Syrian Refugee Has 'Given Up All Hope' Of Returning To War-Ridden Country

01/31/2014 07:49 am ET | Updated Feb 03, 2014

TRIPOLI, Lebanon -- Reem Ajaj had planned to become a judge. That goal still seemed possible just over a year ago as she graduated from law school at Damascus University, even as the Syrian civil war encroached and bombs landed near her home in the Damascus suburb of Dariya.

But just weeks after she received her diploma, she and her family had instead become refugees.

In November 2012, Ajaj and her family left their comfortable suburban home to get away from the war. It took a month of travel to reach Lebanon, and another month to settle in to the home they now rent.

They expected to remain in Lebanon only temporarily and then resume their lives in Syria. Fourteen months later, she and six members of her family -- her parents and four of her six siblings -- still live crowded into two rooms of a small house in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli.

"We expected January or February, tops, we'd be gone," Ajaj, 27, tells The WorldPost, speaking at the community center where she does outreach work with other refugees. "We didn't expect to be here a year, and now the second year is starting."

In the course of a day of interviews with refugees and aid workers in Tripoli, now home to tens of thousands of Syrians who have fled the war, that comment was echoed over and over again.

As the civil war in Syria approaches its fourth year, the refugee crisis it has spawned feels increasingly permanent. Many of the nearly 900,000 Syrians who have fled to Lebanon are now realizing that what had seemed a temporary exile has become something far more enduring.

Here in Lebanon, where as many as one in four residents are now Syrian immigrants, those who fled the violence next door now find themselves running low on money, job opportunities and even shelter. And as the war becomes more brutal, they have been joined by hundreds of thousands of new refugees in the last year alone.

Even for refugees like the Ajaj family, who enjoyed wealth at home and some money to help sustain a life in exile, resources are running out.

"Everything has turned completely upside down," Ajaj says. "When we were in Damascus, we didn't need anything."

Ajaj's salary is used for rent on the two-room house. Her father, who was once able to retire after earning a living from renting land he owned, is unable to find work in Tripoli. The family is forced to live largely on savings and assistance from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the U.N.'s refugee agency. And with high school classes in Lebanon conducted in French, Ajaj's younger siblings are effectively barred from continuing their education.

Aid workers told The WorldPost that such complaints are increasingly common among refugees. Ties are close between Syria and Lebanon, and many Syrians once moved in with relatives or friends when they fled the war. Now such support is increasingly rare as the months pass. Meanwhile, the huge influx of new arrivals has strained the patience of many Lebanese and the resources of the aid agencies.

"We would obviously love to give a lot more, but the number of people is growing. And we are getting funding, but I don't think it's coming at the rate that the population is growing," said Bathoul Ahmed, the press officer for the UNHCR center in Tripoli, where refugees come to register for aid.

Even the UNHCR center is taking on the trappings of permanence. On Wednesday, much like every other day, a long line of refugees stretched from a parking lot to the entrance of the complex.

Inside, Bob Beerens, a Belgian man who runs the registration center, opened a rear door in the large tented hall where Syrians wait for eligibility interviews. He pointed out the areas in a field where the U.N. plans to install toilet facilities, a child care trailer to replace the crowded nook inside the tent and, of course, a smoking area.

The growth is needed as the number of refugees on U.N. rolls continues to mount. More than 600,000 Syrians flooded into Lebanon in 2013. They are now joined in line at the U.N. complex every day by about 500 Syrians returning to renew their assistance, which is valid for one year.

Despite improvements, Beerens said, Syrians must wait in line just to secure an interview, and then wait almost another three weeks for an appointment. Having already doubled his interviewing staff in just over a year, Beerens will hire six new employees in the next week to try and keep up with demand.

"We're going to sit here for a long time," he says.

Ajaj agrees, seeing little prospect that she can return home anytime soon.

"I've given up all hope, honestly," she says. When asked about the ongoing peace talks in Geneva, she can only laugh.

Ajaj says she expects the war to drag on for another decade. The likelihood of many more years in exile means trouble for even a relatively well-off family. When the Ajaj family first registered with the U.N. three months after they arrived in Lebanon, they did so for the legal protection that UNHCR offers to refugees rather than medical aid or the food and money that partner agencies provide.

"We didn't even know that we were going to get this kind of assistance," Ajaj says.

Those days are long gone. Money continues to dwindle and Ajaj can't find a permanent job with a good wage. Two of her brothers have already returned to Damascus, working at a supermarket despite their engineering degrees, because the job market in Tripoli is so poor for Syrians. Ajaj fears the rest of the family may have to follow.

"I keep trying to reassure them that maybe I'll be able to find a job, maybe things could get better," she says. "But realistically, if things don't, we might have to get to a point where we go back to Damascus. Even if we have to put up a tent."

Life As A Syrian Refugee
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