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 desperation
I 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."
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