One evening in March, 15-year-old Ayat Hariri—a Syrian refugee in Lebanon—emerged in front of a packed house at a popular bistro in Beirut. She began narrating the story of how when she first came to Lebanon five years earlier, she had thought she was a tourist. “I was wondering, why is it taking so long at the military check points?” she said, recalling the 80-kilometre drive from Deraa, a city in Syria. Just ten years old at the time, Hariri had not understood the chaos descending on her country.
Her parents had told her that the family was on a holiday to meet her father, who lived and earned handsomely in Beirut. After having lived a year in Lebanon, Hariri’s family finally enrolled her in a school. This is when she first found out why they were not going back to Syria. “I started to understand what a ‘tourist’ means and what a ‘refugee’ means,” she told the audience.
In recent years, many cafes in urban Lebanon have been hosting storytelling sessions where performers come forward with diverse kinds of material—from jokes to folk tales to personal experiences. Now, many young Syrian refugees like Hariri have started taking the stage at such events to share stories of trauma experienced during war, and their struggle to adjust in a new country. While Lebanon has been commended for opening its borders to refugees, a steady influx of people from its neighbour seems to have changed how Syrians are perceived. Discrimination against refugees—who are now seen as a strain on the country’s resources—has been mounting, as have sectarian or ethnic tensions. Syrian refugee children, who reportedly constitute more than half of over a million refugees in Lebanon, have been directly experiencing this rise in hostilities at school, where they are struggling to protect their identities.
According to Hariri, the first challenge that Syrian children face is that of language. While most of them speak Arabic, French is the language of the elite in Lebanon. “Instead of ‘sabaho’ for good morning they said ‘bonjour,’” Hariri told me at her home in Bourj Hammoud, a town located to the north-east of Beirut. “They laughed at me for greeting in Arabic.”
But Syrian children often face even deeper social and sectarian discrimination. “They talk to me like I am dirty, like I smell,” Hariri told me. “They speak like they are in a villa and I am on the street, especially because I wear the hijab.” Hariri felt isolated for being unaccustomed to local etiquette and for her Sunni identity. Neither Shias nor Sunnis can claim numerical majority in the country, but because of deep-rooted mistrust, the two are constantly engaged in a struggle to assert superiority. “The girls in the school won’t befriend me, the boys on the street tease me because I am Sunni and they are Shia,” Hariri said.
Hariri also worries that Hezbollah, the Shia Islamist group that is the de facto ruler of Lebanon, is an ally of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. “Hezbollah can send my father to Syria or somewhere because he is Sunna,” she said. “But they won’t say that, they will say he doesn’t have legal papers.”
Hariri comes from Deraa, the city where a full-blown rebellion against the Assad regime reportedly began in 2011 in response to the arrests of at least 15 boys who allegedly drew anti-Assad graffiti. Thirteen-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb, who was allegedly killed by the regime, became the face of the rebellion after pictures of his mutilated body were leaked and published in the Arab media. “They beat him so much his body was swollen like a balloon,” Hariri said. Her family supported the al-Khateeb family in protests against Assad. “So now we are wanted,” she said, adding that she was worried she might never be able to return home.
But living in Lebanon is becoming increasingly difficult. The refugees not only face violence at the hands of the public, but also discrimination by the state. In some areas, for instance, curfews prevent Syrian refugees from leaving their homes between sunset and sunrise. They have also faced raids on their homes by the police, which have led to arbitrary arrests and forced evictions.
The county’s population of roughly six million currently comprises about four million Lebanese people, over a million Syrian refugees and around 450,000 Palestinian refugees, many of whom arrived in Lebanon in 1948 and have been living here ever since. Many Lebanese people consider the Syrians a burden, and public resentment against them has been increasing.
Nasser Yassin, a professor at the American University of Beirut, however, cites figures that challenge the notion that the refugees are causing economic problems. On his Twitter account, he has revealed that Syrian refugees pay $1 million in rent per day in Lebanon, that 84 percent of businesses around the Syrian refugee camps are owned by Lebanese people, and that the Syrian refugee community spends $2 million on groceries per month in Lebanon. “A refugee only becomes a burden when they are left without education and without an opportunity to contribute to their host countries,” he told a news website in May this year. He has also stated on social media that 84 percent of Syrian adolescents in Lebanon are out of school.
Jad Chaaban, also a professor at the American University of Beirut, takes a slightly different view. “It is true that Lebanon needs support to take care of the Syrian refugees,” he told me in June. “But they”—the refugees—“are also spending everything they earn in Lebanon. Xenophobia against them is unacceptable.”
Meanwhile, economic opportunities available to the refugees have been diminishing. Hariri’s father works at a decorative shop and earns $1,500 a month—he used to make twice as much a few years ago, but an increase in refugee population has made labour cheap and brought down wages. The family pays about $700 towards rent, and is not left with enough to be able to send Hariri’s four siblings to school. “The only way out for us is to move to Canada, but the UN says we are not the priority,” Ayat said. “Maybe we are in a bad position, but still better than many others.”
While Hariri goes to school, she is concerned that trying to fit in might alienate her from her own culture. “If I have to mingle here, I need to give up hijab, traditions of my family and beliefs of my sect,” she said. “All of this makes me trust Sunna Islam more—if they don’t want to talk to me, so be it. I will never give up my identity.”
Anchal Vohra is a journalist who covers West Asia and Europe. She has also reported on South Asia for over a decade.