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Syrian teen sets himself on fire in Beirut
Yousef lies in his hospital bed clinging to life after a self-immolation attempt. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)
Yousef lies in his hospital bed clinging to life after a self-immolation attempt. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)
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BEIRUT: Ahmad Yousef can’t talk, but his disfigured face and the third degree burns covering much of his body speak for many Syrians who feel they can no longer bear the pain of daily life.

“We’re tired, we’re out of work, our houses have been destroyed,” Mahmoud Yousef said, as he looked through a hospital glass wall at his teenage son on life support in Beirut’s Geitawi Hospital where he was transferred for specialized treatment.

The 19-year-old tried to commit suicide Sunday night by setting himself on fire. His friends and family, who brought him to the hospital after he doused himself in fuel and then lit a match, say he tried to kill himself because of a debt he was unable to repay. Now the family wonders how they will pay Ahmad’s hospital bill.

The young man was doing well as far as his parents could tell, after the family of 11 fled to Beirut two years ago from the town of Manbij in Syria’s Aleppo province.

Two weeks ago he got into an accident with his friend’s car, causing $4,000 in damages. With no means to repay the debt in the foreseeable future, Ahmad set himself on fire right by the telephone shop of the car owner’s father in Barbour.

“We tried to help him when he said he needed money, but we couldn’t help. We don’t have any money,” said Ali, the 17-year-old brother of Ahmad who works as a freelance building painter.

Although the family knew Ahmad was having problems, his attempted suicide came as a shock and seemed out of character for the young man they knew as being a funny and outgoing guy who enjoyed entertaining those around him. Although he was only working at odd jobs, Ahmad’s family said he was looking forward to a brighter future.

Ali says his brother enjoyed spending time with his girlfriend, a Lebanese girl he’d met a year ago. And Mahmoud said his oldest son dreamed of opening a cafe in Beirut so that he could take care of his siblings.

Before their home was destroyed by military shelling, the Yousef family led a simple and pleasant life in northern Syria. The children all went to school, prices were low and neighbors would visit each other in the evenings.

Today, the few residents that remain rarely leave their homes, let along pay visits to their neighbors, and basic goods are sold at highly inflated prices.

Even now in the relative safety of Beirut, the sudden debt apparently proved to be too much for Ahmad, whose income before his suicide attempt was only covering his basic expenses. In recent months there have been other reported cases in Lebanon of refugees from Syria deciding to end their lives. In January, a Palestinian man from Damascus killed himself because he could no longer properly support his family.

Sari Hanafi, sociology professor at the American University of Beirut, said he was very concerned about the situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, particularly in light of recent suicides and the lack of aid.

“Suicide means people are absolutely hopeless and they have nothing to lose,” he said, noting he had seen similar levels of despair in Palestinian refugee camps throughout the region. “The state isn’t taking care of them and the UNHCR is overwhelmed. The international community needs to help.”

Now Ahmad’s father, a longtime seasonal construction worker in Lebanon, is questioning whether he did the right thing in bringing his entire family to Lebanon, where the continual influx of other refugees means that work is harder to come by, as is humanitarian aid.

Last week the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees announced that Syrians in Lebanon would now have to pay for basic health care due to budget shortfalls and a much higher than predicted number of refugees.

There are an estimated 650,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon. And with around 3,000 crossing the border on a daily basis, with no end in sight to the violence in Syria, that number is expected to reach 1.2 million by the end of the year. Mahmoud said his family has not registered with the UNHCR because he found the process too cumbersome.

Looking through the window at his son in the hospital bed, Mahmoud said he hoped Ahmad’s attempted suicide would serve as a wake-up call to aid agencies.

“Ahmad set himself on fire because he wanted to send a message. He wanted to end his life because he didn’t have money,” he said.

“I want the Lebanese state, the United Nations and charities to do more to help us. I don’t want to see this happen to another Syrian refugee because he lost hope.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 30, 2013, on page 1.
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