Lebanon’s tipping point: how the Syrian crisis is punishing the generosity of its neighbours

Syrian refugees could soon account for 30% of Lebanon's population. Its people fear it will fall back into yet another conflict.

As the Syria civil war shows no signs of abating, the hospitality of countries absorbing Syrian refugees is progressively sinking them into crisis.

"My crime is that I am a mother to my sons," Yalda said. We were sitting in the old and crumbling outhouse she calls home near Saadneyil, central Lebanon, when she told me her story. I had made my visit to the region to see for myself what the civil war was doing to its people, and I was shocked by what I saw. After her second son died in the Syria civil war, Yalda travelled with the remaining members of her family from Idlib, near Homs, to cross the border with fake identification papers. They now reside on the outskirts of a makeshift refugee settlement. Her husband has been forced to work through his severe back injury and none of her remaining three children are in education. They struggle daily to make ends meet.

While the current humanitarian crisis in Syria has been highly publicised – and rightly so – the spill over effect into neighbouring states, such as Lebanon, has gone largely underreported by the media. With no official refugee camps for the Syrian refugees, further pressure has been placed on these host communities. I saw firsthand the sheer devastation this crisis has caused Syrians and Lebanese alike, with stories like Yalda’s echoed across the country.

In the past two years, more than half a million Syrian refugees have fled to Lebanon. This number is expected to increase to one million by this Christmas. Around 4,000 refugees cross the border every week into a country half the size of Wales. This means 30% of the population in Lebanon could be refugees by the end of the year, compared to 0.3% of the population in the UK. This is the equivalent of 15 million refugees seeking refuge in the United Kingdom. I cannot imagine how we would begin to cope.

On my first day I visited an informal settlement of Syrian refugees with international children’s charity World Vision on the outskirts of a town in the Bekka Valley. The horror of the situation there is all too apparent. Hundreds of refugee families are living in dozens of makeshift tents in unsanitary conditions. As more and more refugees arrive to this camp and thousands like it, it has becoming impossible to maintain any semblance of normality. Rubbish and food scraps are collected irregularly from the overstretched local government, causing further unsanitary conditions for the refugees and their Lebanese neighbours. The work that NGOs and UN agencies are carrying out to address this is vital. Recently, World Vision has implemented WASH (Water and Sanitation Hygiene) projects in refugee camps, providing much needed toilet and shower facilities and water filtration devices.

It was just outside this community where I first met Yalda and her family. During our meeting I was struck by the resourcefulness of her three children and the senseless waste of their potential. The eldest, Sabeen, had planned to continue her studies at a prestigious Syrian University but was unable to complete her final year of study. The youngest, a boy of fourteen, was forced to work as a mechanic and take on the mantle his elder brothers had presumably once held. However, the child that struck me most was 16-year-old Fayzeh, who had dreamt of becoming a journalist before she was forced to leave her home and flee to a foreign country. This assertive, confident girl told me she had felt the need to burn all of her writings in Syria through fear they would be found by the Assad regime. She said that although still a child, the civil war had forced her to grow beyond her years. She told me about the horrors she and her family had faced living in Syria, of the senseless murder of her friends, family and neighbours.

She put in writing what was too difficult for her to say out loud: "I am a Syrian girl from Homs; Homs, the victim which has tasted the bitterness of life; Homs, bereaved of its children; Homs, the widow, the orphan; Homs which was violated". She wrote about her grief, the loss of her brothers and how her land had been abducted "I will follow in the steps of my brothers, the hero martyrs, who refused to surrender their land and their honour to those who wanted to rape it". What struck me were her perseverance, her attachment to her country and her desire to survive: "I did not give up and I will not give up".

Tragic stories like Fayzeh’s are all too often heard up and down the country. Tens of thousands of refugee children have had no education since leaving Syria. Lebanese schools are struggling to cope with the influx and many children have been unable to find a place. Aid agencies like World Vision have attempted to fill the gap through Accelerated Learning Programmes, which offer refugee children a three month burst of intensive education. But funding for this is also scarce. It is crucial that the UK government leads the way by increasing funding to NGOs and the international community so that these children can again return to education and reach their full potential. This present situation does need to be their reality.

Witnessing firsthand the suffering of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and the impact their arrival is having on Lebanese host communities; it became clear to me that greater assistance is urgently needed to prevent destabilising the country and its precariously balanced system of sectarian politics. Lebanon and the Lebanese have done a commendable job in hosting Syrian refugees. However, the situation is unsustainable and their continuing generosity is coming under strain, with reported incidents of intra-communal violence on the rise. The aid required under the new UN plan is $1.3bn by the end of this year for Lebanon alone.

This enormous amount will undoubtedly be difficult to raise, but ignoring Lebanon and leaving the country to continue on the same path will have dire consequences. Beirut is a confident and buoyant capital with glittering sky scrapers and scenic harbours lined with yachts, but in the outskirts of the city and across the country there is a real underlying fear that this country, a country which should be the jewel in the Middle East’s crown, a country where Sunnis, Shias, Alawites and Christians all live side by side, will fall back into yet another conflict. It is the children like Fayzeh, brimming with potential, who will be the ones to suffer if we allow this to happen.

