I met Mohammad in a camp called cold river. “This isn’t us,” he told me. I looked around at his home, a dilapidated shed in the half-century old refugee camp. His five young children had messy hair and dirty clothes. “You see us as refugees. But this wasn’t us in Syria.”
Mohammad is a Palestinian refugee from Syria who fled to Lebanon. That puts him and his family in the unique position of being twice displaced. Back in Syria, they lived in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, established five decades ago. They had their own house with a small garden, and his children kept clean and went to school.
Like so many other refugees, Mohammad left everything behind to seek asylum in Lebanon. He lost his house and his small grocery store. Others, even worse off, lost their families. They left because they had no other choice.
And now, with the recent U.S. ban on Syrian refugees, many are losing hope. Even those who had not yet applied for resettlement have been deeply affected. Many were holding out hope that one day, at least, when they gathered enough money and had the time to file for resettlement, they could move to a place like the United States and live normal lives again.
For refugees and much of the region, America signifies freedom and equality. It’s a place of optimism, where ambition and hard work can help anyone achieve their dreams. For many of us in Lebanon and beyond, we look to the United States as a model for all the possibilities we do not have here.
But, then, on January 27, 2017, Donald Trump shut down the U.S. refugee program for 120 days, and indefinitely banned Syrian refugees from coming to the United States. Even now that the U.S. courts have stayed that ban, hope in America, as a refugee for the most in need, has vanished.
In Lebanon there are 1.5 million registered Syrian refugees, and likely a great deal more without papers. They have managed to escape bombs and constant warfare. But here, they don’t even have the bare minimum they need to live a dignified life.
Some, like Mohammad, live in old Palestinian camps like Nahr El Bared that are crumbling, a result of overpopulation and poor infrastructure. Others live in tents made of sheet metal and tarp. Many lack reliable electricity and running water. Over half of the children do not go to school. Others have to drop out to make money and support their families. They live on the margins, with little chance of getting anywhere in life.
Organizations like American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA), which I work for, are trying very hard to improve the situation. We do as much as we can, given Lebanon’s lack of space, infrastructure and services. Financial resources are limited. Schools are overcrowded and operate on shifts. Unemployment is high among Lebanese citizens, so it is hard for refugees to find work. There simply are not enough jobs for everyone.
Yet, still, I am struck by the resilience of refugees. They remain active and work hard with the little resources they have. There are some in Lebanon, America, and elsewhere who, unfortunately, see them as parasites. Politicians everywhere use them for their own agenda. But I work with refugees every day and know they are incredibly productive and hard-working people. They can benefit any country they go to, be it Lebanon or the United States.
Since I met Mohammad I often think back on what he said about the situation he was living under: “This isn’t us.” We need to remember that each refugee once had a normal life, just like you and me. We must not view them as an amorphous, homogenous group, but as individuals who each have their own dreams.
In times, when all hope and decency seem to be lost, we must make sure we do not forget about these families in need. They may be unable to make it to the Statue of Liberty, but they should at least be treated with dignity.