How Lebanon is coping with more than a million Syrian refugees

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CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:  In Lebanon, Syrian refugees are scattered around the country. The largest concentration lives just a 15-minute drive from the Syrian border…in tents in camps in the Bekaa Valley. Other refugees find shelter in dilapidated buildings like this one in the capital, Beirut. Still others reside in cordoned-off areas within cities that have become refugee ghettos.

That's where I met the woman who asked us to call her "Suha" for her protection. She left the besieged city of Homs, Syria, three-and-a-half years ago, fleeing a civil war she describes as a fire.

SUHA: The war began suddenly. Burned everything.

She says her family didn't take sides, but that didn't protect them from soldiers loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

SUHA: My brother killed, was killed.


SUHA: They shot him in the back, and he died.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Suha came to suspect her own husband was responsible for her brother's death.

SUHA: I discovered he is a double agent.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:  So he was working for the regime?

SUHA: After a long time, I discovered that.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Confused and fearing for her life, Suha left her husband and escaped to Lebanon by paying a smuggler to drive her and her two children across the border. She lives on the fifth floor of this rundown building with her 9-year-old son, Ra'ad, and daughter, Raghad, who's four. Electricity is on only a few hours a day. So she has no refrigerator. Her biggest worry is her children's safety.

SUHA: This is miserable for the kids. They know there are guns everywhere, everywhere. Everywhere.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:  You want your children to grow up in peace?

SUHA: Yes That's what I want.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Suha is going to get her wish. A few months ago, an Italian Christian charity project called "Humanitarian Corridor" selected her family to resettle in Italy. The same people helped the Vatican choose three Syrian families to fly with Pope Francis from Greece to Italy in April. Giancarlo Penza is International Relations Director of the participating charity Comunita' di Sant'Egidio.

GIANCARLO PENZA: The Pope, he called us to choose the people. Twelve people. It's a gesture. In order to show what he was doing is easy, is reasonable, and he's right.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Humanitarian Corridor intends to transport 600 Syrian and Iraqi refugees from Lebanon to Italy during the next two years. The charity project screens the candidates, obtains hard-to-get "humanitarian" visas, and arranges their flights. Simone Scotta is a field officer for the NGO Mediterranean Hope. He helps run the project and initially interviewed Suha, who is on the list for the next airlift.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: This is the list?

SIMONE SCOTTA: Yes, this is the list of 101 people that will leave in two days.


SIMONE SCOTTA: 101, yes.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: So, out of more than a million refugees here in Lebanon, it's been narrowed to 101?

SIMONE SCOTTA: Only 101 we can move. So yeah, these are the luckiest, maybe.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: The "luckiest" met certain criteria. They were considered especially vulnerable but also likely to assimilate in Italian society. Suha was a veterinarian back in Syria.

SIMONE SCOTTA: She's always worked in her life, and we are sure that she will find her way in Italy.

SUHA: No. Some things are unknown to me — where I'm sleeping, the house, the area, the neighbors. But I think everything will be okay.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Have you packed your bags already?

SUHA: Yes, yes, (laughs) yes.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Suha is giving away the few possessions she has to her fellow refugees.

SUHA: One jacket for Ra'ad and one jacket for Raghad.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Most of what her family is taking fits in one suitcase.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: One change of clothes for yourself

SUHA: Yes.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: And one change of clothes for each of your kids — that's it?

SUHA: Yes.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: That's three lives inside of one suitcase?

SUHA: Yes.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Mixed with the excitement is sadness. Suha has friends who desperately want a new start too…like Ghysa, who is also from Homs. Ghysa lost everything she owned in Syria and bares the scars of war; she was shot in the leg by a sniper. Not among the chosen, she's staying behind in Lebanon.

SCOTTA: We know many families. We just cannot help everybody, so we need to choose.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: What's that like to say 'no'?

