A daily hustle to survive: This is the life of a Syrian refugee

Majaz, 35, from Homs in Syria, sits inside the converted farm building in which she and her children now live, in an informal settlement for Syrian refugees near Zahle, Lebanon, on Aug. 7, 2015.
Sam Tarling

BEIRUT, Lebanon — It is March 2014. Two-and-a-half-thousand Syrians are arriving in Lebanon every day. Many end up in the northern city of Tripoli. By 8 a.m. there is a long line outside the grey concrete walls of the UN compound. A tea seller moves up and down, an urn on his back. The line doesn’t move. Within a week, the United Nations will register its one-millionth refugee in Lebanon. The UN agency that is supposed to look after these people, the UNHCR, can’t cope. There isn’t enough money. It is even cutting aid for the refugees already there. Some of them come to the compound, too. The line gets longer.

People don’t talk much. They just stare ahead, and wait. Near the entrance, though, a woman in a black abaya and hijab starts shouting. She is small but her voice cuts through the noise of traffic in the distance. “I’ve been coming here to get food for my children for three days.” Everyone looks. This is Mariam al-Khawli. She is from a small town just over the Syrian border. She has four children, a sick husband. “Every time I come, I get turned away,” she shouts. “Every time, they promise to help if I come back tomorrow. Those promises are empty."

Then she does something unthinkable. She pours gasoline over her head and sets herself alight.

Mariam al-Khawli.
"Every time, they promise to help if I come back tomorrow. Those promises are empty."

For a couple of days of headlines, Mariam was a symbol of how desperate the refugees had become. That was the word we all used in our reports to explain what she had done: “desperate.” But I didn’t really understand her terrible act of self destruction outside the offices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, (the UNHCR). So in August I went back to see her family to get the whole story, from the beginning.

Like many ordinary people who do something extraordinary, the details of Mariam’s life were both typical and revealing. What happened to her family happened to many refugees, millions of them, who fled Syria.

Mariam had come from Tal Kalakh, a Syrian farming town of 20,000 people. There were mosques and two- or three-story breezeblock homes, all set in the green hills close to the Lebanese border. She lived there with her husband, Ahmed Daher, and their four children. Their house had a small garden with a peach tree and a walnut tree.

In the spring of 2011, Syria caught the fever sweeping the rest of the Arab world. People took to the streets to demand more freedom. At first, they did not call for President Bashar al-Assad to go. Many hoped only that he would reform the one-party state he had inherited from his father. When the protests began in Tal Kalakh, Mariam’s family stayed away. “Politics is not my business,” Ahmed thought. He didn’t watch the news. He stuck to driving the vegetable truck he owned. Mariam just wanted to get their four children a good education. The extended family thought that was odd. No cousins, aunts or uncles had been to college. But that was Mariam’s ambition for her children.

Mariam and her children during happier times.

Everything began to change one day in May after Friday prayers. More than 3,000 people marched through the town, chanting: “The people! Want! The fall of the regime!” Men in uniform blocked their way. The mukhabarat, the plain-clothed secret police, stood behind the uniformed men, giving orders. Ahmed stopped his truck at a gas station across the road. “Go home!” a loudspeaker ordered. “Disperse! We will shoot.” The men in uniform raised their Kalashnikovs. The two sides were barely 10 yards apart. No one in the crowd moved. No one believed the security would fire. It was still the beginning of the uprising.

Everyone waited.

There was a sound like firecrackers. Rifle shots. Thousands of people ran in blind, disbelieving panic. A neighbor’s son lay on the ground, hit by a bullet. Others fell, dead or wounded. That is how Ahmed remembers it. “It was a peaceful demonstration, no weapons, nothing,” he said. He drove home as fast as he could to tell everyone what had happened. But they already knew. Women were in the street, ululating. People shouted: "They fired. They fired."

“Beat us, yes, we expect that perhaps,” Ahmed said. “But no one thought they would actually shoot.” Ahmed and Mariam decided they would now join the protests. Around the country, others did the same, their minds made up by the regime’s violence. In Tal Kalakh, though, there were no more big demonstrations. It wasn't safe. Instead, people gathered in small groups on side streets and in orchards outside the town.

"No one thought they would actually shoot."

Then, the arrests began. Some said more than 1,000 people were detained that summer in Tal Kalakh. “They took whoever went out to call for freedom,” Ahmed said. The prisoners came back with broken bones and marks from electric shocks or cigarette burns. Some did not return at all. “They took two young men, twins, a lawyer and doctor. They didn’t just arrest them. They killed them. Their mother lost her mind. The town was calm on the outside but it was boiling underneath. It felt like it would explode at any minute.”

Ahmed told me the story of what happened next. At this point, it has entered Tal Kalakh folklore. The Daher family lived near the army barracks. The troops were not allowed cell phones, or TV. They were not allowed out. Officers had suspended all leave because soldiers who went home rarely returned. One night a soldier found a way to slip away to visit a nearby grocery store. A television was on: Al Jazeera. The soldier saw refugees lifting razor wire and streaming into Turkey. A woman in a headscarf was being interviewed. He watched. He couldn’t believe it.

