The light goes on and off. It flickers for a few seconds, and then everything turns dark again. Hala sits on the floor of her small room in Beirut. Ahmed, one of her five sons, runs to one of the room’s corners. Unerringly he climbs over a suitcase which lies around. He knows exactly which lumps and bumps he has to watch out for. In Sabra, one of the poorest and most densely populated areas of the Lebanese capital, the electricity hardly ever works. It gets dark early here, but the light bulb never lasts longer than a few minutes. The rest of the time the candle that Ahmed has fetched from the corner has to be sufficient. Its light reveals the home of the family. A small, dark room, mold on the walls, windows without glass and a cold, wet floor. The two beds their Lebanese landlord has given to them are almost falling apart.
In Sabra, not only is electricity scarce, but so are shelter, water and work. Sabra was built in 1949 as a refugee camp for Palestinians. Provisional houses have become permanent and most people have lived here for decades, but even more have joined them: Lebanese who cannot afford to live anywhere else in this megacity and refugees from Syria such as Hala. She is from Daraa where the revolution started almost three years ago. She did not want to leave her house, wanted to hold out until the war went somewhere else. But it was there to stay. Her house was damaged; her husband could not find work to support the family anymore. He was the first to leave and head to Lebanon so that he could send money back home. When the house was full of bullet holes and their garden burnt down, it was too dangerous to stay. She and her five sons, who are between four and twelve years old, left and joined her husband.
Ten days ago Hala gave birth to a baby girl. “I always wanted to have a daughter. I was so happy about her birth. But I live in fear every day; I am afraid she will get sick from the cold or freeze to death at night.” Many people in Sabra do not have work or are badly paid. Like other Syrian refugees, Hala’s husband is underpaid and works for a lot less than his Lebanese counterparts. This causes friction, the effects of which Hala is also feeling. “None of my neighbours asked me how I felt after I gave birth. No one congratulated me for having born a child. I don’t know anyone here and no one speaks with me. I miss my friends, my neighbours and my family. I miss their familiar faces.”
More than 860,000 refugees have registered with the United Nations in Lebanon. But the government estimates that more than 1.2 million Syrians are living within the country which itself has only four million inhabitants. Hala is among those who have not yet registered with the UN. In the beginning she did not have money to cover the transport costs to reach the registration office, which is quite far away from their home. She does have an appointment now, but she will have to wait one and a half months. She hopes that she will receive food vouchers. Some of her Syrian relatives and friends, who have also fled to Lebanon, have gone away empty-handed. There is simply not enough money to support everyone. At the moment, the family receives food from a local partner organisation of CARE. CARE also supplied them with diapers for her daughter and items for personal hygiene. Hala’s husband is a carpenter and earns barely enough to cover the rent for their ten square meter small room. There is no money to register the children for school. “They already missed two years of school while we were still in Daraa. It was too dangerous for them to go out. What shall they become later in life!” This is not a question; it’s a statement. “I have lost hope that my voice will be heard. I feel powerless. It is as if I were standing on a market, high up on a gallery. Everyone can see me and hear me while I scream louder and louder. Everyone looks at me but no one is doing anything.” She pauses and says: “People could just as well be trees, a forest full of trees in the darkness. It would not make a difference.”
What does Hala do all day? What are her children doing? She says that daily routines even become unbearable at some point. You get used to what should never become everyday life. She gives different tasks to her children so they do not get bored. One of them is responsible for making the beds, the other one takes care of pulling up the mattresses and blankets from the floor in the morning, if there is water, yet another washes the dishes in their small kitchenette. The smallest one helps her prepare breakfast, lunch or dinner. “We have to decide. We cannot afford to eat more than one meal a day. Sometimes we play as if we ate dinner and prepared a feast. I am not sure whether this makes things better. But at least it keeps us busy.”