Part-time Professor of Middle East and Arab Politics at the University of Ottawa
An article published in Canada last week investigated the percentage of Syrian refugees who came here from camps compared to those who did not. Comments on the piece — though not the article itself — demonstrate a wider prejudice and ignorance concerning the situation of refugees, which has compelled me to respond.
One commentator in particular asked how Syrians living in towns in neighbouring countries like Lebanon had the finances to rent an apartment, if they were indeed refugees. This led him to conclude that they must be economic migrants instead of refugees, otherwise they would be in camps. Others quickly agreed with him, accusing refugees outside of camps of abusing Canada’s generosity, when people in need are still stuck in camps.
These statements couldn’t be further from the truth, and I’d like to tell you why.
I’m part of a group that is sponsoring a Muslim Syrian refugee family, and I’m also volunteering to help another Christian Syrian refugee family. Both families came from outside the refugee camps in Lebanon and are now residing in Ottawa, where I have heard their stories first-hand.
The Muslim family were farmers in a small southern village in Syria, and they were doing well until the Syrian conflict erupted. At first, they didn’t want to leave their farm and family behind. But one day their house was bombed twice in a row by the Syrian regime. The second bomb left the couple’s four-year-old son unconscious and traumatized, and they finally decided to move to Lebanon in October of 2013.
At the time, the UNHCR was not registering refugees, so they had to wait a couple of months. The family had difficulty reaching the refugee camp due to barricades meant to deter and constrain the movement of Syrian refugees within Lebanon. Eventually, they were able to register with the UN and began to receive $100 per month in family assistance. They found an abandoned stable that they could rent for $350 per month, and the men in the family spent three months fixing it to make it somewhat livable.
Four families (six adults and eight children) ended up living in this two-bedroom “apartment,” without running water or electricity. The men worked as farmers in Lebanon, and were paid “under the table” since they couldn’t get a resident permit, which requires a Lebanese sponsor who would have charged them an arm and a leg. The family I am helping to sponsor made less than $400 per month and could barely feed themselves. Without a permit, putting the children in school was out of the question. This situation lasted two and a half years, until they received a call from the Canadian Embassy inviting them to move to Canada. Now the couple’s children, age eight, seven and five, are attending school for the first time.
The other Christian family faced a slightly different situation. Back in Syria, in a town called Daraa, the father was a sales representative for a factory and the mother a kindergarten teacher. As the conflict intensified the family was targeted by Islamic militant groups due to their faith. In 2013, the father was shot in the leg and the children had to leave school due to constant bomb threats.
At the time, Lebanon had stopped accepting Syrian refugees and closed its borders, so they had to be smuggled into Lebanon – first the father and the oldest daughter, followed by the mother and the other two children. Once they arrived in Lebanon they registered at the UNHCR but didn’t receive any financial assistance. As Christians, they felt they “couldn’t live in the refugee camps” which had inherited some of the cultural dysfunctionalities of the Syrian conflict.
They rented a one-bedroom apartment in a remote village for $200 per month. The father worked illegally in Lebanon as a busboy and cleaner. The mother made a deal with a school run by a church, and taught there without pay. In return, her kids were able to attend the school for free. The family earned $500 per month, which was barely enough to make ends meet. After a year, the school’s new director canceled the deal with the mother, leaving the children without education. The uncertainty of what was to become of their children weighed heavily on the parents until they got the phone call from the Canadian Embassy in Beirut, informing them of the opportunity to come to Canada, where their children are now excelling in school.
Just because Syrian refugees don’t live in refugee camps, and instead end up renting pseudo-apartments, does not mean they don’t need our help. First, there are only a few camps in Lebanon; some are in Beirut or big cities that are unaffordable for most refugees. Second, those outside of the camps are in dire need and often in worse situation than those living inside the camps as there is less access to UN assistance, and little or no protection or access to education for children, among other concerns. Third, by the end of 2013, the UN in Lebanon stopped accepting refugees in its camps because they were full, and since has stopped registering refugees altogether. Finally, refugee camps became a microcosm of the societies that dominate them, making it almost impossible for minorities (like Christians) to live in these camps.
The government of Canada clearly stated its criteria in selecting Syrian refugees to sponsor: “the most vulnerable” and the ones “who did not pose any security threat.” Living inside refugee camps doesn’t make a refugee more authentic than ones outside of the camps – that’s absurd. These are people who had to flee their county due to violence and fear for their lives. They are not economic migrants who want to “leech on us.” If they wanted to immigrate for economic reasons, getting stuck in horrible conditions would be the last way to do it.