“That’s my mother. What’s happening?”

“The regime is killing people,” the shopkeeper said.

“What in the name of God is going on out here?”

“The whole country’s been turned upside down and you have no idea?”

“I swear, no. It’s like a prison inside the barracks. They told us: 'It’s Israel. It’s militant gangs.' But that’s my mother.”

The soldier went back to the barracks and gathered his friends. They decided to escape. He shot the officer who had said they were fighting Israel. There was a gun battle inside the barracks: loyalists against defectors. The violence spilled into the streets as the defectors fled. The whole of Tal Kalakh watched green tracer fire arc back and forth across the town. There was nothing on state TV about it, of course, but by lunchtime the next day everyone knew what had happened. The Dahers’ street buzzed with the story of the soldier and the soldier’s mother. The shopkeeper swore it was true.

The defecting soldiers joined a new organization called the Free Syrian Army. The armed rebellion had begun.

The FSA began to appear everywhere there were people who supported the uprising. The war arrived in Tal Kalakh one evening in May 2011, when the regime decided to make an example of the town. Tanks and armored vehicles drew up along the main road outside. In the early hours of the morning, the shelling began. Mariam, Ahmed and three of their children hid in a bathroom in the center of the house. Their daughter Ala’a, their oldest child, was away taking exams in the capital, Damascus. No one slept during the bombardment. “God is our protector,” they said to each other as the ground shook and windows shattered inward. It continued until just after 6 a.m. The family emerged slowly and carefully. They found nothing left of the house next door but a pile of rubble. Ahmed and Mariam didn’t even have to discuss it: They knew they had to leave.



Those were the first days of the conflict. The war is now in its fifth year. There are more than a thousand armed groups allied to one or the other of the main factions: Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda’s ally in Syria; the Islamic State, now notorious, and an even more extreme religious group; and the FSA — or what’s left of it. They fight each other as much as they fight the regime. Every few months, a UN official warns of a “humanitarian catastrophe.” Even the UN itself now describes such periodic alarms as “white noise.” But the figures, if you stop to think about them, are shocking.

Half of all Syrians, more than 11 million people, have left their homes, according to the UNHCR. Many have gone elsewhere within the country — there are 7.6 million “internally displaced people,” as they are called. Four million people, like Ahmed and Mariam, have crossed Syria’s borders, becoming refugees.

Many have given up hope of ever returning home and are heading for Europe, causing what the continent’s politicians call the worst refugee crisis there since World War II. Some 1.9 million refugees remain in Turkey, 630,000 in Jordan. A massively disproportionate burden has fallen on Syria’s smallest neighbor, Lebanon, a country of 4.5 million. There are 1,172,753 Syrian refugees in Lebanon, according to official figures, though hundreds of thousands more have not registered and the real total could be more than 1.5 million.



That means one in four people in Lebanon is a refugee — one in three taking into account 450,000 Palestinians who are already there. It is hard to believe that Lebanon has absorbed so many Syrians, not just because of the size of these numbers but because the refugees are often nowhere to be seen. Street kids at the traffic lights or outside a restaurant are all that many Lebanese see of a massive refugee population in their midst. There are no large camps you can point to, no neat rows of tents or temporary housing stretching away to the horizon as in Turkey or Jordan.

At the start of the Syrian crisis, the Lebanese government made a political decision not to build — and to prevent anyone from building — new settlements for people fleeing the Syrian war. The Lebanese did not want another big, permanent refugee population. They already had the Palestinians. In the slums of southern Beirut, where most Lebanese would never venture, you can find refugees living 15 people to a single room, all eating, sleeping, sitting, and praying in the same cramped space. In this way, one-and-a-half million people can disappear, though of course a one-and-a-half million people cannot disappear entirely.




11:30 p.m. July of this year. A hot and humid Friday night in Mar Mikhaël, Beirut’s Brooklyn. Drinkers stand shoulder to shoulder outside the bars. There are girls in tiny shorts, long hair tumbling down their backs; guys wearing the “hipster uniform”: Converse sneakers, skinny jeans, big beards. Beards are still popular despite stories of the airport police mistaking hipsters for jihadis. There is a cacophony of thumping hip hop and revving engines. BMWs, a Camaro, even a Ferrari, inch down the main street.

A waiter threads his way through the crowd with a tray of shots. A tiny hand flies up and tries to grab one. The waiter laughs and pushes away a grinning kid with matted hair and filthy clothes. There are half a dozen children working this part of the street. One is curled up against a wall, pretending to sleep, a 5,000 lira note (just over $3) in the crook of his arm, so people get the idea to leave money. The others tug at drinkers’ sleeves, trying to sell roses or pointing at their mouths and saying: “No food. Give me just one dollar.”

