No space for grief

In the shelter, a girl on her way to work in the fields

by Aniek Santema

The floor in Ouzai where Mariam lives becomes a familiar place, I know the people in this corner of the tall building and they greet me happily when I visit them. Today, the stairs that lead up to this floor are slippery and covered with garbage like empty bags of chips, chocolate wraps and orange peels. While climbing up the stairs to the third floor, I pass by some small kids with stains on their clothes, faces and hands, running and playing on the stairs. The youngest must be around 2 years old. Many of the kids walk around on bare feet, even though it is not warmer than 12 degrees today. 3 boys come down the stairs while playing loud music on one of their phones. On Mariam’s floor, I find Aziza playing with some small kids in the gallery, away from the dark rooms, getting some daylight. The colourful laundry that hangs outside to dry gives some colour to the grey building that breaths hopelessness. I follow the small, dark corridor in the left corner of the floor and knock on Mariam’s door.
(taken from fieldnotes, 6 March 2017).

Mariam, a married 30-year-old mother of 4 daughters, lives together with approximately 1.000 others in an unfinished university building called ‘Ouzai’. Ouzai is found in Saida, a coastal city in South-Lebanon. Most of the people here come from the same village in Syria. They are part of the 5 million refugees who fled Syria since the war started in 2011. Lebanon, a country with 4 million people before the Syrian war, now hosts around 2 million Syrian refugees. With its own turbulent economic and political climate, Lebanon struggles to take care of this high number of refugees. With pressing shortness of funding and the lack of a proper response for the Syrian refugee crisis, many of the Syrians in Lebanon live in harsh conditions, where it is a struggle to meet basic needs.

Ouzai shelter

Mariam is an example of somebody who deals with these very harsh living conditions every day. She is one of the many people whom I have met during my three months’ fieldwork in Lebanon. During the time I spend with her, she showed me her life and her community. Mariam brought me in touch with girls I could interview for my research, opened her house for me as a place to do interviews, contextualized stories and gave me insights in her community.

Telling something about herself in our interview, she says: “I don’t like to sit down, I always like to work and do things. (…) When I am upset about anything, I ignore it because I don’t want it to affect my life or let it to upset me my family in any way. (…) Like… my brother. He passed away a year ago, but I like to think he is still alive and living in Syria, so it doesn’t upset me.”  This shows her strength, but also, I think this place (Ouzai) does not invite you to give space to your negative feelings. Ignoring the feelings of hopelessness, sadness and anxiety, which are natural responses to the traumatic experiences of war and the situation of displacement, might be a strategy of coping with the situation. There is no space for grief, no space to just give up. Sitting down might mean to think about the war, to think about the past and the future. But here, in Ouzai, there is no space for this. People are still busy to survive in their everyday lives.

I chose to write about Mariam, because she is one of the people I got to know very well. To me, her story was both inspiring and heart-breaking. Confidence and strength characterized her most of the time. At times, her strength amazed me and at times I saw how tired she actually was. I do not want to show a one-sided story about people who are mere victims of war and displacement. But the truth is, the stories of the people that I met during my research did not have happy endings yet. When I was discussing where people find hope in these hopeless situations, Mariam said:

Me… I don’t have any hope anymore.”

Aniek Santema is a master student SCA at the VU, she is currently writing her thesis on lived experiences, education and future perspectives of Syrian refugee youths in Lebanon.

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