Seven years after the Syrian war unleashed one of history’s worst humanitarian crises, about 5 million refugees are still sheltering in neighboring countries. Jordan hosts 700,000 Syrians, while Lebanon provides refuge to nearly 1 million—enough to total one-quarter of its population. The conflict has transformed these two countries, creating new political, demographic and economic challenges. Photo above: Ezra Millstein/Mercy Corps. All other photo: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps.
Below, Mercy Corps’ country directors in Lebanon and Jordan, George Antoun and Hunter Keith, explain how this crisis is reshaping the region, the difficulty of anticipating what may happen next, and how Mercy Corps is working to reach Syrian, Jordanian and Lebanese families in a crisis that has grinded on far longer than most imagined.
In Jordan and Lebanon, Mercy Corps provides emergency assistance, helps strengthen the fabric of Syrian and host communities, and provides tools to boost livelihoods and help develop local economies. Read on to learn more.
Would you both describe some of the ways your programs help people?
GEORGE ANTOUN: Our work empowering communities in Lebanon includes a focus on women and girls, which leads to better governance and community participation. We also have projects to end gender-based violence that help women, children and men. We provide skills training and social support for kids and youth who are troubled, whether they are out of school or have problems in their families.
We also do vocational training to boost people’s skills to improve their chances in the job market, as well as support small and medium-sized enterprises by providing software, equipment or consultants to work with them on strategy. Among the urgent needs that we address are providing water, building latrines and working with communities on larger projects, such as fixing the water network.
HUNTER KEITH: In Jordan, we have projects devoted to child welfare in the Azraq and Zaatari refugee camps to provide spaces where children can play and learn. We also work with people with disabilities to integrate them into formal education, both in schools in the camps and host communities. Most of those beneficiaries are Syrian, but there are Jordanians as well.
We also help Syrian beneficiaries in host communities with cash assistance for things like winterization or civil documentation. There is a huge number of Syrians who never went through an official registration process with either the UN or another agency or who left camps without formal permission. Others need help providing educational documents or proof of marriage to gain work permits. Documentation is really important for folks who never quite got their papers in order when they fled their homes in a war zone.
How has the response from host communities evolved over seven years?
GEORGE ANTOUN: When Syrian refugees started pouring in to Lebanon, the political situation in the country was so complex that none of the political parties wanted to touch it, which is why we have informal settlements. It was really chaotic at the beginning, but with time, and with the help of the United Nations and nonprofits like Mercy Corps, it improved. Nonprofits created a forum about four years ago that now includes 42 international humanitarian agencies coordinating with each other.
Now we see the government trying to apply more centralization than before. The government is engaged. Last year, the government waived the annual fee of $200 for residence permits that many Syrians had struggled to pay. This includes all Syrians aged 15 and above, however, refugees tell us the fee waiver is not implemented coherently and refugee men of working age are sometimes excluded from obtaining legal stay. This is pushing them to find a Lebanese sponsor, a process that may cost as much as $1,000, expose them to exploitation, and affect their refugee status as they are often labeled migrant workers.
How does integrating Syrians in their host communities impact community relations? Are they being accepted, or not?
HUNTER KEITH: Once you resolve the humanitarian needs, then you can start working at the community level to integrate people, and then you have some opportunities to help make communities more prosperous.
Our programs drive real collaboration between Syrians and Jordanians in areas that have taken in large numbers of refugees. We reach out to both groups and say, "Look, we have some resources that we can use to improve infrastructure and services. We need your cooperation as a group to help us understand what your priorities are." This gets the two groups talking with one another, and they usually come out with a much better understanding of each other’s issues and how they can solve them jointly.
Once you resolve the humanitarian needs, then you can start working at the community level to integrate people, and then you have some opportunities to help make communities more prosperous.
There’s a lot of economic pain in Jordan, even if you were to take away the refugee issue. The loss of trade with Iraq and Syria over the last two decades has made this a place of desperate challenges. Jordan has been very generous with refugees, but there is some fatigue and very real pressures on people and the economy.
GEORGE ANTOUN: In Lebanon, all but two of our programs are a mixture of Lebanese, Syrians and sometimes Palestinian refugees. Before the war, Lebanon was used to hosting 300,000 or more Syrians who worked in agriculture and construction because you couldn’t find Lebanese to do these jobs. The difference now is that instead of having unskilled laborers, you have plumbers, electricians and doctors, and this has increased tension and competition between local communities and Syrian refugees.
Employment always comes out as the number one driver for tension, including some demonstrations over Syrians taking jobs. Fortunately, it never became a bigger conflict and remains at a local level.