All but one in this group of child beggars are from Syria. We buy roses and sit on the curb to speak to them. The smallest is a little girl who tells us she is seven, her name is Rana, and she came from Syria a month ago. But my photographer recognizes her as a street kid he has been taking pictures of for the past two years. When he first met her, she said she was called Amal. Whatever her name is, she is, literally, street-wise. We ask to interview her. A negotiation follows.

A 7-year-old Syrian girl who separately identified herself as Rana and Amal, sells roses at midnight on one of Beirut's main streets.

Amal: “It will cost you 10,000 [almost $7] and you get three questions.”

Me: “OK, but can we ask you the questions first?”

Amal: “Yes — that’s one question.”

Me: “We can’t hear you. Can we talk in the café over the road?”

Amal: “No, and that’s another question.”

Me: “Tell me about your family.”

Amal: “I don’t know my family. I don’t even know their names.”

Me, sighing: “OK … how much do you make out here in a night?”

Amal: “Only 20,000. Now give me the money. Then I will have 10; I’ll only have to get another 10 to go home.”

She grabs my recorder and starts singing into it tunelessly. I give up, having met my match. Amal shouts to a friend: “Do you want to speak to them? They’ll give you a tenner. Tell them your stories. Tell them you need to make 20 a day.”

The oldest in the group is Basmah, who says she is 14. While Amal is irrepressible and cheeky, Basmah is reserved and regards us with wary eyes. She refuses to have her photograph taken. She tells me that her family left their home in Syria when mortar shells began to fall on their street. At first, they stayed with an aunt in southern Syria. Then they heard that their house had been completely destroyed. They had nothing to return to. So the family took a bus to Lebanon.

A young Syrian refugee sells roses to passing motorists on the Beirut sea front on July 11, 2015.

I ask Basmah if she had to beg when they lived in Syria. For a handful of families this was a way of life even before the war. No, she says, they were poor — her father sold tissues at traffic lights — but she used to study like any other girl her age. “If we were still in Syria we wouldn’t be selling flowers. We would be at school.”

It is a similar story for most street children. I have interviewed a number of them over the years. There were the two little boys who sold roses by the traffic lights on the seafront. They got a bus from their refugee camp every day before sunset and worked until they sold all their roses. Sometimes that was six the following morning.

“I accept my fate,” said one of the boys, Bilal, who was 10. “We are a family of eight. I have to support my brothers and sisters.” His 11-year-old friend A'ala refused to see rose-selling as begging. “I would rather be in the gutter than beg,” he said. “I have a 2-year-old brother. My mother is pregnant. My dad is sick. It’s up to me alone to bring bread to the table.”

Bilal was quiet but A'ala was cocky, swaggering around in a baseball cap that was too big for him. He would leap onto the running board of a big four-wheel-drive vehicle and rap on the window until they bought a rose or sped away, making him jump off. A’ala was proud to be the only earner of his family. He could smoke, buy Kentucky Fried Chicken if he made extra cash, and stay out as late as he wanted. He was tough, a bully in fact. The smaller children shrank away when he approached, a cigarette hanging from his lips.

"If we were still in Syria we wouldn’t be selling flowers. We would be at school."

After years fending for themselves, many street children have hardened. A'ala said he wanted never to go back to school. Amal, the feisty little girl, might have told me the same had I not run out of questions. And street beggars are a fraction of the huge group of refugee children who have to support their families by working. This is what aid workers mean when they talk about a “lost generation” of Syrian children.

When street kids are arrested, the police sometimes take them to Home of Hope, Lebanon’s only children’s home. It is reached by taking the road that winds up Mount Lebanon east of Beirut. The 40-minute drive out of the capital makes it hard to find for those looking to exploit children. The director, Maher Tabarani, told me that many of those brought to him had been sexually abused. I wondered if that was what had happened to Basmah, the 14-year-old who was so reserved and suspicious.

"My mom took my kidney and gave it to someone so she could make money."

An 11-year-old girl had just been left there by the police, Maher said, part of a ring of underage prostitutes. They sold roses and gum on the streets but every so often a taxi arrived to take them to have sex with a client — $20 a time. The pimp who ran this operation was the girl’s mother. “If you speak to this girl, you think you're talking to a 30-year-old woman,” Maher said.

He once took in some Syrian Turkmen children. Their families had been offered somewhere to stay by a Turkmen businessman. It was in a slum in southern Beirut, and there was only a single room for each family, but it was cheap, and the offer came from one of their own. The “businessman” turned out to be a gangster. He raised the rent: $150, $200, then $300 a month for each room. The families sank into debt and they learned, too late, that the gangster had a reputation for terrifying violence. It’s OK, he told them, put your daughter to work for me and we will settle the debt.

