Childhood on Hold: Refugee Youth in Lebanon

Childhood on Hold: Refugee Youth in Lebanon

Publication info

Mary Kate MacIsaac

Play time with cousins, math and Arabic studies, a favorite electric bike: Sara*, 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.

Sara’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,” Sara’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 from her bed in the corner of the damp room. The 67-year-old suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure, among other ailments. Four of her children remain in the war-torn country.

“We moved three times before finding this apartment,” Halima says, glancing into the darkness of the breezeblock shelter. Light creeps in from between cracks in the breezeblock wall and windows, poorly covered in a mix of plywood, plastic sheeting, and blankets. The room is a basic shelter, without proper insulation, plaster, or paint. They have made it a little more comfortable with mattresses, pillows, and blankets. But the wind blows hard outside, and when it rains, the room floods almost immediately.

“During storms, it’s very bad,” says Sara. “Water pours in through the cracks in the walls and it’s very cold. A month ago the room was full of water,” she continues, pointing to the holes in the wall where the water comes in. The small extended family shares three small rooms like this for $200 monthly rent. It does not include electricity, which costs another $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. Sara 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. Are you surprised,” she asks. “Then we were forced to come here. We have been disgraced, displaced all over Syria and then outside. See us now? We have no dignity.” 

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,” Sara’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.

Medical costs are an additional expense. “My mother needs many medications, and if we have any accidents or injuries, all expenses are on us.  We can’t afford $130 for an x-ray. This is too difficult.” 

To help the family, Sara’s brother, Ibrahim*, 14, works  for a local mechanic, repairing and painting cars, earning a meager $30 per week. 

Halima would prefer her children were attending school. “They have been without school for two years. 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.

Sara, 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, Sara 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. In Syria I used to sit with my cousin at her work. She was a pharmacist.” 

Her grandmother holds onto hope that their life will improve. “I pray that God will prevail,” she says. “I want to be reunited with all of my children in Syria.  I also hope that people will have mercy on my daughter’s kidnapped husband.”

Sara agrees with her grandmother, hoping the future holds something better. “I want this war to end. 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.  


Sara*, 12, (left) and Halima* (second left) live in the Mount Lebanon region outside Beirut. Halima and her family fled to Lebanon after bombing raids destroyed their home near Damascus. © 2015 Mary Kate MacIsaac/CARE