistered and without any legal protection. UNHCR’s failure to ensure a safe and voluntary return to Syria presents an additional emergency.