In this case, and others, it was the parents or an uncle or aunt who pimped the child, Maher said, though they were part of a bigger network. This was what made the child prostitution networks so hard to crack — that and the secrecy surrounding anything to do with sex in a conservative society. I said I had heard about married women in hijab and abaya standing outside a camp in the south to sell themselves for about $7. Everyone knew this was happening but it was barely spoken about. Yes, Maher said, he had heard the same, though he said they sometimes took less.

A little boy interrupted us. He was painfully thin and looked about six or seven. He was really 11, Maher said. This was Nawras, who was something of a celebrity. Everyone at the home knew he had once appeared on a Lebanese talk show to describe how his mother sold his kidney. I had heard about Lebanon’s illegal market in body parts — $10,000 dollars for a kidney or a cornea.

He showed us the scar. “My mom took my kidney and gave it to someone so she could make money,” he said. “I told her: don't take it. Wait until I grow up." The surgical wound was painful for a long time, he said. His mother used to rub cream into it. Maher believed his story. He told me the boy’s mother worked as a cleaner and a prostitute. Two weeks earlier she had dumped Nawras on the street and told him not to come home. She did not want to look after him any longer. He was hyperactive and incontinent. At Home of Hope, he wore diapers.

Nawras was Syrian-Palestinian, originally from Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus. He said he had come to Lebanon at the beginning of the war, though he could not remember exactly when or why. He still had a brother missing in Syria. As we talked, he told me that what he wanted, more than anything, was to have a bicycle. “These kids have nothing,” Maher said. “Their parents don’t want them back. They say it’s better for them here. They eat, they sleep, they drink, please keep them.”

Of course, Maher saw the worst cases at Home of Hope, children whose lives were hard even before the war. But the number of refugee street kids was growing, he said. He has been forced to send some of the children brought to him by the police to juvenile prison. He had no room. Things just got worse and worse. He could see no solution.

Abdullah, 9, a refugee from Idlib, Syria, sits on his bed in a dorm room at the Home of Hope children's home in Kahale, near Beirut, Lebanon, on Feb. 26, 2014.


May 2011. Mariam and Ahmed didn’t want to leave their daughter, Ala’a, behind in Syria, but they had no choice. The family took little more from the house than the clothes they wore and their IDs. Mariam phoned Ala’a, telling her: “I will come back for you.” Tal Kalakh was only five miles from the Lebanese border but they knew the journey out would not be easy. It was illegal for men of conscription age to leave the country. Bribes would have to be paid: $1,000 for Ahmed and his oldest son, a large portion of their savings. A taxi to the border was 10 times the usual price. Ahmed had to leave his truck — his livelihood — behind.

There were now checkpoints along the road out of town. Men trying to pass through the checkpoints often disappeared. There were snipers on the roofs of government buildings and they shot at people in areas that were part of the uprising. Tal Kalakh was mainly Sunni. The surrounding villages were Alawite, the religious sect the president belongs to, and it seemed that the inhabitants were also shooting at those who fled. Ahmed and Mariam would never have imagined this state of affairs. Everyone had lived side by side in the village that was their home before Tal Kalakh. They always said: a visitor wouldn’t be able to tell who was who. Ahmed didn’t even know his best friend was Alawite until he was 19.

Their taxi drove them out of town, accompanied by the sound of gunfire and mortar fire. The driver dropped them at the border. A narrow river, a stream really, marks the line between northern Lebanon and Syria. There was an official crossing — a bridge with checkpoints at both ends. But by late May it was already so hot that the river was shallow enough to make it across by stepping on the rocks jutting out of the water. The Dahers and thousands of others entered Lebanon this way.

They arrived in a rugged bit of hill country called Wadi Khaled. A local family took them in. They were Sunni Muslims like the Dahers and most of the refugees. The Lebanese family asked for nothing in return. After a week, the Dahers still hadn’t heard from Ala’a. When they finally made contact, they found out she had managed to get from Damascus to Tal Kalakh. And so Mariam left on foot, back over the rocks in the river, to find her. Ahmed was ill, with a lung problem, but Mariam had always been the determined one. She returned to Syria, and then made it back out — again — this time with Ala’a.

Everyone had been in Wadi Khaled a month when Ala’a told her father that the exams needed for university entrance were being held in Tal Kalakh. It seemed unfathomable, but she wanted to go back. “What are you talking about?” he said. “The town is in chaos. There isn’t even anyone there.” Mariam intervened. The children would get an education, whatever it took. She would go with Ala’a back to Tal Kalakh. So they set off for Syria on foot, back over the illegal river crossing, someone watching from a hill to make sure they were OK. When they got back to Tal Kalakh, the town was almost empty, just soldiers on the streets. Ala’a was able to take her exams. And she did well, 205 marks out of 240. “Fa, it was just physics that let me down,” she said: “I didn’t have a chance to study it.” Mother and daughter hugged one another.

Ala'a, on the left, studying with her siblings in Tripoli, Lebanon, on July 27, 2015.

