BEIRUT: When Anwar was still in his hometown, Raqqa, he saw three human heads lined on the sidewalk. “They were set up like watermelons,” he said. ISIS fighters had placed them there to scare locals into submission. Anwar and other Syrian refugees from Raqqa living in Lebanon said the only way to survive ISIS was to keep their heads down and follow the rules.While they have found relative safety in Lebanon, they said they still keep their heads down, living a new, only slightly softer kind of nightmare. “Because we are Syrian, we can’t even keep our heads up,” said Samir, a Raqqa native who struggles to feed his young family. “I have to borrow money from here and there, even just to pay rent.”
With humanitarian coffers beginning to dry up and aid allocations being cut, Syrian refugees in Lebanon who fled ISIS say they are surprised at how little help they’re receiving. “Refugees are supposed to get help, but people are taking from us,” said Hussam, who is also from Raqqa. From extortionate rent prices to the high cost of food, Hussam said it’s difficult to make ends meet.
While refugees from all over Syria face similar problems, those from Raqqa lamented the billions of dollars being spent on combatting ISIS in their hometown while so few resources are reaching the living victims of terrorism.
“Everyone thinks about the politics, no one thinks about the humans,” Hussam said.
Samir bemoaned the cruel irony that many Lebanese believe he supports the terror group. “Everyone that sees us here thinks that [because] we’re from Raqqa [we like] Daesh,” he told The Daily Star, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. “People think that we’re Daesh, but we fled Daesh ... If I liked them I would have stayed.”
Samir said he heard that if he manages to find $500 he can get to Europe by boat. In recent months, an increasing number of Syrian refuges have attempted the dangerous trip across the Mediterranean from Turkey.
When asked about the risk of death, Samir shrugged. “It’s between dying here, in Syria or at sea,” he said.
Jamal, who arrived in Lebanon just last week after fleeing Raqqa, said he’d make the perilous crossing “in a second” if he could secure the funds. He too brushed off the danger. “Once you have lost your dignity, you are already dead,” he said.
“People are thinking of going to Europe because over there at least you’re treated like a human,” he said.
Jamal, who fled Raqqa by bus last week, said both the security threats and the poor economic situation in the city compelled him to leave. “There is only one type of work there: carrying a gun,” he added.
But working in Lebanon carries its own risks: Refugees who receive aid from the United Nations are technically forbidden from being employed in Lebanon. They risk losing their refugee status and monthly aid if they are caught.
But the monthly aid is not enough to cover even basic living expenses, said Bashir, a refugee from Raqqa who lives in a tented settlement in the Bekaa Valley. This month, the World Food Program cut the amount of money each refugee receives for food each month to just $13.50. It would be “impossible” to feed a family for a month with that meager sum, he said.
Moreover Bashir added that landowners have exploited the plight of refugees. “They say, ‘you live on my land, you drink my water, you live on my land, you have to work for me’ ... The people we work for claim they own us ... No one likes the idea of having an owner.”
If being beheaded by ISIS is no longer a concern for Raqqa residents who fled to Lebanon, survival is still difficult and at times tenuous.
Medical expenses remain another life-and-death issue for refugees. Nada, also from Raqqa, has a thyroid problem but was told that an operation would cost $3,000. “It’s burning me every day,” she said, sweeping her hijab from her shoulders to reveal her swollen neck.
As ISIS continues its reign of terror, more refugees are fleeing toward Lebanon, Bashir said. A group of 15 newcomers are currently on the Lebanese-Syrian border awaiting the proper paperwork to gain entry to the country.
The difficulty faced by refugees in general and ISIS survivors in particular is not the fault of any single group, faction or party, Bashir said. “I don’t blame anyone, it’s just the reality. It’s very hard for us to deal with.”