Last month, Lebanon announced that it would close its doors to Syrian refugees. The country was “no longer able to welcome them,” according to Social Affairs Minister Rachid Derbas.
While the move was criticized by human rights groups, the Lebanese government said the decision was a practical one. As of November 4, there were 1,124,896 Syrian refugees registered in Lebanon, according to UNHCR, and likely many more unregistered ones. It put immense pressure on the resources of the small country; with a population of just 4 million people, Lebanon now has the highest concentration of refugees in the world: more than one refugee for every four citizens.
Nizar al-Idilbi, 31, is a doctor from Idlib province. After training in pediatrics in Aleppo he faced the prospect of arrest or compulsory military service in the Syrian army, and decided to flee the country.
His story sheds light on the situation facing Syrian refugees, even the most educated among them. He shared his experience with Syria Deeply.
Syria Deeply: Describe your journey to Lebanon.
Al-Idilbi: A colleague of mine put me in touch with people who helped me travel from Damascus to Yabroud, then [across the border] to Arsal and then to Beirut. The most difficult part of the journey was going from Damascus to Yabroud. All that mattered was to get out of Damascus to the closest border town to get into Lebanon, so Yabroud it was.
A few friends told me that I had to get to an area called Wadi Barda, which had a safe mountainous road, and that was the first part of our trip. We left Damascus at 7 a.m. and passed two checkpoints on the way. I shared a car with a female friend of mine who was wanted by the Syrian security, and who also wanted to leave Syria illegally. We shared the car with a family from Wadi Barda who are familiar with the soldiers manning the checkpoints. That’s why they didn’t ask us for IDs or search the car. Once we get to Wadi Barda, we were moved with a group of people to a village close to Wadi Barda, where we switched cars. We couldn’t have made the journey without knowing people from the area. They know where the snipers are stationed and which roads are safe. The smugglers themselves are from the area and know all the roads. We then arrived at Yabroud. We stayed there for about three hours, waiting for our smuggler to take us to Arsal. After we arrived in Arsal, we met with another person who drove us in his private car from Arsal to Beirut, to facilitate going through Lebanese checkpoints.
I entered Lebanon on November 1, 2013. The whole journey cost me around $300.
Syria Deeply: When did you register with UNHCR? What are the procedures you had to follow?
Al-Idilbi: During the first four months in Lebanon, I didn’t even think of registering with UNHCR because I didn’t think of leaving Lebanon. I thought I would settle here. A few days after I got to Lebanon, I met a Syrian man who said he could get my passport stamped with an entry stamp for $400. I did it and felt relieved because I thought I was legal after I got my passport stamped. Three months later, a Syrian female friend of mine was arrested at the border as she too had a fake entry stamp on her passport. I panicked and started asking around if I could double check if my stamp was fake. It turned out to be fake. This presented an even bigger problem: the fake stamp made this a Lebanese security matter, which meant I could be held accountable and consequently imprisoned.
Since I couldn’t use my passport as a form of ID, the only solution was to register with UNHCR. I went there in March 2014 and registered as a refugee.
Syria Deeply: As an illegal Syrian refugee living in Lebanon, what are the daily struggles you face?
Al-Idilbi: Lebanon has a tense security situation in general. There’s always some security emergency. It’s hectic, even for the Lebanese themselves. We Syrians have a particularly bad situation here, as most Lebanese blame the Syrians for putting the country under a lot of strain, and they deal with Syrians on that basis. Every incident in Lebanon is related to the Syrian crisis, and its repercussion is felt by all Syrians in Lebanon. There’s constant fear of the precarious security situation, and we’re scared for ourselves as Syrians. We live in constant fear of the random checkpoints that are set up at night. If I get stopped at a checkpoint, I don’t have any proper papers, and I will be arrested.
What’s happening in Syria impacts the security situation in Lebanon. There’s a popular sentiment among the Lebanese against the presence of Syrians. They have been searched and beaten on the streets more than once. This meant that I limited myself to one area that feels safe. I live and work there, and that’s where most of my Syrian friends live too.
Syria Deeply: Do you know people who have resettled in Western countries through UNHCR? Are you looking to do the same?
Al-Idilbi: I know a lot of people who have resettled abroad, through UNHCR. In the beginning, when I registered with UNHCR, I thought my file was [important], given my background: I’m a doctor, I was barred from practicing and I was forbidden to travel after I was detained twice.
Now I’m stuck and am unable to return to Syria, and I can’t survive here. In the beginning I had hoped it was only a matter of time. After my second UNHCR interview, I was hopeful, but it’s been five months and I haven’t heard anything from them. Resettling abroad through UNHCR is the only way I can leave legally.
Syria Deeply: If you can’t leave through UNHCR, what would your plans be then?
Al-Idilbi: I haven’t lost hope yet. The minute I know there’s no hope, I won’t stay in Lebanon under the constant pressure and threat of being thrown in jail because of my illegal status. When I lose all hope with UNHCR, I will try to be smuggled to Turkey and then to Europe. I want to go anywhere where I can continue my studies and live there legally. That’s what I need now.
As Syrians, our first and foremost desire is to return to Syria. But the situation there now is near impossible and there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. That’s why we’re all looking for a place to start over. I know there are many others who have more dire situations that mine, and that they need to be granted asylum. But in general, there’s a need to look into the situation of Syrians living in Lebanon. This country is barely capable of providing for its own citizens. That’s why we are all looking for a place to start over.