Five years is a long time. In Lebanon, for some 1.1 million Syrians, five years is the difference between peace and war, being a citizen and being a refugee, having plans for your future and total uncertainty.
For Aicha Hassan, a 25-year-old student from Homs, the war has muddled everything.
“At first when we came here, we were asylum seekers. We considered that maybe we were going to stay here for two years or [so],” she says as she shakes her head. “Not more than two years.”
Four years later, she and her parents are still in Lebanon. She was part of the first wave of refugees to come into the country in late 2011, back when most thought the unrest would be over quickly, as it was in other Arab countries that had experienced similar anti-government protests. At the beginning of the crisis, she and her family were able to take advantage of then-plentiful aid resources.
“Things were not so difficult three or four years ago,” Hassan explains with a rueful look. “When we came here, more organizations were ready to help people and our [the Syrians’] number was limited.”
Now, Syrians account for a quarter of Lebanon's population, and providing them all with aid has become impossible; food vouchers have been reduced and rent assistance slashed. As a result, many are seeking to move abroad.
“I cannot imagine a future here in Lebanon,” Hassan says. “Five years ago, I was in Syria. Now I'm in Lebanon, even my siblings, two of them … travelled to foreign countries. No, I don't imagine that in two years I will be here in Lebanon.”
She pauses before adding, “I don't intend to go back to Syria, either, even if things get better. That hatred of the people who killed someone, it will always be around you.”
For Marwa, a 24-year-old stay-at-home mom from Damascus, adjusting to her new reality took years.
“You see this view?” she asks, pointing at the scenic landscape outside her window. “It took me three years to realize how pretty it was. As refugees, we had other concerns.”
Marwa came to Lebanon along with tens of thousands of others in late 2012, when the war in Syria was spiralling out of control and swaths of the major cities were becoming no-go zones. As new refugees, she moved with her family from village to village, desperately looking for work for her husband and a school that would accept their two young children.
When they eventually settled in a small village in Mount Lebanon, they also had to deal with widespread suspicion and mistrust from a population growing increasingly weary of playing host. These days, locals have become accustomed to the extra residents, but while time has improved community relations, it has not been kind to the guests’ finances.
“My neighbor is going back to Syria,” Marwa explains. “Even though there’s a lot of suffering there, she's in too much debt here. My husband is thinking the same because he's paid so little at work and can't take it anymore.”
She throws her hands in the air and says, “I tell him ‘You can go back, but I'm not going with you. What did our children do to deserve living in the middle of a war?’ “
These days, Lebanon's borders are shut to new arrivals. The government made a decision in late 2014 to accept only extreme emergency cases and those in transit to another country. Ever since, the number of refugees in the country has stayed roughly the same. The conditions in which they live, however, have got significantly worse. Visa requirements, in particular, are now so onerous that most refugees can no longer live legally in the country, exposing them to abuse and exploitation.
“It’s so difficult,” says Hala, a 31-year-old accountant from Aleppo. “You have to get a sponsor, and the sponsor should be a Lebanese national and should have property in Lebanon.”
On top of a sponsor, Syrians must now pay $200 for a one-year visa — a sharp change from the free, easily renewable six-month permit they used to be able to get at the border. Without proper papers, refugees are unable to rent an apartment, get a job or even go to a hospital without fear of being arrested.
Hala knew all of this, and put off coming to Lebanon for as long as possible. When she eventually fled Aleppo last September with her mother, it was only because she got news that they had got through to the interview round of their application to seek asylum in Canada. She was luckier than most: she found a sponsor, got her visa, and managed to find a job while she waits for her interview.
Even so, she says the uncertainty of life here as a Syrian is unbearable.
“We can’t stay here because the Lebanese laws for Syrian people change every day,” she says. “I don't know when the Lebanese government will decide to issue new rules and tell the Syrian people, ‘Go back to Syria’. If I think about my mind, I have to go to Canada where there are rights for refugees and we are never told to go back to Syria.”