With Mariam and Ala’a already in Tal Kalakh, the rest of the family decided to return, making their way again over the river and through the unpredictable checkpoints. The shelling had stopped. But life did not get better. Slowly and steadily, the situation deteriorated. Ahmed couldn’t make his living delivering fruit and vegetables; there were too many checkpoints, too many “gangs” on the roads. In Tal Kalakh, 100 yards separated the FSA and the regime. No one could move. Worse, it became impossible not to choose sides. “You had to pick up a gun,” Ahmed said. “I am against the regime but I don’t like violence and killing. Who would I fight? On one side is your countryman, on the other side, your countryman too.” After another year in Syria, they again made the journey — ever more dangerous now — back to Lebanon.

"On one side is your countryman, on the other side, your countryman too."

This time, they slept in a mosque in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. Ahmed got a day or two of work every week driving a taxi. They did fine, at first. They had savings. But days turned into weeks, weeks into months, and months became a year. The money ran out. Now what, they thought? There was food aid from the UN, though it mortified them to have to stand in line, waiting for charity. The UN gave out food boxes for Ramadan: rice, pasta, and lentils, as well as soap and toothbrushes. Mariam went with her mother — the children’s grandmother — who was collecting an uncle’s ration.

There was a crush outside, guards shouting for everyone to get back. No one moved for hours. The old lady approached a guard. “My son, I have asthma. I can’t stand in the sun for so long. Please, let me inside to sit down.” According to family legend, the guard replied: “Even if you have cancer, you wait outside. Leave if you want. It’s all the same to me whether you eat or not.” Mariam marched up to the guard, enraged. There was a shouting match. It ended with her screaming: “I hope you get cancer.” The refugees cheered.

The UN’s food boxes became e-vouchers, plastic cards that looked like credit cards — they were even provided by MasterCard. The UN added money to the cards every month, $30 for everyone in the family. The UN also paid half their rent. Mariam did everything she could to stretch the money out. Delay the rent, pay the college fees. Sell the food ration, pay the landlord. Borrow a few thousand, buy some food. It was a miserable carousel, a crisis every day, every small victory creating a new problem for the day after. She was determined: the children would get an education, a future. Ala’a, the eldest daughter, studied business. Amjad, the eldest son, studied journalism. The two younger children went to school. Don’t let them go out to work. Don’t let them beg, Mariam told herself.

But the UN and other refugee agencies were running out of money. The Dahers learned that they would not longer get help with half their rent. The struggle became nearly impossible. Then their food card stopped working.


Things are different in Turkey. The country is Syria’s biggest neighbor. So far, it has taken in close to 2 million Syrian refugees, almost half of all those who have fled the country. But Turkey has a population of 75 million, and the refugees are looked after well. In 2012, I was in one of the first Turkish camps built for Syrians. A woman pulled back a curtain in her tent to show me sacks of rice and bottles of cooking oil. She was getting so much food she kept the surplus to sell in the market. The war had not yet visited her village in northern Syria, she told me, but she was poor and had heard how generous the Turks were being to refugees.

They are known as the “five-star” camps, and the Turkish government is rightly proud of them. Two young men from the prime minister’s office — both wearing shiny suits — arranged for me to visit one day this summer. They showed me rows of neat, white Terrapin buildings, all with air conditioning and televisions. There was a school, a playground, and a park with neat flowerbeds. There was also, it soon became clear, a poverty of spirit, an emptiness amid the plenty.

Men walk past the Suruc refugee camp on March 25, 2015 in Suruc, Turkey. About 35,000 Syrians now live in this camp.

Adnan was 35 years old but looked 45, an ample belly beneath his robe. He sat cross-legged on the floor of his caravan, one eye on the TV as we talked. He had been a shopkeeper in Syria but saw no reason to work in Turkey. “I could work if I wanted to. But really, everything is provided for us here anyway.” He got a pass to leave the camp twice a month, and that was enough. He went on, perhaps aware of the officials outside his door: “All thanks to the Turkish government. We want for nothing, thanks be to God. We are happy like this.”

"May God return us back to Syria."

A few rows away lived a woman I’ll call Asma. She was in her 30s, from Aleppo, and had been there for three years. Her youngest child was born in the camp. “I thank God for bringing me here,” she said. “Water, electricity, heating: everything is provided. They even gave me a fridge. We are in paradise, truly.” But she was lonely. Her husband had a job in the nearby town, while she could rarely leave. “There’s never anyone new to talk to,” she said. As we left, she took my translator aside and asked for his number “just to chat.” It was an extremely risky thing for a married woman from a religious family to do. It showed the depths of her unhappiness. “May God return us back to Syria.”

Others have given up hope of ever returning. One was my friend Yilmaz, a student in his 20s with a ponytail. He and some friends decided they would smuggle themselves from Turkey to the European Union. Yilmaz had come from a wealthy family in Syria. In Turkey, he was a journalists' fixer and worked for the press office of the Syrian National Council, the opposition’s government-in-exile. Everyone in his group had jobs in Turkey — there was a bricklayer, a musician, a barber — but the wages were half what they used to make in Syria. They could not plan for any kind of future. And they had ambitions.

