‘They have very few opportunities to be happy’: Syrian child refugees face bleak future in Lebanon

After the Syrian war began in 2011, 1½ million Syrian refugees entered Lebanon. Initially the nation was welcoming, but since the economy collapsed in 2019, anti-refugee sentiment has grown

With two waves of refugees, and an internal displacement crisis on it's southern border with Israel, Lebanon is facing severe tests after years of turmoil. Video: Chris Maddaloni

In Karantina Park in Beirut, a group of Syrian children between the ages of six and 12 are happily singing a song. The words roughly translate as: “Tek tek tek, big danger. Tek tek tek, who should we call? Tek tek tek, Terre des Hommes. Tek tek tek, to report everything.”

Then they sing a phone number. It’s the hotline run for children at risk by the Swiss childcare agency and Unicef partner Terre des Hommes. These children, all of whom work and none of whom is in formal education, are very much at risk.

It’s about getting them to know their rights, says Jackeline Atwi of Unicef. “And it’s also an opportunity to teach them how to protect themselves, if someone is touching them... if someone is calling them to join them in a car for money. And also, where to go if they need [to say] ‘Someone hurt me’.”

After the Syrian war began in 2011, 1½ million refugees crossed the border into Lebanon, a country with a population of 5.5 million. Initially the nation was welcoming, but since the economy collapsed in 2019, anti-refugee sentiment has grown. Syrians are discriminated against and have been assaulted on the street. The state has increased deportations and has reportedly detained Syrians illegally and tortured some of them.


It has also done little to stop illegal boats to Europe, though the EU has recently pledged €1 billion in return for migration to Europe being better controlled.

Many Syrians in Lebanon are not in receipt of any state services, are in terrible poverty and are doing their best to stay under the radar, aid agencies say. I ask the children what work they do. One six-year-old gets up at 6am and collects plastic. He does it until he’s very tired, he says, then he goes home. He has a cool-looking signet ring. His father saved up and got it for him, he tells me, proudly. Plastic collection for recycling purposes is one of the most common jobs. Other children sell bottled water or boxes of tissues to cars at junctions (you can see these children on many streets in Beirut).

A 12-year-old girl with a speech impediment is very excited by the idea of school. She’d like to be a “petroleum engineer”, she says. One six-year-old says he wants to be a doctor, but when the next boy says he wants to be a policeman, the six-year-old changes his mind. He’d like to be a policeman too. Ahmed, a 12-year-old in a superhero T-shirt, wants to be an aviation engineer. “My dream is to be in an aeroplane.”

The port of Beirut still bears the scars of the 2020 fertiliser explosion, which killed at least 218 people and devastated parts of the city. Photograph: Chris Maddaloni

After the devastating chemical explosion in 2020, this park became a safe haven for children of Syrian refugees who live in the area. There’s a monument in the centre of the park commemorating the children and parents lost or bereaved in that disaster. This Terre des Hommes project is an attempt to connect these children with services they may need, to protect them from abuse and to introduce them to education.

But, if anything, circumstances are getting worse for Syrian child refugees. Two years ago, nine- and 10-year-olds were working on the streets, says Atwi. Now those doing so are as young as six.

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Atwi introduces me to Amira, the mother of Ahmed, the 12-year-old who loves aeroplanes. The family came here in 2011 when their home was destroyed in the war. They are registered, unlike many Syrians in Lebanon. She and one of her daughters make a living cleaning. Her other children sell water and napkins on the street. Syrians say there has been a big increase in aggression towards them, so when they’re not working they stay at home. What do these people say to them? “You are Syrians. What are you doing here? Go back to your country,” says Amira.

She likes coming to Karantina Park because it makes her children smile. “They have very few opportunities to be happy.”

Syrian children play on a slide at Karantina Park in Beirut. After the devastating chemical explosion in 2020, the park became a safe haven for children of Syrian refugees who live in the area, set up by Unicef partner Terres Des Hommes. Photograph: Chris Maddaloni

What does she hope for? “To travel and try to secure them a future. Because here there is no future... I can’t write and read. I know the value of them learning so they can have a better future and live in safety.”

Does she know many who’ve gone to Europe? She bursts into tears. Ahmed and his father are going to take a boat next week, she says. She has a heart condition so can’t travel.

Ahmed recently worked for a mechanic and one day came home after being violently assaulted by his employer. “There’s too much discrimination and bullying,” says Amira, “We can’t take it any more.”

The next day, we drive in a Unicef SUV over the mountains and into the Bekaa Valley, where we visit an informal tented settlement of about 200 Syrian families in Saadnayel. In this region there are 300,000 Syrians living across thousands of such settlements. It’s a warren of wooden shacks with UNHCR-branded tarpaulins on the roofs. It’s dusty and hot. There are small children playing everywhere. Goats, sheep, hens and ducks wander around the edges of the camp.

We stop at the Makani centre, one of 16 such projects in the region. It’s managed by Save the Children’s partner organisation Maps. It’s a place where children can play safely and engage with education and other important services. It’s colourfully painted with cartoon characters, and it has some well-tended greenery around the edges. There’s also a small football pitch where two teams of small boys are playing exuberantly.