Can you give an example of how Syrians and host communities are working together to benefit both communities?
GEORGE ANTOUN: Research shows if you simply improve infrastructure or services without interaction, tensions remain high. Some of our programs help people create committees of Syrians and Lebanese to promote more interaction. We engage Syrian and Lebanese workers together to complete a public project that benefits the whole community, and this diffuses the tension.
HUNTER KEITH: We have a huge staff of Syrians, and every one of them has a really interesting story. One is Sami, who worked with kids in the gym at Zaatari. When his family left the camp to resettle in Algeria, he chose to stay because he loved working with young people. The camps are interesting places because whole communities of people wind up together who would otherwise have segregated themselves, the elites from the non-elites, people from different professions, even men and women.
About one-third of the Syrians in Jordan are under the age of 25. What role will they play in the future peace of the region? Could you describe Mercy Corps’ research on how to end the cycle of violence?
HUNTER KEITH: Development and relief programs often focus on things like essential services and employment, but violent groups recruit by offering vulnerable people something much different.
If you survey people about what they expect from the government, you will get a laundry list of material desires, such as goods and services, without any real critical thought about what government actually is. But if you instead ask them what they expect from the people around them—their neighbors, their family, their friends—you force them to think much more critically about what it takes, for example, to build a road. Do I expect my neighbor to contribute to a community path that is then going to deliver a service to me?
What are some of the responses you have heard from people?
HUNTER KEITH: People take a step back and say, “I expect my neighbors to be nice to me, I expect them to be fair, I expect that when I have a problem, they may help me solve it.” That’s what extremist groups offered to these people. It has to do with much more than material desires; it has to do with how people relate to one another.
If we want to be smart about how we work against that, we need to understand it better. Then we need to work through the structures of government. That’s what an organization like Mercy Corps can do—provide small examples of those alternatives in communities at the grassroots level.
As they mark the grim anniversary of another year of war, what do Syrians expect from the next 12 months?
GEORGE ANTOUN: Honestly, no one is sure. If you look at the landscape in Syria, a lot has changed in the past year. You see the government taking territory and consolidating power. If this continues, we are moving to a new situation where there could be large areas in Syria where there is no fighting. However, if there is no peace settlement and peace treaty in Syria, it is still unsafe for refugees to start returning.
But you cannot stop them. If you have wide areas in Syria that are relatively safe, where there is no more fighting, that are under the control of one party, then people may start thinking of going back, especially if humanitarian assistance in Lebanon or Jordan keeps decreasing.
Most of the Syrians you speak with say they would definitely go back. But their towns are destroyed, there is nothing for them to go back to right now.
HUNTER KEITH: Our concern, as Mercy Corps, is for the protection of people who might be forced to go back to Syria. If there were a clear future with a clear outcome, that would be one thing. You would have people here carefully considering their options. But, seven years on, I don’t know that people have the information they need to start piecing through that for themselves. The saddest aspect is it won’t be resolved for many years.
I suspect that the image of Syria in the minds of most Syrians is just horribly complicated. People still think of Syria as home, but that is very different from practical expectations of return. So a lot of people assume they will be here a very long time, if not forever.
How you can help
Mercy Corps works with young people in the most dangerous neighborhoods in Guatemala City, helping youth envision—and create—a better future. Here, election ink is used to prevent double voting, but also serves as a symbol of pride and democratic privilege. All photos: Corinna Robbins for Mercy Corps.
Luis moves quickly, weaving his way through narrow, winding streets lined with dusty cinder block buildings. It’s midday but the neighborhood is hushed, save for skinny dogs pawing at roadside scraps and the occasional dark truck, driven by men with grim faces and the solitary mission of making their presence known.
Past desolate alleyways and barred storefronts, Luis slips between a set of tall gates, the portal to a small concrete courtyard where faded hopscotch grids keep company with a lone and netless basketball hoop.
The doors click locked behind him. He’s arrived early enough to get a seat—there aren’t enough desks for everyone in his class—but that’s not the day’s success. The real victory, today, is that he made it to school.
At 16, Luis’s life growing up in Guatemala City is a series of cautious, calculated movements. Don’t stray past safe zones: home, school, church. Don’t cross to the “wrong” side of the street. Trust no one. Don’t get noticed.
His is a city fractured by violence: the 23rd highest homicide rate in the world, an alarming degree of rape, murder and abuse of females, and pervasive gang activity with recruitment that starts as young as age 8—plus extreme poverty, high school dropout rates, rampant drug use, a deep sense of lawlessness and countless other indicators that breed the belief that life has nothing else to offer.