The journey to Europe began with a secret Facebook group called “Wanderers’ Bus Stop” in Arabic. “This group has nothing to do with arranging illegal trips,” the page says disingenuously. “It is not responsible for any loss, theft, or death.” But Wanderers’ Bus Stop is where you go to meet a smuggler. It has telephone numbers, places to stay, details of routes through Greece, Macedonia and Serbia — all swapped among the group’s 40,000 members. “It is about how to go to Europe, from the first step to the last step,” Yilmaz said. He got a number from the page and went to a place locals called “smugglers’ street” in a town on the Turkish coast.

"They were forcing people on with weapons. They don’t care what happens. 'Live or die; go, don’t go,'; that’s what they tell you."

The town was on the Izmir coast, used by the people smugglers because it is only a few miles from the Greek islands. You can see the European Union from Izmir. The smugglers buy disposable boats, Zodiac inflatables with outboard motors. They are piloted by the refugees themselves and used only one-way. The cost of passage would be $900 to $1,000 per person, the smuggler told Yilmaz. “It’s easy money for them,” Yilmaz said. He was right. The boats cost about $4,000 each, including the engine. With 40 or more passengers per boat, people smuggling is more profitable than moving drugs, and a lot less risky: $30,000 to $40,000 a boat. A dozen boats can leave from Izmir every night — 500 people heading to Europe, half a million dollars paid to the smugglers.

Yilmaz and his friends went to a money changing office. The bureau took a cut and put the money in escrow. Once they got to dry land, they were to call the smuggler and give him a code word to unlock his money. Yilmaz and his group had to say “Coca-Cola.” There were 20 people in the group. They split up to take taxis to the rendezvous point. The taxis turned off the road and up a dirt track, dropping them at the edge of a forest. The taxi drivers knew what was going on. “Good luck. God Bless you,” they said as their passengers got out.

A flashlight flickered. They headed toward it. There was a group of about 150 already waiting in a clearing. It was 11 p.m. At 3 a.m., a small truck arrived. Around 80 of them were pushed into the back. “It was hard to breathe,” Yilmaz said. “You are stuck. There is no light. You can’t even see your fingers. The truck is driving fast. There are women and children shouting.” Three hours later, they stopped and got out into a bigger truck with more refugees. This time it was a four-hour drive.

It was fully light when they got to a rocky inlet, the sea lapping against the shore. There were three boats waiting. One was full of Iraqis. Yilmaz and his friends were shown to a second boat. The young men carried it into the water. The smugglers started to pile people in: 30, 40, 50. There were 67 people in the boat in the end. “They were forcing people on with weapons,” Yilmaz said. “They don’t care what happens. ‘Live or die; go, don’t go,’ that’s what they tell you.” He feared they would all drown on the crossing so he jumped out. His friends followed. The smugglers eventually agreed to give them another boat.

As they cleared the inlet a Turkish police boat moved to intercept them. A loudspeaker ordered them back. They kept going. The police circled them a couple of times, then headed away. An hour later, they were in Europe. Yilmaz’s cousin steered the little Zodiac straight ahead to land on the Greek island of Lesbos. They had made it. One of their first acts ashore was to pose for a selfie. They set off on the 40-mile walk over the hills to the refugee registration center on Lesbos.

Yilmaz and his friends arrive in Europe.

On another part of the beach, a British man greeted the migrants. Eric Kempson was 60 and had lived on Lesbos for 16 years. He made a living carving olive wood souvenirs for tourists. Now he also helped refugees. We joined him at dawn one day, parked on a hillside. There were pine trees and whitewashed houses, a glinting sea. It was a landscape from the vacation brochures. We waited. Hours went by with no sign of the little Zodiacs. Eric handed me some binoculars. There was a patrol vessel from the European border force. Eventually it moved on.

The refugees and the smugglers were watching too. An hour later we saw the first Zodiac, a dot on the horizon. "The currents are very strong,” Eric told me. “It can be vicious.” He remembered standing on the beach, watching helpless as five boats got into trouble in high seas. The last one did not make it. “The front end of the boat went up in the air and the back end went up in the air, with a few people left in the middle. Then everyone was in the water. You could see the splashing. These people can’t swim. I’m sorry,” he stopped, overcome. “The thing is about the last boat, it was mainly women and children.”

The water was choppy but the little Zodiac kept coming. The dot grew larger as it bounced over the waves. We could see the faces of the people, grimacing in the spray, holding on to the sides. Parents had their arms wrapped around their children. We raced along a road and down to a rocky beach to meet them. When we got there the refugees were already puncturing the boat — the smugglers tell them to do this. There was a loud hiss. A man from the island — a fisherman — rushed forward to get the valuable outboard motor.

"Will the police here beat us?"

