TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Ahmad al-Maneh was just a boy when his family, fleeing the violence of the Civil War, left Tripoli to resettle in Aleppo in the late 1970s.
There, in the safety and comfort of Syria’s northern city, the family eventually managed to get back on their feet and make a new life for themselves. Young Maneh had a rough start, dropping out of school at an early age and then losing his arm when he was 12 in an accident while working at an auto repair shop. But he didn’t let that deter him from fulfilling his dream of becoming a world-class athlete.
By the time he was a teenager, Maneh was competing in bicycle and swimming races, and when he was in his 20s he began representing Syria in international triathlons. Meanwhile, he had started his own car parts and accessories business, attracting customers from all corners of Syria. When the war reached Aleppo, he was making $3,000 a month and had won dozens of sports awards.
“I stopped training and working two years ago ... I couldn’t continue,” Maneh says, adding that the family left in a hurry and did not even have a chance to use the heating oil he bought for the Aleppo winter.
Today, Maneh lives with his wife and five children in a small dark stuffy room above a garage in Tripoli, his hometown in name only.
Maneh is one of around 20,000 Lebanese citizens who have been displaced from Syria since the beginning of the conflict, which started nearly three years ago. The community lives in conditions similar to those of their displaced Syrian counterparts, with the added disadvantage of not being able to register as refugees, which would qualify them for aid from agencies as well as charities.
“We’re Lebanese and our country is not taking care of us. Our Syrian relatives are getting help from local charities,” Maneh says.
The International Organization for Migration has recently started providing cash subsidies for rent as well as basic necessities, such as blankets, to Lebanese returning from Syria. This week the International Committee for the Red Cross also announced that it would soon be distributing aid to Lebanese returnees.
The Maneh family stayed with relatives when they first arrived, and now rents a single room that Ahmad describes as “better than a tent.”
Their lives are otherwise on hold, with most of the children out of school and Maneh out of work. They still hope to pick up the life they left behind in Aleppo once stability returns, although they have heard that their entire house has been looted, including the front door, which someone apparently used for firewood.
“I didn’t want to come here,” says Maneh, who briefly turns to memories of happier days, flipping through a binder of his international sports awards certificates and newspaper clippings featuring his wins over the years. He shows his Lebanese passport with a U.S. visa that he was granted for 2007 after qualifying for an American triathlon. He says he left Syria in a hurry, leaving behind even more awards in addition to his sports gear.
More importantly, in the rush to escape, he was unable to get his children’s paperwork in order. He didn’t have time to renew their Lebanese identify cards, meaning they had to pay smugglers to sneak them across the border, nor did he have the chance to collect his children’s transcripts, causing tremendous bureaucratic difficulties when they tried to register them for school in Lebanon.
Only their youngest, now in first grade, attends school. Their 11-year-old daughter practices her handwriting from workbooks at home, but when she shows her French notebook, all of the words of a sentence are combined into one long string of letters reading “loiseauquipassedansleciel” instead of “l’oiseau qui passe dans le ciel.”
Her parents say she will return to school as soon as they go back to Syria. The phrase “returning home” is something they repeat often.
“We had a good life. No one knew this would happen in Aleppo. Things were calm, and then all of a sudden we were being bombed,” Maneh says, looking around, still in disbelief that he has ended up in a cramped apartment in Lebanon.
He adds that he spends his days visiting friends and running errands with a battered bicycle he now uses, a far cry from the one he rode to win races in Syria.
These days, it’s Maneh’s 18-year-old son, Mahmoud, who supports the family, earning LL75,000 a week at a local auto repair shop. Less than two years ago he had begun following in his father’s footsteps, learning the car business and training for swimming and bicycle races.
Like his father, he has also been displaced by war and forced to drop out of school and work to help his family make ends meet.
The family doesn’t see any future for themselves in Lebanon, despite their Lebanese roots.
“My house and work is in Syria,” Maneh says. “We’re just waiting for the situation to improve so we can go back.”