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Young Syrians in Beirut: Economic and war refugees
As the conflict in Syria worsens, many young people are fleeing to neighboring Lebanon in search of work. David Enders reports from Beirut on the economic and unemployment crisis in Syria that continues to fuel the conflict.
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Adapted from the broadcast audio segment; use the audio player to listen to the story in its entirety.

For Syrian youth, war only worsens the economic woes that helped start the rebellion.

The Syrian economy continues to suffer as the country's civil war remains unresolved. That has left many Syrian youth with little choice but to flee the country and find work elsewhere.

Lebanon is one popular destination. But, its ability to absorb Syrians is already pushing the limit.

At a gleaming new apartment tower near the Mediterranean Sea here in Beirut, the effects of the desperate economic situation in Syria are clear. Syria has the highest unemployment rate of any country in the region, and more than 50 percent of that population is under the age of 30.

Many young Syrians, if they don’t stay to fight on one side of the country’s civil war, come here to find jobs, either in the service sector, or on a construction crew. Abo Ali is a 30-year-old construction worker who came to Lebanon five months ago to save enough money to marry his fiancée.

He shares two rented rooms with 14 other men in Mar Elias, a neighborhood that is predominantly home to Palestinian refugees, but has also become a magnet for Syrian workers.

The neighborhood’s narrow streets only accommodate pedestrians and motorbikes, but it is better than working in Syria, where he says, salaries were not high enough before the war began. Now jobs just simply aren’t available.

“You can live day to day,” he explains, “but you can’t save money. Any increase in salaries is followed with increases in prices. So, even before the revolution, you couldn’t save money. You can’t save enough to marry, to build or help your family.”

before the revolution, you couldn’t save money. You can’t save enough to marry, to build or help your family.”

Nadim Houry, who works for Human Rights Watch in Beirut says: "Many of the same reasons that were sort of the underlying cause of the uprising in Syria - disenfranchised rural areas that pushed many Syrian young men to go work on the outskirts of Damascus and Aleppo - brought these same men to Lebanon. I’ve met some people, interestingly, who went back to their communities to help in the uprising, some of them even picked up weapons, but as the uprising has gone on too long, they’ve run out of money and actually come back to Lebanon.”

That vicious cycle of economic frustration can be seen in places like Raqqa, Syria, where Abu Ali is from. Raqqa is a rural area east of the country’s largest city, Aleppo. It is in the economically-strapped rural regions that rebel forces first established a sustained presence.

Even as the fighting has spread to Aleppo and the capital, Damascus, it is the zones within these cities that house large number of emigres from rural areas that provide the biggest strongholds for rebel fighters.

Abu Ali says: “It’s a revolution from the countryside. Most of the people there have little or no education, working as farmers or construction workers, and there are no unions to help them and to manage their affairs.”

The United Nations has now registered nearly 80,000 Syrians in Lebanon, and the number who have fled here is likely much higher, as not everyone registers.

Human Rights Watch has documented growing xenophobia towards the increasing number of Syrian workers in Lebanon.

“Syrian male workers in Lebanon have often been double victims. First they were victims of the Syrian regime’s neglect for years,” he says, “which pushed them into dangerous low-paying jobs in Lebanon in the construction industry and other things. But they also were victims of hostility by many Lebanese. You know, many Lebanese sympathized with the uprising, and that sympathy continues, but that sympathy hasn’t translated into sympathy for the workers."

Mohamed fears such violence. He lives in an apartment with another group of Syrian workers who are employed at the same building site as Abu Ali.

In the evening after work, Mohamed and his coworkers sit on top of their building, smoking and drinking tea, trying to keep a low profile.

He says he stopped going back to visit his family in northern Syria because it is not safe there, and that the rest of his family is planning to come to Lebanon. He says even if the government falls, he’s not sure when he would return.

“Some of my cousins were here before the revolution, but after it began, all of them came,” he says. “Maybe I would live there after the regime falls, but at least I will be able to visit. I’m not afraid, but it is dangerous there. Lebanon is safer, if I go to Syria, I might just disappear.”

Two months ago, the kidnapping of Lebanese citizens in Syria prompted retaliatory kidnappings of Syrians in Lebanon.

Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch says: “We’ve also seen Lebanese armed forces, the army, the police, detaining, roughing up a number of Syrian workers, The Lebanese army rounded up the migrant men in the neighborhood and decided to ‘teach them a lesson,’ and they beat them up.”

The options for work are looking increasingly dim for Syrian college graduates, another group that has historically left the country to look for work.

Take Amr, a 25-year-old graphic designer. He’s from Suweida, in southwestern Syria. He came to Beirut in July and quickly found a job at a Lebanese company, creating graphics for television.

He says he had long expected to leave Syria to find work or continue his education, but the violence had forced his decision.

Beirut, he says, was only one possible destination: “In my city, most people go to Venezuela, or Nigeria, or the gulf. The young people, if they continue finishing study at the university, they finish the studying and directly travel to work.”

Amr’s sister went to Kuwait before the rebellion began last year, but when Amr decided to leave, he was unable to join her.

The reason, in part, he says, is because normal relations between Kuwait and Syria have been suspended.Gulf countries like Kuwait are now siding with the Syrian rebels fighting President Bashar al Assad, so relations are becoming more tense.

More Syrians will likely leave their country in the coming months with the expectation of winter fuel shortages and a rise in inflation. But, there are fears of the effects the continued influx might have on Lebanon - this small country of about 4 million.

Adding to this, says Nadim Houry, even those workers who have been successful in Lebanon and managed to save some money, “…now they’ve had to bring their families to Lebanon and they’ve lost money and they’re sort of stuck. They come from areas affected by the fighting. Lebanon was supposed to be just a short term experience. They never really integrated, they never had the intention, and the society never fully accepted them.”

Despite the sometimes difficult conditions for Syrians in Lebanon and other neighboring countries, and unless the fighting soon ends in Syria, most of these young people who come to Lebanon will stay in Lebanon, even as conditions deteriorate.

– Reported by David Enders for America Abroad

Youth in the Arab World: After the Revolution / Produced by Joseph Braude, David Enders, Kim Fox, Martha Little and A.C. Valdez, with additional production help from Flawn Williams and special thanks to WBUR in Boston/ Web Producer: Philippa Levenberg / Images courtesy of Sebastiano Tomada Piccolomini, Ben Curtis/AP, Corentin Fohlen/Sipa Press, Ben Sutherland, Aaron de Leeuw and EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection via Flickr Creative Commons.

Host: Meghna Chakrabarti / Length: 51 minutes / Airdate: November 2012

This show was made possible through the generous support of Qatar Foundation International.

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