A young woman in a headscarf — she looked Uzbek or Tajik — stood rigid on the shore. She burst into tears. A grandmotherly German tourist hugged her. “It’s over now, you’re safe,” she said. “You’re in Europe.” A Burmese man — a Rohingya Muslim, one of the most persecuted groups of people in the world — looked around anxiously and asked: “Will the police here beat us?” Eric stood by the open trunk of his little hatchback, handing out dry clothes, bottles of water and sandwiches. Once, he and his daughter had patched up a man with his arm sliced open. They put some antiseptic on the arm and wrapped it in a towel. Another time a woman had a broken ankle. She had been thrown from a boat onto the rocks. One man had a heart attack. They called an ambulance but it never came.

Eric said some of those he met were not prepared for refugee life. “Some of these people are rich, especially from Damascus. To put them in this situation, it’s unbelievable,” he said. “One woman came up, very petite, with a grey silk headscarf. She tapped me on the shoulder and she said in perfect English: ‘Excuse me sir, I would like a shower and I would like to use the toilet.’ I said: ‘Sorry madam, I can’t help you. I can give you a toilet roll and you can use the field.’ A lot of them are very wealthy people. They’ve never had to squat on the side of the road. It is humiliating for them.”

Tourists watched the latest arrivals. “Just fack off, you dirty people, roo-nin’ our ‘oliday,” shouted a peroxide-blonde woman with an Essex accent. But another British vacationer, who said his name was Bob, handed the refugees bottles of water. He was a former army sergeant with a regimental tattoo on his forearm.

The locals are as divided as the tourists. Eric told me one hotel owner was sheltering refugees and feeding them. But Eric also once had his tires slashed by members of Golden Dawn, the Greek nationalist party.

He said the demographics of the refugee boats had changed. A year ago, you would see a boat with 10 men, all paddling: Afghans or Iraqis. Maybe Iranians. Now you were seeing 50 or 60 people crammed into a single Zodiac, mostly Syrians, many of them women and children. The official figures from the UN refugee agency are that 300,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean illegally so far this year, 200,000 of them landing in Greece, about half of those in Lesbos; 70 percent of the new arrivals are Syrian.

Lesbos is struggling to cope with the thousands of new arrivals. Yilmaz and his friends are sent first to an emergency makeshift camp. This does not dent their high spirits.

Yilmaz and his friends took a special refugee ferry to Athens. It was overcrowded. He stayed a couple of weeks, deciding whether to buy forged papers, like ID cards and passports. They are easily available in the Greek capital if you know the right people. He decided he didn’t need them. They went up through Greece. At the Macedonia border, the police tried to stop them, lashing out with batons. They were locked up for a time. But they were more worried about the criminals who kidnap refugees in northern Macedonia. It can cost $3,000 to be released, which must be wired from families in Turkey.

Yilmaz told me his dream would be to reach London, but that might be difficult because of the English Channel. For now, he is happy to have made it to Germany, 28 days after he set out from Turkey. He posted another selfie, this time from the German town of Osnabrück. It was just one of a stream of updates he sent out from his smartphone during the voyage. The journey was hard but his photos are joyous, optimistic. They show young men on an adventure, starting new lives. Yilmaz plans to finish his university studies. He wants to become a photojournalist. He left a new wife behind in Turkey and will send for her. She will make the same illegal crossing he did.

Yilmaz and his friends certainly feared for their lives in Syria — he says he was once imprisoned by the “Islamic State” — but they had all been in Turkey, most of them for a year or two. Some governments might regard them more as economic migrants than refugees. The EU has just agreed to divvy up 120,000 of the recent Syrian arrivals among member states. It was a deal that nearly didn’t get made and a debate continues to rage in Europe over how many people to take. Some argue that Europe shouldn't turn away from those in need. Others fear that there are tens of millions more refugees — Syrians and others — waiting on the EU’s doorstep. But whatever we call the Syrians now in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq — refugees or migrants — there is no doubt how desolate their lives have become.


"We wonder: How have we come to this? Subject to charity, to pity, to the whims of those who confer favor, or not, who choose what to give, or not to give. Fa, the human being has dignity above all. We are scolded like children and insulted. No one can tolerate that. 'Go away. Leave here.' Until when?"

When Mariam’s food card stopped working in March 2014, she went to the gray-walled compound of the UNHCR in Tripoli. She found many others there who were having the same problem. The first day, she couldn’t even get inside to see anyone. The guards were indifferent. “Come back tomorrow.” On the second day, she got to the head of the line. The same. “Come back tomorrow.” On the third day, she got up early and talked to Ala’a in the kitchen. The landlord’s wife came around to chat, everyone laughing. She set off again for the UNHCR. The line was as long as ever. She waited for hours in the sun. She knew what the answer would be. “Come back tomorrow.”

