By Andrew Cohen
For six law students who recently spent a week in Lebanon working with Syrian refugees, nothing could fully prepare them for what they saw. They had previously helped clients seeking resettlement, studied the Syrian refugee crisis from Berkeley, and talked with others working to alleviate the problem. But this was daunting.
Lebanon, a country with four million people, now has more than one million additional Syrian refugees. The delegation from Berkeley Law’s chapter of the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP)—Natalie Schultheis ’17, Rebecca Chraim ’17, Hani Bashour ’17, Mary Dahdouh ’18, Tori Porell ’18 and Hassan Ahmad ’16—saw looming challenges while providing case intake services for IRAP staff.
“A lot of heartbreaking situations,” said Schultheis, the chapter’s legal director. “One man was afraid to leave his apartment for fear of violence. We talked with a family that had to move because local youth were trying to recruit their son to a gang. There’s no mechanism for reporting labor exploitation and a huge fear about access to affordable medical care.”
Schulteis met with a father who has a broken arm—and a son who has cancer. The man expected his employers to be more generous upon learning of his situation, but instead got paid less because “they knew he was desperate.”
The students, who described their experience during a recent event at Berkeley Law, produced an eye-opening report about conditions in Lebanon. It notes that 90 percent of the Syrian refugees there are undocumented, which means they can be deported at any time. For the other 10 percent, their legal status is continually threatened by the cost to maintain it—$200 every six months.
Because refugees must be documented to rent housing, Chraim described a disturbing level of “families camping out on public land” and said “we’re seeing typhoid and cholera in these camps—in 2016.”
The report described a harsh cycle of debt and exploitation, with 70 percent of refugees in Lebanon living below the poverty line and 90 percent forced to borrow from local grocers and other informal lenders. “Employers threaten to withhold wages and landlords have similar leverage,” Porell said.
Ahmad, who once lived in Syria, noted that only one percent of the refugees in Lebanon will be resettled. He described their status as “continual limbo, where your life isn’t moving forward,” and said that stagnation is fueled by the fact that “Syrians don’t get paid the same wages for the same work” as Lebanese citizens.
Focusing on Syrian youth
The students’ report outlines the state of refugee access to employment, shelter, healthcare, education and food. With more than 400,000 of the refugees between 3 and 14 years old, education is a huge concern. Lebanon has opened its schools to Syrian refugees, “but there are still many barriers,” Porell said.
Overwhelmed school administrators are becoming increasingly resistant to enrolling undocumented students. Syrians speak Arabic, but Lebanese schools teach in English and French. And while school itself is free, students must still pay for books, school supplies and transportation.
Moreover, Ahmad explained that, “much of their education involves just overcoming what they’ve seen back in Syria—beheadings and other killings. It’s not just that these families are starting over in a new country with so much uncertainty, it’s that they came having experienced so much trauma.”
Dahdouh did relay some inspiring scenes she saw at a nearby school, and how “three hours in a classroom is a holiday for these kids given everything else they’re going through.” Still, she worries about the impact “of a generation of students out of school for years, many of whom have seen horrible things.”
While praising Lebanon’s strong track record on free speech and civil rights, Chraim said the government is “consistently behind the public” and that certain inherent problems—such as access to water and electricity—are exacerbated by the Syrian influx. “Government leaders haven’t been proactive in handling this crisis, and that’s been costly,” she said.
IRAP, which provides comprehensive legal representation to refugees, has resettled more than 3,000 people in dire situations. The group operates largely through its 27 law school chapters, which build legal teams with students and attorneys, and augments their training through an annual summit in New York City and trips to the Middle East. Established in 2009, Berkeley’s IRAP chapter is currently working on 17 cases impacting nearly 40 refugees.
“The best way to make resettlement safe?” Chraim said. “Make it not necessary at all.”