“I’m 20 years old, I don’t want to fight. I don’t want to walk towards death with my own two feet.”
Ibrahim is one of more than a million Syrians holed up in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley. He is a refugee from a war that has engulfed his homeland since he was 13 years old.
Like so many Syrians, he’s enduring a life in limbo, consigned to a tent settlement about 30 minutes from the Syrian border. But as the conflict rages on, home might as well be a world away.
I met Ibrahim in early March when I travelled to the Beqaa Valley with Afghanistan-based photojournalist Andrew Quilty and the VICE Australia journalist, Maddison Connaughton. The war was entering its eighth year. We went to learn and gather stories of young Syrians like Ibrahim.
Ibrahim was at his workplace, a worksite next to the camp where he lives. It’s a ribcage of what will become a modern apartment building rising from the ground. He’s painting the ground level in a mustard yellow.
“If the war doesn’t end in Syria, we can’t go back,” Ibrahim says. “I’m 20 years old, so I’d be facing conscription.”
“It’s really only Syrian civilians that are dying. Foreign countries are joining in the fighting. The Syrian people are suffering the most. The children, women and the girls.”
Ibrahim’s powerful comments are captured in a mini-documentary produced by VICE, World Vision Australia and World Vision Lebanon.
“Now I’m working and saving up so I can save rent for the tent. The tent owner comes and demands his money. You don’t even get a chance to rest. No day off to relax or to recover. We keep working. Today we’ve eaten but we can’t be sure well find food tomorrow.”
Ibrahim says most Syrians in Lebanon would like to move to Europe but the cost of getting there is huge and there is a risk of drowning and death.
“Here there’s nothing. It’s just working and sleeping. And sometimes there’s no work.”
Ibrahim is among the 8.4 million children – more than 80 percent of Syria’s child population – that have been affected by the conflict. Many of them make up the 5 million Syrians forced to flee.
Andrew Quilty has spent four years documenting devastation in war-torn Afghanistan. In 2016, he won a Gold Walkley for a photo taken at a hospital in Kunduz following US air strikes.
We stay three days in the Beqaa Valley. Many young Syrians like Ibrahim have lived their entire childhood and teenage years as refugees in Lebanon.
In Beirut, we were joined by Lebanese filmmaker Mark Karam and Josephine Haddad and Sanaa Maalouf from the World Vision Lebanon office.
On the drive to Beqaa, tourist signs for vineyards — and even a chateau — mingle with road signs for Syria and military checkpoints. The region once known for its tourism is now a synonym for war.
Andrew tells me the scale of the problem in Beqaa is much bigger than he expected.
“I expected the Beqaa Valley to be smaller than it is and the saturation of refugees to be greater. It’s more spread out than I thought,” he says.
“That said it’s a huge valley. It runs the length of the country.”
In Lebanon, there are both formal refugee camps and Informal Tent Settlements (ITS). The ITS are spread out, usually on private land. The refugees pay the land owners to camp there.
The tents were made from recycled wood and canvas either provided by UN agencies or sourced from old billboards. Fire is a constant threat.
Some of the tents are made of advertisement boards for burgers and luxury goods — representing another world, another life. The contrast to the muddy landscape is surreal and disorienting.
For the photo essay, Andrew focused on 18-year-olds coming of age in the Beqaa Valley. He asked each person to stand outside their tent.
Andrew says he was curious to see how the locals in Beqaa were reacting to the Syrians.
“I remember four years ago when I came to Lebanon, there was already a lot of anxiety about the presence and the numbers have probably doubled since then.”
Water and sanitation are two of the biggest issues and Lebanon’s ailing infrastructure cannot accommodate the massive influx of people. Beirut is regularly brought to a standstill by civic protesters demanding improvement. It’s another fault line running through the region.
World Vision runs a Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) program in many ITS that provides communal water points, water treatment and latrines to many of the camps. But funding is an ongoing issue.
“Obviously all the economic and sociological issues result from such a massive influx of people from the country next door,” Andrew says.
Some Lebanese were worried that the Syrians would not go home. “But I think most refugees that you speak to do want to go home when circumstances allow.”
He was inspired by the strength of the women that he photographed. “They were strong beyond maybe what you would expect of someone in their position to be.
“Strong girls who looked like they could really push through any kind of adversity. Some already had.”
“I don’t really know what I was expecting,” Maddison tells me. “I feel like I didn’t have any point of reference to be going in with.”
We are in the World Vision 4WD driving back to Beirut after three days in the field.
“I guess what really stood out for me was Aahed and the relationship she has with her mother.”
Aahed is a 20-year-old Syrian widow from Aleppo. She lost the man she planned to share her life with when a bomb fell on their house in 2016. She married Abdel Rahman four years earlier when she was only 16. Two years later Aahed took their baby girl, Douaa to the town’s medical centre when a barrel bomb was dropped on their house. She came back to find her home and much of her life destroyed. With no chance to mourn her beloved husband, she had no choice but to flee with her new born child.
By the time we meet Aahed she’s been reunited with her mother in the refugee camp in Beqaa.
“They were clearly such a team,” says Maddison. “That’s how I bicker with my mum, it was really close to home, her mum telling her how to stand or ‘come on answer in full sentences’, so that was really sweet.”
Maddison tells me she is surprised by the family units and how well they functioned.
“I’m an only child so that’s such a foreign idea to me having all these brothers and sisters living in a house together. But it seems like this really beautiful thing, something that they draw a lot of strength from. Having families, and cousins and these units they kind of grow up all together.
“When the media goes to a refugee camp it’s usually in the heart of a crisis, we have seen the Rohingya crisis and the images from there, it’s absolute chaos. People living in absolute chaos. And it’s really hard to see. But I think the thing that was really hard about the Beqaa Valley is that there is a permanence to it.”
Some Syrians have been living in the Beqaa Valley from the beginning of the war.
Photo by Andrew Quilty.
“It kind of felt a little bit like limbo, there were some people who had just decided that this is where they lived now and this is what comes next. And there were other people who I guess were a little less fixed.”
The Syrian War has lasted longer than both World War One (1914 – 1918) and World War Two (1939 – 1945). In the past seven years 5.5 million Syrians, half of whom are children, have fled the country. A further six million have been internally displaced in Syria. More than 13 million people are now in need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria.
“The idea of being 19 and feeling stuck, we’ve all felt like that, but we weren’t really stuck, I don’t know, I think that was the hardest part of it.”
Angus Smith is a freelance journalist and Multimedia and Public Affairs Officer at World Vision Australia.