Chased by war, a refugee struggles to be a good father to his children

By Jackie Nelson
A father stands proudly with his baby son, the one thing that gives him hope in the face of the dangers and challenges his family confronts every day. Photo: Jackie Nelson / Oxfam America

“I swear on the life of my child, I don’t want to live, if we have to live like this.”

Hassan, a father—a Palestinian refugee from Syriasaid this to me as he gently placed his hand on the chest of his sleeping 6-month-old son, lying on a floor cushion beside him. Weak from a kidney disease, the father struggled to sit up tall to show the depth of his conviction. He stared and waited until he trusted that I understood the gravity of his statement and the depth of his love for his children. 

“This humiliation…I used to have a car, a home, and a business. I am a professional electrician. I used to live decently and now look at me,” he said.

Hassan lives in a Palestinian camp in Beirut, Lebanon, with his wife, 11-year-old daughter, 12-year-old son, the newborn baby boy, and his ill mother-in-law. Their concrete, ground floor unit floods regularly. A curtain hangs where the doorway should be. Outside, an unruly mesh of wires creates a canopy above narrow walkways between many congested, similar multi-story units. They left their home in Syria when an exploding shell caused his wife to miscarry.

Like most people’s stories, theirs revealed a litany of honorable actions to provide, protect, and pursue a decent life. But, their story also revealed a tangle of deep, historical, and political roots leading to events beyond their control. The father’s parents had fled the Occupied Palestine Territory a generation before to settle in Syria. Now, he was escaping conflict again with his own family to Lebanon. 

Income or safety?

Palestinian refugees from Syria face many challenges in Lebanon: they rely mainly on UN assistance to survive, they have settled in overcrowded shanty towns that were set up in Lebanon as refugee camps after the Arab-Israeli wars, they have extremely limited work opportunities, mostly doing day jobs illegally, and they often don’t have valid residency papers. Oxfam has been helping refugees such as Hassan in Lebanon. This winter, for example, Oxfam is partnering with UNRWA, the UN agency in charge of Palestinian refugees, to distribute cash to about 450 families, who will get 400 USD each to cover the 4 winter months.

Hassan had lost his registered refugee status in Lebanon four months before when he could not pay the more than $600 in fees for the complex process, which is comprised of numerous steps that must be repeated every six months. The fees are about the equivalent of three month’s rent.  When he lost his status, he also lost his ability to go back and forth past military checkpoints, beyond which he could seek work on the informal market, for fear of being harassed and detained. 

“I have to stay within the camp, or I could be separated from my family,” he said. “Whenever I hear about something that needs to be fixed, I do it, even if I make nothing or little. I need to find a way to feed my family each day. My son needs to grow up seeing his father work.”

Shelter or Food?

In spite of a debilitating kidney condition for which he can no longer afford medication, Hassan hunts for work each day inside the camp to barter for goods, earn money, and to set a good example for his children. Most months, with what he earns, he bears the weight of choosing between rent and food.

“When I have to choose, I pay the rent,” said the father. Food, he could sometimes come by in a community, where a survival morality prevails; his neighbors depend on one another and share food they’re able to come by, while also competing for extremely limited work and resources. Dependency is high, but trust is low. “We all make sure that everyone at least eats.”

Today’s Reality or Tomorrow’s Hope?

If the newborn’s registration process can be completed within the first year of his life, the youngest son can acquire an official IDthe first step in a path towards rights, mobility beyond the settlement, and citizenship. With his heritage rooted in Palestine and Syria, and his birth in Lebanon, the baby boy faces a registration process of many convoluted steps, each with the possibility of denial, lapse, and setback. And, with each step there are fees.

“To register my son, within one year I must go outside of the camp several times to several offices to persuade the mayor, the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Health...”  said the father.

Each time he leaves the settlement to carry out a step in the process, he sacrifices the chance of a day’s work. He knows that he may not be allowed to return, and provide his family with the protection they need. 

But, if he succeeds, at least one child will have a chance for dignity, home, and hope. 

A canopy of wires sends electricity through a settlement in Beirut where refugees are trying to survive. Photo: Jackie Nelson / Oxfam America

“What do I do?”

“What do I do?” pleaded the father.  An answer to this question is the only thing he asks for during our discussion. “I should take my family and leave! I cannot keep them here. I have a sea to the west, a war to the north and east, and the south is out of the question.  Do I swim with them in the sea to Europe?  Do I resign my family to this?

“It is the worst situation of my life. Do I go back to Syria where I can make a living, but only by picking up a gun to fight for one side or the other? The conflict is why I left my home, my life, and my business. I will not have my son see his father make that choice.”

His voice surges with anguish. 

“Better I die.” It was unclear if it was a statement or a question. 

Behind him, through the window, a mesh of tangled wires feed electricity through the camp. I imagined him working on those wires, carefully unthreading each live one without getting shocked.

He put his hands on his sleeping son, again, to calm himself. Then, he stood.

“Let me show you my home, before you go,” he said. He explained each improvement he had made to create a safer home for his family – a flood repair, filling a vacant doorway, rewiring. As I admired his work, I could see the pride he took in it, and the dignity it gave him. When I was about to leave, he gestured proudly to his sleeping son as if to say, “Yes, he is mine.” He cautiously picked him up so as to not wake him. We took this photo, compelled to capture the fleeting moment of peace and power.

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