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Roads of death keep following us

Photo: Hammoud Jamal

This blog by a 19-year-old Syrian refugee boy living in a collective shelter in Lebanon is part of a series of blogs written by adolescents involved in the Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence (GAGE) participatory research groups in the Middle East. Young people aged 15-19 from diverse nationalities and geographic backgrounds have been engaging in participatory research activities, including participatory photography, peer-to-peer research and diary writing since early 2019.

To mark the anniversary on the Global Compact for Refugees, this blog focuses on adolescent refugee experiences in Lebanon and shares their perspectives and priorities for change.

Hammoud Jamal’s* story as told to Sally Youssef

Hammoud is a 19-year-old Syrian boy from Aleppo. He was displaced by the Syrian war with his family when he was 12 years old. In Lebanon, Hammoud did not get an opportunity to attend formal education. Instead he was pushed into child labour to support his family, who have been struggling with poverty, and became the main breadwinner in his household. He has worked in different ad-hoc jobs as a wage labourer. Hammoud married when he was 18-years-old and has an infant child. He lives in a collective shelter with other Syrian refugees in Baalbek city, Lebanon.

The sufferings we endured during the Syrian war did not end with the destruction of our houses and villages in Aleppo, Syria. Our miseries did not end after fleeing our country’s war. Living in Lebanon is difficult and we have suffered since our arrival as refugees.

When I came to Lebanon, I was young and clueless. I did not know that I would never be able to study again. Instead, I started working to help my family as a result of the miserable conditions we were facing in Lebanon. I worked in many hard jobs. Some of them were dangerous such as in the construction industry. I saw many other boys suffering from serious injuries and disabilities, without receiving any help. Work made me forget my young age; I aged early and fast without even realizing it. Our presence as Syrian refugees is not welcome in Lebanon and we suffer from harassment and racism from the Lebanese community, the army and the police on a daily basis.

Recently, the situation has become much more difficult. Lebanon is going through a social and economic crisis that led to popular demonstrations and road closures last year. Not only did this stop our work, it has increased racism against Syrian refugees. The state started harassing us more and persecuting young Syrian boys and men, due to our lack of residency and work permits. Then with the spread of covid-19 at the beginning of this year, Lebanon fell into economic collapse and our situation became even worse. We can’t find jobs and we are no longer able to buy food for our family nor pay rent.

My friends and other young Syrians have started resorting to illegal migration brokers. We are willing to risk endangering our lives to escape the unlivable situation in Lebanon. My friend, who recently headed to Europe with one of these brokering networks, told me, ‘it is better to die once on the road, in the mountains or in the ocean, rather than dying a thousand times a day in Lebanon.’ How can I convince him not to leave? Syrian boys and young men – including me – all aspire to leave through smuggling networks, even if we know that our lives will be in danger. We are ready to face that fate.

I was a boy who was proud of taking care of my family and doing honorable work. Even if it was exhausting, dangerous, and even if I was constantly humiliated by employers. But I never did a shameful job. Now, I am forced to work on a drug plantation. I feel disgraced but I have to do it so that my family will not die of starvation.

I am not the only one who was pushed into this work. The Lebanese drug networks in Baalbek are attracting many young Syrian boys and men who need to support their families. The work is dangerous and can put us at risk of getting arrested or killed in clashes between the drug lords or the authorities. It is considered disgraceful and shameful, and subjects us to stigmatization within our own community. I feel indescribable sadness for having to resort to this kind of work, but we have no other option.

Participating in the Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence programme provides me with the chance to make my voice and story heard, while the majority of Syrian youth are deprived of this opportunity. Hence, in the name of the Syrian youth, I turn to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and ask them to immediately start a dialogue with the Government of Lebanon to recognise the right of refugees to residency and work that would allow us to live with dignity. In addition, UNHCR should increase aid for Syrian refugees. Refugee youths’ lives are at stake.

* Name is a pseudonym chosen by the blog author