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A day in the life of Soma Al Rouh

Soma is an 18-year-old Syrian refugee from Aleppo. He lives in Baalbeck, Lebanon. Although Soma had high educational aspirations before he left Syria, he was forced to leave school before completing 6th grade. Now he works doing construction and dreams of one day playing football professionally—in Europe.

© Marcel Saleh

7:30 am

Wake-up time


Soma wakes early, washes his face, gets dressed and—if there is time—eats breakfast with his father and his three brothers. All five work together, doing construction. Only rarely does Soma take a day off.



Photo: Marcel Saleh/GAGE

Because they rely on each other, if Soma needs a day off he must ask his father for permission three days in advance. Most days, the family works until 4 pm. If they are busy, they work far longer.

Photo: Marcel Saleh/GAGE

When Soma first came to Lebanon, at the age of 11, he tried to go to school. However, while he was a good student in Syria, he struggled in Lebanon. The curriculum was new and teachers were not interested in helping him adapt. He recalled, “I used to be an A student but they made me repeat 5th grade twice … I felt I lost 1 year of my life for nothing…I knew it’s because I am a Syrian refugee and they didn’t care for me”. When he was asked to repeat 6th grade, Soma chose to cut his losses and dropped out for good.

Photo: Marcel Saleh/GAGE

8:00 am

Work at the construction site

Soma’s father is a tile installer and Soma and his brothers do the heavy labour that enables their father’s art to shine. First thing each morning, they must filter the day’s sand. Wall tiles require fine cement while floor tiles require course. Then they carefully mix the cement and carry it to where it is needed.

Photo: Marcel Saleh/GAGE

Depending on the job site, this means hours of carrying heavy loads up three flights of stairs. Soma explained, ‘This 8-hour shift in cement work is equivalent to 20 hours in the gym’. Soma is also learning how to lay tiles by watching his father. Calibrating and leveling is very exacting and delicate work.

Photo: Marcel Saleh/GAGE

Their employer is very demanding, and Soma and his family have little time to rest. Often, they do not even stop to eat and sometimes they work straight through until sundown. At least, Soma admits, because tile work comes later in the construction process, their work is in the shade. He said, ‘The only good thing about this work is that we get to work in the shade.’

Photo: Marcel Saleh/GAGE

Soma recently took part in a cash for work programme run by the NGO LOST. He learned new skills, working alongside top engineers, including how to mix and use different types of cement. Although he is glad he took part in the programme, because he knows it will help him with future work, Soma feels the programme could use a number of improvements. First, he explained, participants were not fed enough—or offered enough water. Second, and more importantly, Syrian participants were treated differently from their Lebanese peers. They were left with the heaviest work and were paid less. Soma concluded, ‘There should have been more monitoring on the work done during this programme.’

Photo: Marcel Saleh/GAGE

4:00 pm

Meeting friends

After work, Soma cleans up—including carefully coiffing his hair– and heads to a coffee shop to meet his friends. They drink coffee, play cards, and smoke shisha. Some days they also hang out in an abandoned castle or spend time at the local play station store.

Photo: Marcel Saleh/GAGE

7:00 pm


Soma loves football. Every evening for years he and his friends reserved a spot at the local football field. They had their own team, the Eagles, and despite being bullied for being a Syrian team that dared to play against Lebanese teams, they were very successful. Soma had hoped to become a professional player and secure his future—and his family’s future—with his skills.

Two weeks ago, however, two of Soma’s close friends left Lebanon for Europe. That was the end of the Eagles. Soma explained, ‘Football is my favourite hobby, but I lost all interest with it when my friends left… we hugged each other and cried when we said goodbye.’

Photo: Marcel Saleh/GAGE

Soma would love to follow in his friends’ footsteps, if he can only make enough money to pay the smuggler that is required. He stated, ‘They have human rights in Europe, I would get to finish my school, have good food and clothes.’ Soma knows that illegal migration is not a risk-free experience. But, because his friend Hussein estimates that ‘the success rate of smuggling in 90%’, he thinks the risk is worth taking so that he can ‘rest from racism and poverty.’

Photo: Marcel Saleh/GAGE

10:00 pm

Sleep time

After he finishes playing football, Soma goes home and plays video games for several hours before falling asleep at 10.

Photo: Marcel Saleh/GAGE