She turned to a man in the line and asked: “Where is the nearest gas station?” He thought the question strange, as they had all come on foot, but he knew the answer and gave her directions. She walked off. About 20 minutes later, Mariam returned, a plastic water bottle full of gasoline in her hand. What happened next was what psychologists would call a “cry for help” It wasn't just a metaphor in this case as Mariam first shouted for the UNCHR to restore her food aid. The French new agency AFP reported her words: “Every time, they promise to help if I come back tomorrow. But those promises are empty."

Then came her last, terrible act. The fuel poured down her head, over her face and neck, over her shoulders, soaking her headscarf and abaya. When she set herself alight, everything ignited. There was a whoosh. She screamed and crumpled. The next day, I spoke to the tea seller outside the compound: “We saw a woman fall to the ground. Then we saw flames,” he said. “People got scared and ran in all directions. We tried to throw water over her.”

We asked the UNHCR how this could happen. Aid to families was being cut, they said. Donor governments had so far given only 14 percent of what was needed for that year’s budget. The tragedy might show everyone just how bad things were, the UNHCR spokeswoman said, optimistically.

"One day we have food, the next day we don’t. It is the same for all refugees."

That was March 2014. There were a couple of days of news reports about Mariam’s self-immolation, but the story was soon forgotten. Today, three quarters of the way through 2015, the UNHCR has only 35 percent of what it needs for the year. When Mariam set herself alight, the food cards were loaded with $30 a month for every refugee. Now it is $13.50. And since last month, the UNHCR has been forced to remove 136,000 refugees in Lebanon from food assistance.

Mariam was taken to the hospital. We filmed her propped up in bed, sedated, her head, face and upper body swathed in bandages. Somehow, she had survived. After visiting her, we climbed the stairs to the family’s bare two-room apartment. Ahmed hardly said a word. Her daughter Ala’a spoke for everyone. “One day we have food, the next day we don’t. It is the same for all refugees.” But as I sat with the family, I couldn’t help wondering: Was Mariam mentally ill? Was there something else that pushed her to do this?

When I went back to see the family again this summer, I realized how much I had misjudged her. The story of their lives revealed Mariam’s unequal struggle to make sure her children did not beg or go out to work. And that they got an education. A year after Mariam set herself alight, the older children — still refugees — remained at university. Mariam, however, had died from an infection that took hold after her first skin graft. As in my first meeting with the Dahers, Ala’a spoke for the family. She was like her mother, a strong personality. Ala’a thought Mariam had been broken by the daily humiliations of being a refugee. “Wallahi — I swear — we value our dignity above anything,” she said. “We wonder: How have we come to this? Subject to charity, to pity, to the whims of those who confer favor, or not, who choose what to give, or not to give. Fa, the human being has dignity above all. We are scolded like children and insulted. No one can tolerate that. ‘Go away. Leave here.’ Until when?” 

The family got their food credit eventually. “My mother lived two months and 10 days after the incident. Just after that, they reactivated the card. Honestly, if we didn’t need it so badly I wouldn’t have taken that card.”


Ala'a, after the loss of her mother.


Majaz, 35, from Homs in Syria, sits inside the converted farm building in which she and her children now live, in an informal settlement for Syrian refugees near Zahle, Lebanon, on Aug. 7, 2015.

Majaz Shoaib lay down. She had a headache. She had not eaten since the day before. $1 for a packet of flatbread. There was no point thinking about food but she couldn’t help it. $2 for a kilo of lentils. She got $7 a day for work at a factory. Her son Yamen got $3.50 a day working at a market stall. He was 10, no longer in school. My children should not be illiterate like me, she thought. If he can’t read and write, what kind of life will he have?

Thirty-five, on her own with five children. Refugees. She hardly thought about her husband, Abdel Kareem, anymore. He is gone and God will take care of him. He had been taken at a checkpoint on their way out of Syria. “Look after the children. Look after yourself. May God ease your path,” were his last words to her, the children watching as soldiers led him away. That was two years ago.

If I had known our lives would be like this, I would never have had five kids. No one knows the future, whether good or bad. We just have to do our best to survive, day by day.

She had sent the children out to play in the camp. They would be back soon. The two eldest would just go to bed. They understood she had nothing. The youngest were seven and five. They would cry. She could beat them. But that didn’t always work when they were really hungry. If she had to, if she really couldn’t stop them from crying for food, she could threaten to leave them, as their father had done.

That shameful admission came at the end of a three-hour conversation with Majaz, in a Lebanese camp. “If I had known our lives would be like this, I would never have had five kids,” she told me. “No one knows the future, whether good or bad. We just have to do our best to survive, day by day. For tomorrow, only God knows.”

Paying $1,000 for a smuggler to take them to Europe, as Yilmaz had done, was impossible. She couldn’t even find food for dinner every night. She had lost the battle Mariam fought to educate her children. At least she had not sent them into the streets to beg. But she looked utterly defeated. Four million refugees — 7.6 million displaced inside Syria. There are many like her.

Paul Wood is a Shorenstein Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is also a BBC foreign correspondent.