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Syrian refugees share stories of survival and suffering in Lebanon

While the refugee crisis in Europe has grabbed headlines, Lebanon is now hosting more than 1 million Syrians. Many live in crippling poverty, dreaming of the home they left behind or of a better life in the West, while others have found good fortune trying to make the best of a desperate situation. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson offers some of their stories.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    As we reported earlier, a new wave of refugees is being forced from Syria as the war rages in the north.

    But west of Syria, Lebanon is now hosting more than one million Syrians. Many live in desperate conditions. Others are looking toward Europe. Some still dream of home. But amid the crisis, there is some good fortune.

    Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports from Beirut.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    Running a bakery is not something Abdul Halim is used to. Only a few months ago, he was destitute, just another refugee from Syria escaping deadly violence threatening his family.

    His marriage broke down in Syria and his wife left him to look after their two children. He fled the war to neighboring Lebanon and found himself penniless, struggling to survive on the streets of Beirut as a single father.

    "I tried to look for work, but no one would give me a job because I had my kids with me," he says. "I walked the streets and saw there were schools and a lot of students, so I thought the best thing I could do was to sell pens. I went and bought a box of pens. And I left my son at home. And I took my daughter, who was this small. And I would carry her. What could I do? There was nowhere I could put her."

    What happened next was extraordinary. Someone saw Abdul Halim selling his pens in the hot summer sunshine, his daughter Reem in his arms, and posted this picture on Twitter.

    It went viral, and soon there was a campaign to raise money for him, using the hashtag #buypens. Its organizers hoped to raise $5,000. In the end, they got over $190,000.

    Now, with that money, he bought a bakery, sandwich shop and a small restaurant, and employs 20 men, all Syrian refugees supporting their families. His son even helps out.

    "My children's lives changed," he tells us. "We were living in a room that was uninhabitable. But now we live in a house with four rooms. I have furnished it nicely. My son goes to school. My daughter is looked after and is learning. And I have three shops and I'm working. My life has changed totally."

    Abdul Halim is extremely lucky. Most Syrians struggle to pay for the rising cost of living here on tiny wages. Until recently, Ahmed Kaju worked in the bakery. But $10 a day didn't pay the rent. He now feels he must make a desperate choice.

    "I want to go to Germany, because they say the living is good and that they want to help the Syrians," he said. So, I will go just like everybody else, to Turkey and from Turkey to Greece.

    In a boat?

  • AHMED KAJU, Syrian Refugee (through interpreter):

    Yes, in a boat to Greece, and from there, we will continue with everybody else.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    With your family?

  • AHMED KAJU (through interpeter):

    With my family, my son and my daughter.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    But it's very dangerous.

  • AHMED KAJU (through interpreter):

    But I'm dying here. I might as well die there. It's the same in the end. Let me die trying.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    We traveled across town to the impoverished neighborhood of Bourj el-Barajneh, where we met another Syrian refugee family hoping to make it to Europe soon.

    Jinan Jamal's husband survived the dangerous boat journey from Turkey four months ago. She stayed behind with their three young boys. Now in Germany, her husband is trying to get asylum for Jinan and the children. Six months pregnant and living on debt, she is desperate to join her husband.

    "Honestly, I have no more strength. I'm tired," she tells us. "Sometimes, I put my kids to bed and when they sleep, I look at them and I cry. I don't care about myself. I care about my kids and how they are living. There is nobody to help me. My parents are dead. There is nowhere I can go. All I want to do is to join my husband."

    But life is even tougher for refugees living outside Beirut. Providing crucial services to many of them is the charity Mercy Corps. They took us to the Bekaa Valley, where thousands of Syrians scratch out a living in the countryside along Lebanon's border with Syria.

    People who cross over from Syria here to try to escape the fighting, who end up living in tents, that's because they don't have any money.

  • WOMAN:

    Yes, they don't have money to rent apartments.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    Bitter snowstorms make winter the worst time of year to be a refugee.

    Without aid agencies like yourselves, what would happen to those people?

  • WOMAN:

    What would happen? Without aid agencies, I think that those people would be not able to live.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    This is how most Syrian refugees survive, in overcrowded camps. Some of the families here have lived in these canvas huts for years, in the shadow of a mountain range that separates them from their home country.

    Many refugees live in camps like this, just groups of tents directed here on farmland. The conditions are absolutely squalid. In the summer here, it's hot and dusty, and in the winter, it's freezing cold and absolutely waterlogged.

    Amina Hamadi shares this room with her sister and four children. A farmer from Syria, she wouldn't dream of going to Europe, she tells me. She hopes to return one day to her old life.

    "There, everybody owned land. We owned land," she says. "We lived off the land. We planted vegetables and we lived from it."

    Her husband died three years ago, and now the family relies on handouts from the U.N. It's bitterly cold in her tent, despite the small stove, but she is resilient.

    "A mountain can't move me," she says. "I have children that I have to raise. I need to look after them."

    Her 6-year-old son, Ahmed, shows us a drawing. In it, his family are smiling next to a house. He says it is their home in Syria. Millions of Syrian children like Ahmed have only ever known war, and a hard life as refugees.

    The children are saying that they don't get to go to school because they cannot afford to get transport to the nearest school. The schools here are free, but they can't get there.

    Syrians around the world each tell different stories of suffering, resilience, and sometimes hope. As the war drags on into its fifth year, they will likely have to continue their lives in exile.

    Jane Ferguson, PBS NewsHour, Beirut, Lebanon.

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