Rushanara Ali is speaking at a fringe on Syria on Monday the 23rd September at 17:30 in the secure zone at Labour party conference. The event is in partnership with Islamic Relief. 

Syrian refugees fill jerry cans with water at a pump inside a refugee camp in Baalbek, Lebanon. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rushanara Ali is Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow and shadow international development minister.

Carl Court/Getty Images
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The idea that sitting all day behind a desk increases your output is a fantasy

If you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them, seems to be the idea.

Scruffy and tieless, I was the odd one out. Taking a break from research in the London Library, I settled at the bar of an Italian restaurant and resumed reading Tony Collins’s excellent book Sport in Capitalist Society. While the hedge-fund managers looked askance, the young Hungarian waiter recognised one of his own. “That was the subject of my PhD,” he explained, before giving me a sparkling history of sport and Hungarian society.

He now juggles waiting tables with writing articles. It’s not easy. He tells me that when he rereads his old academic work, “Sometimes I need a dictionary!” Like many other people in today’s economy, he balances different jobs, the remuneration and fulfilment varying significantly.

As you have probably noticed, it seems that almost everyone is employed but hardly anyone has a job. Of the 42 million people of working age in Britain, 23 million are in a full-time job; roughly 14 million are full-time parents or carers; most of the rest work part-time, or are self-employed, or work for a business that is so small that it is, in effect, a form of self-employment. The “job” – the salary, the subsidised canteen, the pension – is on the wrong side of history. That is both liberating and scary.

There are two separate points here. The first, deriving from the privilege of choice, is that some people (I am one of them) are happier with the variety and freedom of self-employment. The second is that many people do not have a choice: solid, dependable jobs are a dead concept. We had better get used to fending for ourselves, because we are going to have to.

The phrase “portfolio career” was popularised by the management thinker Charles Handy. “I told my children that they would be well advised to look for customers, not bosses,” as Handy put it. “The important difference is that the price tag now goes on people’s produce, not their time.”

This transition from time-serving to genuine contribution can be good news for workers and employers alike. The art of being an employee is to string things out while pretending to be busy. The art of being self-employed is the opposite: getting things done well and efficiently, while being open to taking on new work. Employees gain an incentive to look effortful, the self-employed to look effortless.

The idea that sitting constantly behind a desk increases output, which underpins the old concept of a job, is a fantasy derived from control: if you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them. As an unfortunate consequence, the projection of phoney “busyness” consumes more energy than actual work and brings a kind of compound stress: always bustling around, never moving forward. “Never walk past the editor’s office without carrying a piece of paper,” young journalists are advised.

When I turned pro as a cricketer, an old hand told me that if I ever felt lost at practice, I should untie my shoelaces and then do them up again. “We don’t measure success by results but by activity,” as Sir Humphrey quips in Yes Minister. Ironically, I had never realised that my career as a sportsman – apparently playful and unserious – would prove to be the outlier for opposite reasons. Where most careers have drifted towards freelance portfolios, professional sport has tightened the leash. When you have to eat, sleep and train according to strict rules, your job is at one extreme end of the control-of-freedom spectrum. Yet even in elite sport there is more room for semi-professionalism than the system usually allows, especially in games – such as cricket – where physical fitness is necessary but not sufficient.

Yet the reality of the portfolio career inevitably brings new problems that are bound up with wider forces. A life that is spent moving from one institution to another – from school, to university, to a lifelong job – is becoming exotic, rather than the norm. For most of us, there will be no retirement party, no carriage clock. It is not just finding income that is being devolved downwards; so, too, is the search for meaning, purpose and identity. We live in what Handy calls a “de-institutionalised society”.

There are civilising aspects to the trend. First, the new employment landscape reduces the likelihood of people wasting their lives in the wrong job just because it is safe. Handy cites data suggesting that 80 per cent of employees feel dissatisfied in corporate jobs while 80 per cent are happy leading freelance lives. Nor does the old lie – that of backloading happiness, with corporate sacrifice giving way to happy retirement – stack up. We are better off balancing duties and pleasures all the way through.

Second, the decline of the job-for-life may gradually undermine the assumption that everyone’s wealth and prospects (let alone their value) can be determined by a couple of questions about an employer’s address. Social assumptions based on (apparent) occupation are increasingly ridiculous. Guess who the scholar is in the Italian restaurant: the waiter. It’s a good lesson. Your Uber driver could be a landscape architect, funding his professional passion with part-time top-ups.

The language of employment (“Where do you work?”) has been slow to catch up with this reality. When asked, “What do you do?” a freelancer can give a full and interesting answer, only to prompt the follow-up question, “So, what do you do, then?” If conversation becomes less like a mortgage questionnaire, that can only be a good thing.

Hugo Rifkind, writing recently in the Times, admired the Scandinavian-inspired decoupling of taste from wealth. “It is a ­better world . . . where you are not judged on the lineage of your sideboard.” I am more radical. It is a better world when you are not judged on your job.

Better or not – and like it or not – we will have to get used to it. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war