“Every neighborhood has some presence of organized crime and international drug trafficking,” says Peter Loach, who led the implementation of Mercy Corps’ violence prevention program in the city.
“There's really no sense of community. [If you’re young] you’re [often] growing up in a single-parent household where you're sharing a room with other families. You might have a school that you can go to. Maybe it's safe to walk to the school, maybe it isn't and you don't get to go every day because of that. As you get beyond elementary school, the quality of education is not very high. You're probably working already at the age of 7, or 8, or 9.
“You add to that [the presence of] guns everywhere, a culture of violence, one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the world—it's just a tinderbox. It's a perfect storm for creating a generation of kids who really don't have too many prospects.”
For millions of the city’s young people, to succumb is the norm. To thrive is the exception.
Student governments give youth choice
Across town, in a concrete school at the end of a lonely alleyway, Cristal, 15, shifts quietly in her seat. In the center courtyard, younger students shriek and laugh, racing to beat one another to the line for a snack. It’s the first time many of them will have eaten all day, and Cristal raises her soft voice to be heard against the commotion.
“You have to be careful here in the community,” she says, casually detailing the risks youth throughout the city will tell you they’re up against every day: gangs, drugs, violence, a lack of opportunity. “There is danger.”
The pivotal difference for Cristal is that there is another side to her perspective. “But if you study to be better I know that you can change the community,” she adds.
Her confidence that a person can deviate from their predetermined path is significant—and it’s new. In just one year since being elected student government president, Cristal has learned she holds within her something that once felt elusive: choice.
“It makes me feel good,” Cristal says, “because I can help my classmates, listen to their opinions, and show others that we … can do something different in school. We can make our voice heard as students.”
Establishing student governments like this one is part of Mercy Corps’ five-year violence prevention program in Guatemala City. It focuses especially on youth growing up in the most volatile neighborhoods, helping them take ownership of their lives and communities in a way that many felt to be impossible before.
“People [here] feel that they don't have a voice,” Loach says. “And maybe no one’s ever asked them. Sometimes you just have to ask people what they think. We’re trying to ask people, ‘What do you want? What do you want to do?’ No one’s ever asked them before.”
Cristal wants to use her new influence as student body president to better her school. Her voice is steadier now, and her thoughts tumble out. She eagerly recounts plans to improve the lighting system and install a water filter. When she’s older, she says, she might run a company, or help her father fulfill his dream of owning a shoe store. She might run for mayor of Guatemala City one day.
“[Before] if anyone had an idea there was no one who listened, who organized it,” Cristal says. “Now it’s different because, if I want to talk, I’ll tell you. It’s as if I had opened a door that was closed for a long time.”
With the freedom to dream, a different future
Back at Luis's school, the student government has changed the narrative, too.
"We are all capable,” he says, “but when others are not given the opportunity [to express their opinion] it seems as if we do not value them. We are giving value to everyone to express what they feel and what they want to do."
As president of his classroom, Luis has a rolling list of improvements he wants to make: paint the walls, supply clean water, get three more desks, repair the electricity, ensure every classroom has working light bulbs.
“Sometimes people refer to this community as bad,” he says, sincerely, “but it is not that. It is [up to] each young person if they want to change for good or want to change for bad.”
As much as he has been thinking about his classmates lately, Luis has also been thinking about his future.
He heard on the news about a way he could serve his community, a path he can take to help make it the safe, secure place he knows it can be.
“I want to be a criminology student,” he says, “and be an investigator. They say their job is to help so that there is no more violence.
“I want to do that.”
And perhaps now he will, if only because he believes he can.
Informed, empowered youth have the ability to profoundly change their lives and families for the better—and with the right support, they can change the world, too. You can encourage even more young people to transform their communities.
Maram, 27, spent two nights walking over the eastern Lebanon mountains with her kids after living under siege in the Syrian city of Homs. With her husband missing and no way to buy food, her only option was to become a refugee. This is her story. (Edited for space and clarity from a Mercy Corps staff interview with Maram in Lebanon). All photos: Ezra Millstein/Mercy Corps.
When my husband disappeared and my kids went hungry, leaving Syria became my only option.We were living under siege in the city of Homs. I was pregnant, and one day my husband went out to buy food and never came back.
We were not allowed to go anywhere. But one day they gave us permission to leave the city, with the condition that we couldn't have any papers on us so they knew we would come back. But with my husband lost, I took all of our family papers and hid them in one of my children's diapers.
