'Don't Forget Your Photo Albums!': The Flight of Syria's Middle Classes

By in Beirut

Photo Gallery: Syrian Refugees Suffer Winter Misery in Lebanon Photos
AFP

They once were affluent, took vacations to Greece, purchased art and designer furniture. Now this Syrian family is on the run and forced to rely on charity. Their fate is typical of the exodus of the country's large middle class.

Farah Schemi* wants to get something off her chest: in the event that readers of her story at some point in their lives have to flee their homeland, she wants them to take to heart her list of what to pack. "Passports, gold, bank records and deeds of property, very important," she says. Almost more important are all the things that keep you warm. "Blankets, warm clothing, sturdy shoes," says the 54-year-old. It's best to wear a heavy coat, even in sweltering summer weather.

One thing Mrs. Schemi has learned: "You never return home as quickly as you'd hoped." The first winter in a foreign land comes inevitably. And when all hope vanishes in those first cold nights and you accept the fact that everything is lost, warm feet are at least a small consolation.

Mrs. Schemi never dreamed she one day would become an expert on the matter of escape luggage -- back when her world was still in order.

Before the start of the revolution in Syria, she packed a suitcase only when the family was headed for a summer vacation on a Greek island or the Turkish coast. In her former life, Farah Schemi worked as a dietician, advising well-paying private patients on nutrition. She specialized in advising cancer patients on what to eat to assist the healing process.

A Cancer Patient Becomes a Victim of War

Two years and one war later, that is all just memories. Farah Schemi's husband Helmi suffers from cancer but his Syrian health insurance doesn't cover treatment in Lebanon, where the family has settled after fleeing the war in their homeland.

So the Schemis sit with their two adult daughters in the backroom of a Lebanese mosque and watch Helmi grow weaker by the day. He should be running his printing company in Damascus, but is destined to become another victim of the Syrian Civil War.

In the meantime, up to one million Syrians have fled into neighboring countries, according to estimates by the major aid organizations. Some 300,000 are said to have ended up in Lebanon. But because the Lebanese government has close ties with the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, official agencies are reluctant to offer assistance to Syrian refugees. There are no refugee camps operated by aid organizations in Lebanon.

Those who are lucky stay with relatives or have enough money to rent an apartment. All of the other Syrian refugees in Lebanon are forced to rely on the help of strangers: on the mosques that open soup kitchens, on the farmers who let them sleep in their stables, on the owners of apartment buildings who let them set up tarpaulins on flat roofs. Medical care for the displaced is wholly inadequate.

Many Children Are Starving, All Are Freezing

The first stop for many refugees is the Lebanese border town of Majdal Anjar. Surrounded by snow-covered mountains and just an hour by car from Damascus, the small town was once a smugglers' stronghold. Today it functions as a kind of reception camp: in recent months, tens of thousands of Syrians have taken their first rest here after fleeing over the border. Thousands have stayed. Since then, Majdal Anjar -- like many other Lebanese cities -- has operated under a state of emergency: water and electricity come only sporadically and are simply not enough for the sharply increasing population. Lessons in the schools are taught in two shifts: Lebanese children in the morning, Syrians in the afternoons.

The Schemis too made their first stop in Majdal Anjar, after they fled the Damascus district of Kutseija during a ceasefire last July. The parents, who were traveling with three of their four adult children (the eldest is studying at a university in the USA), turned to a mosque for help. The Muezzin said they could sleep in his office for one night. That one night has turned into six months. When a Levantine winter storm rolls over the mountains, temperatures in the room drop below freezing. When it clears up again, melted snow drips down the walls of their lodging.

"But we don't want to complain. We still have it good. Many refugees live outdoors, with their children, in the middle of the snow," says Mariam, who at 31 years old is the eldest daughter of the Shemis. She and her sister Rula, both teachers, have found work in a Lebanese school and use the wages to feed their family. After they finish work in the afternoons, they teach Syrian refugee children, without pay. "When I look at the children I can see how bad it must be for the parents," says Mariam. Some of her students are highly aggressive, others apathetic about their war experiences.

In the beginning the Schemis thought that their exile would soon be over, that they would soon return home. But these hopes were soon dashed. Just a month after their flight, a neighbor called from Damascus: the apartment building where they had lived on the third floor had been set on fire. Moreover, soldiers had looted all the apartments.

Potential Sons-in-Law Have Fallen

Mariam and Rula managed to struggle their way back to Damascus. They wanted to bring the family's possessions to safety -- but there was nothing left to save. On her smartphone, Rula shows photos of the rubble that was once her home: the rooms were all blackened by soot. What wasn't burned was smashed to pieces, and the computer had bullet holes in it. "On the first floor of the building, a doctor and a veterinarian had their practices," says Rula. Both had apparently treated injured dissidents, and the army took revenge on the whole house. Aside from one neighboring family, all the residents of the building have fled the country: the exodus of the well-off and strikingly large Syrian middle class.

The Schemis and their neighbors are among those who had something to lose and lost it fast.

Rula also has other pictures on her cell phone, images of a happier time. One video shows the family at the father's birthday two years ago: in a living room filled with antique furniture, aunts with blow-dried hair laugh into the camera, and children are being passed from arm to arm. There are cakes and bouquets of flowers on a mahogany dresser, under a modern painting. Suddenly Rula dances through the picture, her hair worn loose, her top low-cut and bright blue. "Another age," she says and shut the cell phone. Today Rula and her sister wear tracksuits and don't remove their white headscarves, even indoors -- after all, they have to rely on the goodwill of the head of the mosque.

"Photos are among those things that you don't think about at first," says Farah Schemi. Not a single baby photo of any of her children still exists. Her wedding photo, school enrollments, birthdays -- all gone. Her advice to anyone who must quickly pack the essentials: "Don't forget your photo album!"

The prospect that the war in Syria may shorten her husband's life isn't Mrs. Schemi only concern. She's also worried about her daughters' future. "The girls are at the age when they should marry and have children of their own," she says. "But who should they marry?" Fifty thousand young men in Syria have died over the course of the revolution, 70,000 have been arrested. "The men my daughters should have married have fallen in the revolution."

*All names have been changed by the editors.

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