Syria’s protracted political crisis— more than three years of debilitating ruin and elusive compromise —has ripped families from their homes, their country, and each other. There are now more than 3 million Syrian refugees registered in the region, with around 100,000 more added each month. The number of refugees in neighboring Lebanon, more than 1.1 million, exceeds a quarter of the country’s own pre-war population. Lebanon now has the highest per-capita concentration of refugees worldwide, many of them having fled their homes with little more than the clothes on their backs.
For Syria’s displaced youth, often described as a "lost generation," education has become a pipe dream. Public schools in already choked host countries often lack the capacity and resources to accommodate the teeming refugee population, around half of which is under the age of 18. According to UNICEF, two-thirds of Syrian refugee children are out of school. Many who had been enrolled in a Syrian university when they left the country fall behind and can’t find the means to catch up.
“Each day out of Syria gets both easier and harder,” says Hani, a gifted 21-year-old Syrian refugee living in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, whom I spoke to along with a number of other young Syrian refugees in July. “Easier because you get used to living outside of Syria ... but harder because you don’t want to accept that.”
In the midst of one of modern history’s worst humanitarian disasters, one that has turned people into numbers, meet Syria’s generation in waiting—waiting for normalcy, waiting for a green light, waiting for any light.
They’re not a lost generation; they know where they are. They just can’t go home.
* * *
When shrapnel tore through Mostafa’s home in the city of Homs two years ago, he couldn’t move for minutes, he says, maybe even hours. Time froze. Before even opening his eyes, he knew life would never be the same.
“I didn’t want to see what I knew had happened,” he says, blinking anxiously as he recounts a living nightmare.
When he finally opened them, he saw what can never be unseen: the bodies of his mother and young brother lying lifeless, almost unrecognizable. He and his father, along with his younger brother, had survived the shelling.
With barely any time to arrange a proper burial, the family fled to Lebanon. Once a promising engineering student at Aleppo University, Mostafa now works odd jobs (“I’ve cleaned, I’ve cooked, I’ve played music, I’ve taught ... everything and anything”), struggling to find a way to continue his education. Most engineering programs at Lebanese universities are simply too expensive.
His father, still enveloped in grief, is barely able to get up some mornings. Mostafa has become a second father to his younger brother, nudging him to do his homework and scolding him when he watches too much SpongeBob SquarePants on a small television set they got second-hand from a Lebanese neighbor.
To “make better use” of his time—the only thing Mostafa really has—he began volunteering at a school run by Jusoor, a non-governmental organization started by Syrian expatriates to educate the country’s displaced youth. He sings and dances with the children, who follow him around with perma-smiles. On his breaks, he practices his English through an app he downloaded on his Droid, a device he long saved up for and calls his “best friend.”
Spending time with the children has served as a kind of therapy for Mostafa, exposing him to a world outside his own of unbearable loss.
“These are my people,” he says, walking into a room of young Syrian refugees, all huddled in a circle, vibrating with energy even before Mostafa picks up his drum.
“When I look into their eyes, I see my pain,” he says, grabbing the hand of a five-year-old boy who lost his father in Syria last year. “But I also see my country.”
* * *
In what she describes as a “dark flash,” Bayan fled the city of Aleppo with her family two years ago. She still remembers the gray, foggy morning they left. They were woken up at 5 a.m. by neighbors notifying them of a ceasefire in their restive neighborhood—a chance to escape after being under siege for weeks with barely enough to eat. They quickly packed some belongings—a few days’ worth of clothes, some books, and an old family Koran—and fled. On their way out of Aleppo, the Syrian army held them for two hours at a checkpoint and took all their suitcases.
Bayan’s face folds into tears when she recalls how the soldiers took her schoolbooks. “They were just books,” she says. “I’m just a student.”
Adjusting to life in Lebanon has been impossible, she says. She and her younger sister Rawan complain of harassment from Lebanese teachers and students; one of her schoolmates, she says, taunts her by repeating “Bashar,” the name of the embattled Syrian president. Bayan’s new home, a small two-room apartment in northern Lebanon, is caked in dust and squalor, lit by a single blade of sun peeking in through the apartment’s only window. Her father, once a successful tailor in Syria, can barely find enough work to pay their monthly rent, the equivalent of around $200.
“We’re hanging on by a thread,” her mother says, nursing Rawan’s baby brother. Before she’s able to set the baby down for a nap, the apartment goes black. They weren’t able to pay the electricity bill this month. It’s not the first time and it probably won’t be the last. As she does most months, Rawan rushes outside to lift the lock that the electricity company has placed on their fuse box to prevent them from switching the power back on. The tactic has worked in the past, but this time the lock is too tight.
Rawan gives up and hurries back upstairs to flip through her journal, adorned with images of flowers and rainbows, the stuff childhood is supposed to be made of. On the first page, she has sketched out verses from a song she says she heard long ago, but only now understands: “To live through the pain of alienation that no one knows until they’ve lived through it.”
* * *
Almost every day, and often in the same powder-blue trench coat, Manal takes a 20-minute bus ride to a small community center for Syrian refugees in southern Lebanon. She brings nothing but two journals. In their pages are crushed flower petals, now browned, from her favorite garden back in Damascus. “It’s quiet here ... I can think,” she says, sitting in a corner of the center. “There’s too much noise at home, too much noise everywhere.”
Manal and her family fled their Damascus suburb two years ago after two of her relatives were thrown into prison and brutally beaten. She had planned to enter university and study business, but like most young Syrian refugees, she’s been struggling to find a way to finance her studies in Lebanon. She and her family work as grocers at a local market, living paycheck to paycheck.