The 17- and 18-year-old women working in the centre are themselves Syrian refugees. “Previously those girls were supposed to be married,” says Rita Rizk from Save the Children. “Giving them a programme to attend is allowing us prevent child marriage.”

There’s some movement in and out of these settlements. The men and sometimes the whole family move around Syria to do seasonal work. Increasingly, the Lebanese army raids settlements like this in order to deport people.

9 year old Yehia Ak Hamdo walks to the classroom at the Makani centre in an informal tented settlement in Saadnayel, in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley. His father was killed after he returned to the family's Syrian farm in 2019, leaving his mother and siblings struggling to survive. Photograph: Chris Maddaloni

We sit in the sparse shelter of Amina Ak Hamdo with three of her seven children, Riham (14), Salam (13) and Nouredine (11). As we talk, the plastic roof flaps in the wind. The family came here in 2016. It was after Lebanon closed the borders, so they had to come over the mountains. Nouredine was a baby at the time and was being carried by a neighbour who dropped him by accident. His own father found him on the road and said: “Whose child is this?”

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As she tells the story, Nouredine nods. It has the rhythm of a family story that she’s told them before. In Syria they had their own farm. In 2019, her husband returned home to see if he could salvage it, but he and some other men in the village were murdered. It’s not clear who killed him. Amina cannot accept how he died, she says. “He was a good man not only with his family but with everybody.”

Now Amina barely has money to make ends meet. Nouredine and Riham work on a farm from 6am until 2pm every day. What do they do? “We remove the bad plants,” says Nouredine. Later he and a boy in a Jurassic Park T-shirt disagree on whether weeding is a good job or a bad job.

If he works from 6am to 5pm he gets paid $4-$5 (€3.70-€4.70). When he works from 6am to 2pm he gets paid almost $3.

Is there anything he likes about work? “I like seeing my friends and eating together,” says Nouredine.

What doesn’t he like about work? “When the man screams at us.”

He likes school, he says, because school “is learning for my own good”. At work there’s always someone behind him telling him to “work, work, work”.

They want to have good jobs some day, the children say. Riham would like to be a lawyer. “To defend the people.”

Nouredine would like to be a doctor. Why? There’s a silence and then he bursts into tears. After he speaks, the Unicef rep says, softly: “He’s remembering what happened to his father. He wants to be a doctor to be able to help [people].”

The family has no money. Riham had an accident recently and has a dislocated jaw. It looks stiff and sore. She couldn’t open her mouth fully or eat properly, so Amina took her to a doctor. She needs an operation that they can’t afford.

They’re terrified of being deported. If they were, Amina believes herolder son would be forced to fight in Syria’s ongoing civil war, but also, there’s nothing left for them there. Their home is gone and they no longer have any family there.

What does she want for the future? “I want my children to be able to go to school and to live better than now. They are living in fear.”

In a nearby shack we meet Khawla Kobbieh and her seven children. As we sit, the call to prayer ripples across the settlement. Khawla’s husband, Ahmad, is out looking for work. Unlike Amina’s family, this one crossed the border legally in 2013 and has the relevant papers, although having papers nonetheless hasn’t stopped some families from being deported.

Khawla Kobbieh takes care of her seven children as her husband is out looking for work. They left Syria when all the houses around them in their village had been destroyed. 'The whole village left in cars,' she says. 'We didn’t bring anything but our clothes.' They are now living in an informal tented settlement in Saadnayel, in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley. Photograph: Chris Maddaloni

They left when all the houses around them in their village had been destroyed, Kobbieh says. “The whole village left in cars. We didn’t bring anything but our clothes.”

All of her children work. Some of them work on a potato farm. Mahmoud (11) works every day selling napkins on the street. He buys boxes of tissues at the settlement shop, walks by himself to the roundabout outside a neighbouring village and attempts to sell them to motorists. He makes about $1.50 a day. He hates approaching people because he is shy. The kind people buy the tissues, he says, but many other people insult him. “There are a lot of mean people.”

He much prefers going to school. His favourite subject is maths. Why maths? “It’s easy.”

Is it hard to balance work with school? “They go to school one day and they work one day,” says his mother.

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Her eldest daughter watches from the doorway. Her father recently told her that because they cannot afford to send her to school any more – the transportation costs money – she must work on the land or get married. She is 14. She would like to be able to afford nice clothes (the clothes she has look meticulously cared for). She gets clothes at Eid festival time, and then hides some of them away so she can treat them as new clothes later in the year. She would like to be a doctor, she says, because she wants to help people.

No one from Kobbieh’s village has returned there. They have no family left in Syria. Her brother’s family, she says, died in the earthquake in Turkey and Syria last year that killed an estimated 56,000 people. “The hardest part is to lose your family and to know there is no one to bury them.”

She dreams of having a proper house. In winter there’s snow and floods and they have to put their mattresses up on wood to keep them dry. In summer, fires spread across the settlement. Last year, as a fire raged, she ran away with the children, only to realise in a panic that she’d left one child behind. She had to run back to get him.

The rest of her family are in Turkey and Europe. When things get really hard, she starts thinking of sending the children on the boats across the Mediterranean. What stops her? “It costs a lot of money.”

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