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Unemployment crisis: Syria’s downtrodden flock to Lebanon for work

Syrian workers in lebanon

Huddled under Beirut's concrete bridges and around street corners are thousands of Syrian men who have left home and crossed the border in recent months in the hope of finding work as day labourers.

May 26, 2012 9:44 by

Huddled under Beirut’s concrete bridges and around street corners are thousands of Syrian men who have left home and crossed the border in recent months in the hope of finding work as day labourers.

From 13-year-old schoolboys to limping elderly men, most of them represent impoverished families from Syria’s rural regions who are suffering the brunt of a deepening economic crisis as a 14-month-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad drags on.

“We could barely buy a pack of bread. We’re suffering from hunger, so I had to come here and do whatever I can,” said Mohammed Mahou, 23, a father of three from an eastern farming town called al-Qamishli.

Syrians who once headed for day work in Aleppo and Damascus have found construction projects halted. Farmers like Mahou say they are unable to work their fields because prices of fertiliser have risen sharply and some areas are unsafe to farm.

Meanwhile, prices for basic food staples in Syria have nearly tripled, they say.

Mahou is willing to do anything – construction work, carrying heavy objects, painting – to earn money to send back home. But these days, finding work isn’t easy.

“I have come to this same intersection for more than a week but it’s no use,” he said. “I haven’t gotten a single lira.”

The Lebanese capital has always drawn Syrian labourers: the city is full of construction projects and the rattle of drills and hammers are part of the daily din.

But the workers are now flooding in. Although there are no official figures, one humanitarian worker estimated that an additional 20,000 Syrians had been drawn to the capital, increasing competition for jobs and pushing down wages by as much as 50 percent. Now, they try to earn about $10 or $15 for a day’s work, though most are grateful for anything at all.

Jihad, a 14-year-old from the Aleppo countryside, quit school to become his family’s bread winner. In the past month he has only had one day of work.

“My father was killed four months ago on his way home when there were clashes between the army and armed groups,” he said, referring to the rebels.

“I had to come; we have no one to help.”


Most of the workers waiting outside with Jihad used to be farmers. Dressed in torn, paint-splattered shirts and jeans coated with dirt, the men look as battered as they say they feel.

“We don’t even care about reform in Syria anymore,” said Hafez, a pale 25-year-old with a wiry red beard. “There was a point when we wanted those things. But not anymore. Now we just want to go home.”

Hafez jumps out at cars that slow down and scope out the crowd of workers, hoping one of them is looking for a handyman.

But he is out of luck. No one stops.

“We suffered the most from all of this. At home we have no fuel, we can’t afford to buy seeds to farm. We barely have water. No electricity. Nothing,” says Hafez, who is from a village in eastern Hasaka province, where his family has a cotton farm.

“I have nine brothers. They are here,” he says, pointing out faces in the crowd. “That man is also my cousin, so is that one. Almost all of the men from Hasaka have come to Lebanon.”

Syrian workers now fill the crumbling alleys of Beirut’s poorer districts, where the smell of sewage hangs in the heat and one-room shacks are stuffed with mattresses and tiny stoves for cooking.

Workers are crammed into a tiny concrete apartment with anywhere from ten to twenty other men. Rents are around $150 a month, and rising.

“Sometimes we take turns sleeping, we pick different times. The ones who get to sleep at night pay more rent than the others,” Mahou said.

For many of these men, coming to Lebanon does not even offer a respite from what they left behind. Some worry they continued to be spied on by Syrian intelligence in Beirut.

“I came here four months ago. There were a lot of problems, there was fighting, gunmen fired on us. It was disgusting,” said 26-year-old Ali, from Hasaka. “There is still something that I want to say, but I am too afraid.”

(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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