Mariam is a refugee, but she is so much more than that. She is a loving mother and devoted wife.
Mariam was forced to flee from ISIS controlled Syria to Lebanon with her four children. Her journey was difficult, but unlike many Syrians, she and her family are now safe.
Travel along with Mariam on her journey.
Mariam and her family left in an instant. "Within fifteen minutes, we had to leave the city. No one could make a sound." They crept out of Raqqa during the time of evening prayer, when everyone was obliged to be at the mosque, so ISIS would hopefully be unaware of their escape. She fled with her elderly father-in-law and four young children, and a group of others seeking safety, including a group of friendly young men who helped the mothers carry their children and their belongings.
What is driving Syrians to flee?
Syria has experienced brutal violence for almost a decade. Since 2011, the conflict has continued and accelerated and the consequences have been catastrophic for civilians, particularly children, who have been deprived of assistance and safety. The conflict has led to more than 400,000 people dead or missing and devastated cities and homes throughout the country. The conflict in Syria has produced the largest refugee population in the world, and more than 11 million Syrians are displaced (both internally and externally) overall – that’s nearly half of the country’s entire population.
After going part of the way by bus, Mariam, her family, and travel companions walked through the night for about nine hours, until they reached a checkpoint.
“We waved white blankets in the air to show them we come in peace,” Mariam recalls.
Mariam was relieved due to their arrival at the checkpoint. Everyone in her group sank down gratefully to the floor in a few dilapidated rooms located at the checkpoint, laying their children to rest on mats scattered around the floor.
Suddenly, the group of young men whipped guns out of their backpacks and began to open fire.
“We thought they had food and clothes in them,” Mariam said. “I reached out to get my daughter and put one foot in front of the other. A bullet hit the ground just at my feet. The sand flew into the air. This is what I can’t forget: the sand going everywhere. If I hadn’t put my foot forward at that very second, I would have been hit.” Mariam then crawled on her knees to search for the rest of her children. Within seconds, that seemed like a lifetime, she found them.
Why did Mariam pass through a checkpoint?
When fleeing to Lebanon, many Syrians must go through checkpoints and produce legal identification documents. Not all Syrians are able to go through the formal checkpoints and instead take informal paths to enter Lebanon. Depending on each case, entering Lebanon through an informal route may be safer due to potential arrest and violence at official checkpoints. Read more here on pages 11-13.
Mariam and her companions continued on the journey. She recalls a low point. She and her family were stuck at a different checkpoint for hours. Mariam and her children were hungry and thirsty, and she could see that her baby daughter was very unwell. She recalls, “I had powdered milk but no water to mix it with. I asked for water but they did not give it to me.” Mariam singled out a tall and broad-shouldered man who looked like he was in charge, and, carrying the baby in her arms. She told the man, “Our children have not eaten since yesterday. May God be with you; please let us pass.” He looked at her closely and barked, “Pass!” Mariam was relieved.
“We found water and food for the kids, even slides and swings for them to play. We bought sandwiches, we washed, and we made milk for baby.”
How many Syrian children are affected by displacement?
Many forcibly displaced Syrians are children. According to UNICEF, approximately 8 million are in dire need of aid including access to food and healthcare. Around 2.6 million Syrian children are internally displaced and 2.5 million children are externally displaced in countries including Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan.
Syrian refugee children in Lebanon draw what life is like before and after displacement
Once they reached Damascus, Mariam’s husband, who was anxiously waiting in Lebanon, arranged the last leg of their journey with a smuggler. They entered Lebanon illegally because it would have been too expensive to do so otherwise. At the border, the smuggler instructed them to run from his car toward the mountains.
How are Syrians fleeing get to Lebanon?
One common route that Syrians refugees take to get to Lebanon is through mountain paths with smugglers. Due to the terrain, physically maneuvering through mountains can be very difficult and dangerous.
“It was not like this,” Mariam says, holding her fingers stiff and inclining her straight hand to indicate a slope she and her family had to climb. “It was like this,” and her hand flips to vertical. “We spent two hours going up and down, walking in a line, one in front of the other.” The way down was harder because it was so steep. One of Mariam’s sons fell, but a young smuggler reassured her that the boy would be fine. He raced down, picked him up, wiped his face clean, and told Mariam, “See, don’t worry. He’s OK!” Mariam’s husband had been working in Lebanon, and his family had not seen him in two years. Her husband was waiting for them on the other side of the mountain, with a car borrowed from a friend.
Mariam made it. The journey she lived through seem a world away from the mundane quietness of her rented flat in Beirut. She says she is "so happy" because she finally feels secure. Yet, she has a knack for vividly describing what she went through, and says, "It was very hard. That’s why I remember the details.”
This is a story with a happy ending: “The journey took us one week and one day. We arrived safely and I will never go back."
There are over a million Syrian refugees in Lebanon and hundreds of thousands have fled to the country since 2011. The country now has the largest per capita ratio of refugees in the world. Conditions for Syrian refugees in Lebanon are not easy as obtaining and maintaining legal status can be difficult since the Lebanese government has been implementing and enforcing restrictions to residency permit renewal. Since March Lebanese currency has seen a depreciation. In addition, Lebanon is experiencing economic hardship and many Lebanese and Syrian refugees are facing food shortages.
What is JRS doing to help?
Since July 2013, JRS Lebanon has provided support to refugee families in Bourj Hammoud, a small suburb, north-east of Beirut, through home visits, accompaniment, the distribution of emergency aid, and other social services. The JRS Frans Van Der Lugt Centre provides formal and informal education to refugee children, youth, and adults. JRS Lebanon also runs several schools providing formal education to refugee children, as well as women’s centers in the Bekaa Valley.
COVID-19 continues to impact Syrian refugees. Many Syrian refugees are even opting to return to Syria due to heightened effects of COVID-19 in host countries, such as food insecurity.
It's not just Mariam
Countless other displaced people from Syria traveling to Lebanon find themselves in a variety of circumstances. Each story and identity is unique. We encourage you to read about other Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
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How to Take Action
The refugee community in Beirut has experienced significant loss. JRS offices and the Burj Hammoud social center and school were all badly damaged as a result of the explosion in Beirut this August.
As an immediate emergency response to the blast, JRS plans to provide emergency assistance over an initial period of four months to affected households in both Bourj Hammoud and Karantina.
Consider a gift to JRS/USA so that we may respond to the needs of refugees we serve in Beirut.