Not a day goes by without A Demand For Action being contacted by people in Syria or Iraq. They may be journalists, activists, but also, for example, a woman whose two daughters have disappeared, or someone from a village where they have had no access to water for weeks. Many also contact us from Sweden and other Western countries. Last week we received an email from Gothenburg, the man who wrote it had been to Lebanon and wanted to know if we could help his in-laws and other people in their situation. We asked him to write a thorough email, and with his permission, we let journalist Karin Dahlström edit his story.
My Trip to Lebanon
My wife and I went to Beirut in Lebanon over Christmas and New Year to visit her parents and three sisters who had fled there from Qamishly in Syria almost three years ago.
They did not flee from dictator Assad, but they fled out of fear that Daesh (IS) would reach their town and begin the slaughter of people, mainly Christians. Their journey was long, but they made it all the way to Lebanon.
When we arrived at their little rented apartment in Beirut we were greeted by ragged mattresses spread out on the living room floor. The apartment, which is less than 50 square meters, is shared by five people and for the coming two weeks it would be seven, with us. The five of them would sleep on the mattresses in the living room as they had left their only bedroom for us to use.
I thought about my wife’s sisters, of whom the two eldest were studying at universities and the youngest was in elementary school in Syria. They had their whole future ahead of them, but are now laying on ragged mattresses in a cold apartment in a different country to in just a few hours get up and go to work in clothing stores for wages not enough for either rent or food. The wages are low for one simple reason: they are from Syria. They speak the same language as the Lebanese, but it does not matter. They are less worthy as human beings because they are from Syria. I cried inside when I saw them and the mattresses.
After a chilly night I awoke to a man’s voice shouting in Arabic. I heard my mother in law answer him in a small voice. I do not understand Arabic, so I don’t know what they were talking about. I could hear my wife there also, but where was my father in law? Him I did not hear. “That’s why the man is shouting,” I thought. I got dressed to show myself and hopefully get him to lower his voice, but once I got there he was already gone. I asked my wife what it was all about and she answered that it was the landlord who said that the neighbor below us had complained. That was nothing more to it.
The next day the family had an appointment with the United Nations. We joined them there, but waited outside. In the evening I asked my mother in law what they did there and what the UN is doing for them? She replied that they went there to extend their permit that allowed them to stay in Lebanon. If they were to be stopped by police they must have these documents to show. And no, the UN does nothing for them. So far they have received three plastic mats and a food card loaded with $75 a month. It only works in some grocery stores and is supposed to be enough for five people.
I could not believe what I was hearing and remembered being little and in primary school where we learned that the United Nations help. But this I do not call help; $15 per person per month!
The days went by and the sisters were working long days before Christmas. I met some of those who had fled from Khabour in Syria when Daesh (IS) attacked the village nearly a year ago. These three young boys escaped kidnapping, unlike many others.
When Christmas was over, all three sisters were finally off at the same time. We took them on a trip to the mountains and had come up with a few activities so that they could have fun and get away from everyday life, which basically just meant work. On the roads we saw garbage almost everywhere and learned that the garbage men had been on strike for the past three months. Sometimes people would light the garbage on fire and the smoke would spread into the houses. Not a pleasant smoke to inhale.
For one and a half weeks, we spent as much time with the sisters as we could. The weather was pleasant during the day, but cold at night, and even colder in the apartment because there were no radiators there. The windows were leaky and the power is on for only 12 hours a day. This apartment has been connected to a generator, but it only got about 4 amps per apartment, which was not enough to heat it up. It was also damp in the apartment, which made our clothes feel wet all the time.
My mother in law told me that when they moved into the apartment five months ago all the walls and ceiling were blackened by moisture. The guys from Khabour had helped paint the entire apartment. After only two months they began to notice that the black had come back in the ceiling in the kitchen and the bedroom. Now the entire ceiling in the kitchen was black.
On New Year’s Eve the sisters worked until 8PM. When the got home we ate good food together and celebrated the new year. The next day the doorbell rang and it was the landlord again. Now he said that he had sold the apartment to the neighbor who had complained, and that they had a week to move out! Strangely, my father in law was not home this time either.
On Sunday, the sisters went to work and we went to Church. During the breakfast in the Church’s hall my mother in law asked some people she knew if they could get in touch with her if they knew of any vacant apartments. I could see in her eyes that she was stressed, exhausted and desperate. She had to find an apartment. As much as I wanted to help her find a new apartment, I couldn’t. The only thing I could do was to be by her side and support her.
At 9AM on Tuesday, the day before we were to go back to Sweden, the landlord called one of the sisters and said that they had until 5PM to move out, and empty the apartment. It was raining outside and my in-laws had yet to find a new apartment. The two oldest girls had to work until 4PM and could not get time off. While my in-laws were looking for a new apartment we started packing. At last they succeeded. It was smaller than the one they lived in now and without power, which meant that they will only have power 12 hours a day. But they had to accept it.
At 2PM my wife called the landlord to tell him that we had found a place but we would need an extra day to move everything. He replied by saying that if we were not out by 5:15PM, he would do everything in his power to get us out.
We continued packing in sheer desperation. At 4:30PM the sisters came home from work and everyone was running back and forth and there were phone calls here and there. My father in law was still not home and the clock was approaching 5. The youngest sister, who is 16, began to cry and so did my wife. I tried to calm them but I couldn’t. At 20 minutes left to vacate the apartment my father in law had still not come home, and I was the only man in the house. I found a baseball bat looking stick in the kitchen. For the first time in my life I was prepared to fight for someone else’s life, not mine, but theirs. I was shaking a little, but at that moment I didn’t care about my own life.
Two minutes later my father in law came home with a friend. He saw his daughters crying and managed to calm them. There were more phone calls and it all ended with one person from the Lebanese military calling the landlord to tell him that the family would have two days to move. And so they did, thankfully.
The next day we went home to Sweden. During the trip, I thought about what had happened and wondered how the family will be able to live in Lebanon. How will they get money for food and rent? How will they cope with the cold all winter that has just begun? How would they cope with all threats? Or the feeling that they are less worthy as human beings just because they are from Syria? I found no answers.
During my stay with the in-laws in Beirut, I found out what their cost of living and wages. Housing costs were a total of $735 (6300 SEK) per month with the following breakdown: rent $550, $25 cold water, $50 for drinking water, $30 for electricity generators $80. What kind of apartment would you get for the 6300SEK a month in Sweden, one may ask.
My mother in law takes care of the house and my father in law is looking for work. I think the reason he can’t get any is that he is too old, 60 years. The two oldest sisters are working in clothing stores and earn $ 400 each (10 hours per day, 6 days a week). The youngest sister works in a hair salon and earns 80 dollars a month (8 hours per day / 6 days a week).
Total earnings are $ 880 (7500 SEK) per month. When the housing costs are paid, there will be 1,200 SEK over plus 640 SEK on the food card from the UN. This is supposed to be enough to feed and clothe five people, which it isn’t because the food costs as much as it does in Sweden (my own comparisons).
Finally, I would say that the trip has given me insight into what it means to be a refugee in Lebanon and has left traces in my heart. I think differently today. I think it is easy to forget what the rest of the world looks like when we have such a good life here in Sweden.
Sweden is probably the best country in the world. We have it all here, but they have nothing there.
It does not matter if it’s 10 degrees below zero and windy outside when I have to walk 200 meters from the car and home, for I am guaranteed to walk into a warm home.
One has often heard and even thought so oneself, that if you win the lottery you would move away from this cold and dark country. If I win the lottery I will do everything to help give my in-laws’ family and as many others as possible a better life.