SCOTTA: Most of them they understand, because we explain to them in a very clear way like we have a tiny number, and there are people that deserve more help than you. Many of them understand, but other times people get pissed.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Tensions are high among refugees and within Lebanese society. Nora Jumblatt, a businesswoman and philanthropist in Beirut, says Lebanon has a long history of helping refugees in the region. But the welcome mat has worn thin.

NORA JUMBLATT: We have to remember that we have Palestinian refugees. And we also have had an influx of Iraqi refugees at one point. It is a very difficult situation, and it is a very precarious situation, because the strain on the infrastructure — on water, on electricity, on jobs — is huge.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Syrian refugees are not officially allowed to work in Lebanon, but many do…mainly in construction and the service sector. This Lebanese jewelry store owner complains: Syrian refugees are hurting an already fragile economy.

JEWELRY MAN: They're impacting our medical care, and taking the aid that's meant for the poor people of our country. They're taking many things – from electricity to gas expenses – and taking it for a lesser price.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Refugees who relied on their savings to survive have found that after five years of war, their money is running out, and Syrian currency is worth much less than it used to be.

OMAR, THE MONEY CHANGER: This one, it's about 20 dollars before the war. Before the war, it's 20 dollars. Now, it's 2 dollars.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Omar's money exchange store is on one of Beirut's busiest shopping streets.

OMAR: If you walk here, each two meters, three meters, there's a little boy or a little girl and her mother.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: So little kids begging in the street?

OMAR: Yeah, begging.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: This boy was begging for money to buy gum to resell on the street. He doesn't go to school. Getting Syrian refugee children into school is one goal of Nora Jumblatt's foundation, called Kayany. It has built "private" schools that can accommodate 25-hundred kids. But that's a "fraction" of the need.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Why aren't these Syrian children going to Lebanese public schools?

NORA JUMBLATT: Because of lack of space. We have about 155,000 refugee children going to Lebanese public schools, however there are 350,000 that are still in need.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: 350,000 Syrian refugees who aren't getting education?

NORA JUMBLATT: Yes, who are not getting. And this is, of course, a very dangerous affair, because this is the future of Syria. These children should go back to build Syria.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: And that's what the Lebanese are hoping for: the war to end, and the Syrians to return home. Suha wants that too. But for now, thanks to the charity project, she's leaving with her children to start a new life in Italy…today.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Are the kids excited, ready to go?

SUHA: More than me. Really.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: They take some last minute photos and say their goodbyes.

CHILD: "Bye!'

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: When the family arrives at the first meeting point, they meet other refugee families on the "airlift." Suitcases labelled…they board the bus for Beirut. Out the window, the Mediterranean Sea. Suha was once desperate enough to consider paying a smuggler to take them to Europe by boat. But her son Ra'ad, who'd seen stories on TV about children drowning said 'no.' And Suha agreed.

They arrive in Beirut, where they meet still more refugees from Syria — families bound for different cities around Italy. And then another bus ride to the airport to catch their 4am flight.

NATSOT SON RA'AD: "Italia! Italia! Hoo, hoo!"

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Two weeks later, I meet up with Suha in the riverside town of 10,000 people in Northern Italy where she and her children now live. For now, her family is sharing a one-bedroom apartment with an elderly Syrian woman who left Lebanon on the same Christian charity flight.

SUHA:  I sleep here, and the old woman, with me here. This is my kitchen. Refrigerator.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: You have a refrigerator?

SUHA: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: You've got a stove, you've got an oven. That's important.

There's a big park behind their apartment where the children can play. They start school next week.

SUHA: I want to have time to learn and to work.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Under Italian law, it will be a few months before Suha is eligible to work. She's hoping to resume work as a veterinarian. In the meantime, the charity Mediterranean Hope is paying the rent and will give Suha's family 780 dollars a month for at least the next six months. She says she would like to return to Syria … someday.

SUHA: To find a solution in Syria, I think it's far away. The most important thing is safeness. That's what I feel. Everything else will come.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: From civil war in Syria, to a refugee camp in Lebanon, to a new beginning in Italy.

SUHA: I hope good things will happen. I'm hopeful. Really.