In a ramshackle garage in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, a very Syrian stand-off is taking place. There aren’t enough of the vegetable oil cans serving as chairs to go around but Mohammed, a 55-year-old refugee, is adamant he won’t let guests sit on the floor. “This is civilisation,” he says with a sardonic flourish, standing over me as I lower myself on to the metal.
Like many of the 790,000 Syrians who have fled into this tiny country since 2011, Mohammed has had to make a home for his extended family out of somewhere which barely even offers shelter.
The wry humour with which this formerly prosperous businessman has made the best of living in a 10 metre by 4 metre garage is all his own. As he unpins a grubby cloth functioning as a door to one of the garage’s two sleeping spaces, he pretends he’s just used a high-tech electronic opening mechanism. “Look,” he jokes, “remote control.”
Back in the Damascus suburbs, Mohammed (who hasn’t given his real name so that he might one day return) used to have a grocery shop and three houses: one for his family, one for his daughter’s family, and a third for chickens. His family home had two floors, he says proudly, and his neighbours would come round all the time. “The doors were open because people knew each other – people were out visiting until two in the morning.”
Mohammed left Syria after government warplanes started attacking his town last summer. His and his neighbours’ houses were destroyed, he says, “and the chickens were martyred by rockets”.
Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the violence in Syria now live in refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan. Lebanon, however, has refused to build camps partly because of their uncomfortable associations with the Palestinian exodus that helped trigger its own civil war that lasted 15 years. Those who end up here must settle where they can: apartments, construction sites, underground parking lots. As savings dwindle and rents soar, many are forced to live in tents.
Mohammed’s financial cushion is thinner than the mattresses on which the family sleep but he is actually one of the more fortunate refugees. He managed to bring some savings with him from Syria, enabling him to afford the $300 per month it costs to rent the garage. But the money didn’t last long and the fact that the garage has some elements of a habitable dwelling – a toilet, stove and television set – is testament to his resourcefulness and ability to raise loans.
When Mohammed first arrived here in the bitter cold of winter together with his wife, son, daughter and grandson, they had only cardboard to separate them from the ground as they tried to sleep among the scampering rats. Snow came in under the door, and they used their shoes as pillows. “God only knows how we survived that winter,” says Mohammed’s wife, a handsome woman whose plaintive eyes contrast with her husband’s ebullience.
The first thing Mohammed did was paint the walls of the sleeping area, which also functions as the sitting room. Later he built a kind of cabin out of plywood that an aid agency had donated to him, so that his daughter and son-in-law could sleep there.
The population of the garage changes as various family members come and go in an endless quest for safety and work. Fourteen people currently live here, says Mohammed. At the back of the garage, an empty tin containing the family’s toothbrushes sits on top of a breeze block wall screening the makeshift bathroom. Mohammed found a Syrian man willing to supply him with a toilet on credit, which he installed himself. How did he learn how to do the plumbing? Mohammed shrugs. “Now you need to know how to do everything – it’s a necessity.”
His son-in-law fiddles with some wires so they can turn a light on in the kitchen, which consists of a wooden bench, some pots and a little gas stove. In the absence of shelves, bags of the toasted bread commonly used in Syrian salads have been nailed to the wall.
Rasping laughter is never far from Mohammed’s lips as he shows me around the garage. “I’m going to burst from inside. I have to joke about it or I would die,” he later says. The only time he seems embarrassed by his circumstances is when he contemplates his appearance.
His shirt is darkened by sweat and grey stubble spreads across his round cheeks. All that the family have to groom themselves with is a small shard of mirror nailed to the wall. “I didn’t look like this in Syria,” he says. “I used to come out of the house shaved, wearing aftershave.”
In the living room, which now has a thin carpet, Mohammed and his family remember their lives before the uprising. On Fridays, the first day of the weekend in the Arab world, they would drive out to the mountains for picnics and to grill meats. When I ask if his wife is a good cook, he responds by slapping his still ample paunch.
In the evenings, after work, Mohammed’s neighbours would come round to drink coffee and smoke shisha. “People always wanted to come to my house because it was so clean,” he says. “I was working, making money; my son-in-law was working; everyone was happy.”
His nephew, who arrived recently from the Damascus suburbs with his wife and children, gently reminds Mohammed that they couldn’t discuss politics in the old days. The Syrian people have paid a heavy price for the ability to do so. Mohammed estimates that he knows about 500 people who have been killed, including one of his brothers. In the chaos of a civil war which has displaced more than 4m people within Syria itself, he has lost track of some of his closest friends and family members. He has been trying to call his sister for the past three weeks without success. “Everyone was scattered and everyone lost everything,” he says.
Despite Mohammed’s resilience and courage, what he has managed to build here is some way short of a life. He and his family rely on handouts from the UN, and they fear these are going to be reduced (the World Food Programme is due to start introducing new criteria for receiving assistance here in October amid a funding shortfall). Work is almost impossible to find. The Lebanese, Mohammed says, treat Syrian refugees with suspicion. “If we come close to people, they think we are scorpions, that we want to sting them.”
The thunder of trucks down a nearby road make it hard to sleep at night. During the day, the family either have to expose their domestic life to the stares of passers-by like an open doll’s house, or close the garage door “like fugitives”, according to Mohammed.
Still, little echoes of their former life reverberate through the garage. Mohammed insists on serving coffee, and as we perch on the vegetable oil cans waiting for it to brew his nephew’s wife placidly untangles her daughter’s hair. Mohammed re-enters with sparkling-clean floral cups which he sets on an upturned paint bucket – the table.
“Life is all about surprises,” he says between sips of coffee as bitter and cardamom-scented as any Damascene housewife could wish. “There is good and bad, but you cannot lose hope.”
Abigail Fielding-Smith is the FT’s Beirut correspondent
At first, Mohammed is contemptuous of the idea that any object in his makeshift home is worth cherishing. Grudgingly, he admits his Syrian ID card is useful since it stops him being arrested as an illegal alien. Later, he gives more thought to its importance: “It has a meaning – it means that I have a country.”
Letters in response to this article: