Beirut – Ali and Aya sit on the last piece of furniture left in their Beirut apartment. They have packed their family’s suitcases and given the rest of their belongings – beds and blankets, kitchenware and cleaning supplies – to fellow Syrian refugees in the Lebanese capital.
Among their most treasured belongings, Ali has packed four matching red and white Swiss national football team jerseys, they bought at a local market. The couple and their four children are just a few days away from calling Switzerland their new home. The details of the day his family was informed their resettlement case had been accepted by the Swiss Government are fresh in Ali’s mind.
“Imagine your favourite team is in the World Cup. Both teams have an even score, until the final minute. A player scores a goal and wins the game. This was my children’s reaction, jumping on top of me until I fell over. We were all celebrating,” said the 32-year-old carpenter.
They are among the fortunate few: Globally only 92,400 of 25.4 million refugees were resettled in 2018.
Their new life in Switzerland will be a stark contrast to the violence experienced in Syria.
“When conflict starts, you don’t believe it is happening to you. I was living normally and the next thing I knew I was standing against a wall and someone was ready to execute me,” recalled Ali, who only survived because a passing military aircraft sent his would-be killers running.
“A day later, I saw large trucks filled with corpses stacked one on top of the other… As soon as I saw this, I hurried home. We got in our cars and left Aleppo.”
An estimated 900,000 Syrians have been registered as refugees in Lebanon since the conflict erupted in 2011. Since that time, the International Organization for Migration – which has been involved in refugee resettlement since its creation in 1951 - has worked alongside the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to resettle some 100,000 refugees – mainly Syrians – to 25 countries, including Canada, Australia and European Member States.
In Lebanon, IOM coordinates all arrangements for refugees selected for resettlement by UNHCR and/or host governments, including pre-departure orientation, language courses and medical screening. The Organization also organizes in-country land movements and international air transportation to facilitate resettlement.
In 2018, the IOM’s largest resettlement mission was Lebanon, where one in six people is a refugee.
Jasem, seven years Ali’s junior, is also a young Syrian father trying to provide for his family in Lebanon since he escaped compulsory military service in 2012. He and a dozen extended family members – including his wife and three children – live in an informal settlement in the Bekaa Valley, currently home to approximately 350,000 refugees.
While Lebanon has commendably allowed Syrians to reside there, it has been long recognized that sustainable solutions to Syrian displacement are badly needed. Refugees in Lebanon must find ways to provide for their families despite restrictions on mobility and employment. Twenty-five-year-old Jasem sometimes finds jobs on construction sites or farms, but his documents only enable him to work in areas close to the settlement.
“We work when there’s work near our home, and we sit when there’s no work. Some people pay us, others do not. We’re just surviving,” said Jasem who pays approximately 50 USD rent monthly.
The family will be resettled in France where Jasem hopes to find agricultural work and settle the USD 2,000 loan he took to cover the hospital expenses for the birth of his twins last year.
In addition to finding sustainable employment, refugees in Lebanon, as in many other countries, also struggle to find acceptance among their neighbours.
“My children were subjected to a lot of insults in school. Even the teachers would say things like ‘If I could put up a wall between myself and Syrians, I would’,” Ali’s wife Aya said.
“People don’t understand that we were forced to leave our country because we were under attack. Because of missiles, because of terrorists. We came to live in Lebanon, but not so that [our children would be] exposed to more insults and shock.”
After two years, they pulled their children out of school.
“One time my son asked me, ‘Dad, why am I being burdened with the guilt of war?’ This is a child talking,” Ali added.
Once resettled refugees reach their new countries, their challenges are far from over. Ali, Aya, Jasem and their children will have to learn new languages and skills, find employment, navigate complex schooling and health systems, and adapt to a foreign culture.
According to latest estimates released by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, more than 1.44 million refugees currently residing in over 60 refugee hosting countries will be in need of resettlement in 2020.
But they are ready to take on the challenges ahead for the opportunity to start anew.
“The most important thing is being in a land of peace. Maybe because we were deprived of it, or we suffered a lot. Einstein sought refuge in Switzerland… The country took him in and supported him, and he shined, because a nation supported him,” said Ali.