A neighbor told me he was willing to get us from Al-Waer to Damascus. But when we reached Damascus he said, "If you want to get into Lebanon you have to pay me." But I didn't have any money — I was a pregnant woman with four children. He said, "Well if you don't pay me I cannot get you into Lebanon." So I decided to walk through the mountains myself.
I didn't know how to get to Lebanon — I only followed the lights. Whenever I saw a light I would follow it. The first time I went up the mountain with my children I got lost, so I went down again. Then I went up another direction, but I was met by the Syrian army and they turned me back. At this point, I had spent a night and a half on the mountain without any food. One of my children, Liham, was shaking from a fever.
The second night, we met the Lebanese army. They said, "Do you know that it's illegal to come here through the mountains?" I said, "I do know, but I don't have anywhere else to go and the man who was supposed to get us into Lebanon didn't get us in."
He said, "Are these your children?" I said yes, and one of the officers said to his commander, "Well we cannot just detain her, she's a pregnant woman with four children." Then the commander sent two officers to the supermarket to bring some food for the children. After we ate, the commander asked us where we were going in Lebanon. I told him that I have some relatives in the south, so they called a taxi to take us there.
At this point, I had spent a night and a half on the mountain without any food.
The plan was to live with my brother, but when I met him I saw he lived in a tiny room with his family. It was too small for all of us, and there was no food to put on the table. So the owner of the collective shelter offered to give me a room and said, "If you can find a job and pay the rent, I can help you. But meanwhile I'll be writing down the debts. And if you want to buy food for your children, there is a supermarket where you can take the food now and pay later."
I was pregnant. I wasn't able to work. For three months I wasn't able to pay the rent or the grocery bill. And then I had to give birth.
A life of desperationI gave birth in the government hospital in Saida. I had to stay for two months with my child — more time I wasn't able to work. I heard about a person who would lend me money, but I would have to pay back double what I borrowed. But I was in desperate need for money because I have a child that has a lot of medical needs.
I had a lot of debts and no support. I didn't have any information about where my husband was. And now I had a 2-month-old baby. A woman in our compound even came to me and said, "I could pay all of your debts, but in return I want your child because I couldn't have any children. I will raise her since you can’t, but she will be mine." It was a terrible situation.
My neighbor told me about an organization called Mercy Corps that could provide work for me if I contacted them. I told them I was in desperate need of work, so Mercy Corps connected me to a temporary job at a recycling factory. I started the next day.
When my temporary job ended, the owner of the facility told me he wanted to hire me based on my need. "Whenever we need extra hands," he said, "I'm going to put you at the top of the list." For another two months he called me three days per week to work and earn money.
This opportunity from Mercy Corps was great because I was able to pay some of my debts, buy medicine, and bring food to my family. But after a few months the owner said, "I'm really sorry, but we don't need anyone right now."
Meanwhile, I started asking around about where my husband was. People were telling me different things, and I was really confused. I even sent a letter to the ministry that said, "I'm married to a man named Wahid, and one day he went out and didn't come back. It's been five months and I haven't heard anything about him. If you know where he is, please let me know."
Back in Syria, Wahid had heard that we fled to Lebanon. When he arrived, I was so happy to see that he was still alive. I felt like this is the support I need — someone working with me to support this family.
‘I saw the missiles raining on us’I don't have any food here, just a small amount of rice and beans that I boil with spices. There is a spring close by that provides water, but it has a high level of calcium, so the children cannot drink too much of it. I tried to get vaccines for my child, but no one cared. I knocked on doors, but everyone refused. My child needs a lot of medical tests, but they cost around $700 and I cannot afford them.
Yesterday my son said, "Mom I want some ice cream," and I knew I couldn't afford to buy it. I told him no, that we couldn’t afford it, and he started crying. I cried all night because of that.
The message I want people to hear all over the world is that we are suffering. I only want my family to be able to meet their basic needs — food, water and shelter. It's been three years now that my children haven't had any schooling. This year I would like to register them in school. This is my only wish, to see them grow.
Still, it's nothing compared to what I've seen in the war. I saw the missiles raining on us. Instead of raining water, it was raining missiles. Walking on a mountain with four children was nothing compared to that. It was that bad. We were not allowed to go out or in. We were under siege. Nothing could enter the city. We were trapped in our four walls, not able to do anything, just waiting to die.
One day recently, my husband and I were sitting together and I was feeling desperate. I told him that I needed to contact Mercy Corps again to find work. Right then, Hamad, a Mercy Corps staff member, called me. He said, "I’m working on an opportunity for you."
I cried for two hours out of happiness. Then I went to the market and asked for bread and yogurt.
The owner said, "How?" I said, "I found a job again."