BEIRUT: Youssef can’t concentrate on his tea, which is being served to him by an aproned waiter at a posh hotel in Downtown Beirut.
“It’s safe for me here in Lebanon,” he says, half-smiling. “But I think about my family in Syria every minute that I am here.”
Youssef, who asked that his last name not be revealed, is not technically a refugee. His family’s six-story building is still standing in Aleppo, but after their gold shop was damaged in a rocket attack, he became one of a number of middle-class and highly educated Syrians who came to Lebanon for work. “I work in a printing shop now,” he explains.
Youssef earns $600 a month, well above the $277 average monthly wage for Syrian refugees, according to a study released by the International Labor Organization earlier this month.
A third of that paycheck, however, goes back home each month to his family in Syria, and $150 goes on rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Cola that he shares with six other Syrian men. Money is tight.
Youssef says that while most Lebanese have been kind to him, he says that in general they look down on Syrians for taking their jobs.
While working in a previous printing job earlier this year in Beirut’s southern suburbs, a Lebanese man approached him. “He told me, ‘You Syrians are 1.5 million in Lebanon. You work for cheap and are causing problems here.’”
According to the ILO study, Syrian workers accept lower incomes and work for longer hours without social benefits.
Sometimes, when out in public, Youssef apes a Lebanese accent, but it rarely works. “They say, ‘don’t speak Lebanese, we can tell you are from Aleppo.’”
Youssef largely eschews politics. He says he is wary of Hezbollah’s presence in Lebanon, however, and carefully evaluates two men at an adjacent table before quietly admitting that many of his friends “do not like the Syrian government.”
He says he has no desire to stay in Lebanon, and will leave as soon as he can. He would rather be in Syria, he adds, and if he could have earned a living in Aleppo he would have stayed despite the risks.
“When I am with my family, I am happy, even if it is not safe. Because whatever will happen to me will happen to them,” he says.
“But they don’t want to leave. They say they’d rather die in their own building than flee.”
His extended family, many of whom are skilled goldsmiths and traders, are scattered across the region. Some are looking for work in Turkey, others in Jordan.
Youssef, who visited his family in Aleppo just two weeks ago, says the contrast between his once-thriving metropolis and Beirut is astounding.
“I stood on top of my building, and I could see fires everywhere. Everything was burning. ... But in Beirut, they’re constructing new shops and buildings every day.”
Bureaucratic obstacles have prevented Youssef from emigrating elsewhere. He initially refused to register as a refugee, citing his job and university education, but he is now considering changing his mind, as he believes applying to UNHCR will make it easier to obtain a visa to travel to Europe, where he has family.
He also hopes to marry his Syrian fiancee and bring her to Lebanon before he moves abroad. But he has not yet managed to save enough money to support her.
“I called her two days ago, and I could hear the rockets in the background,” he says. “She told me ‘Please hurry up, Youssef!’”