Mohammed Zakaria has lived in a plastic tent in eastern Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley for almost as long as war has raged in his native Syria.
He and his family fled bombings in 2012, thinking it would be a short, temporary stay. His hometown of Homs was under siege, and subject to a ferocious Syrian military campaign. He didn't even bring his ID with him.
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Almost 10 years later, the family still hasn't gone back. The 53-year-old Zakaria is among millions of Syrians unlikely to return in the foreseeable future, even as they face deteriorating living conditions abroad. On top of his displacement, Zakaria now struggles to survive Lebanon's financial meltdown and social implosion.
“We came on the assumption that we would come in and out," said Zakaria, sitting outside his tent on a cold day recently as his children walked around in worn-out slippers.
Syria has been mired in civil war since 2011, when Syrians revolted against President Bashar Assad amid a wave of Arab Spring uprisings. The protests in Syria, which began in March that year, quickly turned into insurgency — and eventually a full-blown civil war — in response to a brutal military crackdown by Assad's security apparatus.
Nearly half a million people have been killed, and about 12,000 children have died or were injured in the conflict in the past decade, according to the U.N. children's agency, UNICEF. The conflict also resulted in the largest displacement crisis since World War II.
The Norwegian Refugee Council this week said that since the war began in 2011, an estimated 2.4 million people were displaced every year in and outside Syria. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians face continued displacement with each year that the conflict continues and economic conditions deteriorate.
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The war has left Syria divided and in ruins. Nearly a million children have been born in exile.
Of the country’s pre-war population of 23 million, nearly 5.6 million are refugees living in neighboring countries and Europe. Some 6.5 million are displaced within Syria, most of them for longer than five years.
Lebanon, a small Mediterranean country with a population of about 5 million, hosts the highest concentration of refugees per capita, estimated at around 1 million. Most of them live in informal makeshift tent settlements spread out across Lebanon's Bekaa, not far from the Syrian border.
A former porter for a Homs construction company, Zakaria has struggled to provide for his family, even as it continues to grow in Lebanon. He has two wives and eight children, including two who were born in Lebanon. One of his children was only a year old when the family escaped Syria.
In Lebanon, jobs are hard to come by asan economic and financial crisis roils the country. Financial assistance is scarce and irregular. A currency crash sent inflation and prices soaring. Zakaria now tries to make ends meet by selling gas bottles used for heaters to other refugees in his settlement.
He makes 1,000 Lebanese pounds (about 10 cents) from each gas canister he sells. But this winter, his neighbors in the settlement, which houses around 200 Syrian refugee families, could hardly afford to buy enough gas to heat their tents.
Through the unprecedented economic crisis, Lebanon's currency has so far lost over 80% of its value.
“Life is expensive here," he said. “It is so expensive even for medicine or doctors.”
When his wife needed urgent eye surgery, Zakariya arranged for her to be smuggled briefly back into Syria to do the surgery there. The surgery was going to cost 22 million Lebanese pounds — about $2,200 at the current market rate. They managed to get it done in Syria for 85,000 Lebanese pounds ($850).
Zakaria said he feels great sadness for his younger three children who have no memories of Syria and their home in Homs. They have also not been to school, and don’t know how to read and write.
According to UNICEF, nearly 750,000 Syrian children in neighboring countries, including Lebanon, are out of school.
“All of our memories are gone now," said Zakaria, watching his children run around, playing hopscotch. Two dirty street cats serve as their playmates.
“Now we have a generation — 10-year-olds are a new generation," he said. “I have young kids and ... they don’t even know our neighbors” back home.
Many Syrians are unable to return because their homes were destroyed in the fighting, or because they fear military conscription or retribution from government forces.
Zakaria clings to the hope that he would one day go back to his home.
“God willing we will die in our country," he said. “Everyone should die in their own country."