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Syrian refugees share their stories with WLU prof’s research team

Waterloo Region Record with Bree Akeeson 02 August 2018

The stories of dozens of Syrian refugee families living in Lebanon are being shared online as part of a research project led by a Wilfrid Laurier University professor.

A week ago, “Out of Place: Stories from Syrian Families” launched, giving the world a glimpse into the lives of 44 Syrian refugee families who were forced to leave their conflict-ridden home in search of a new life.

“We didn’t want anything but safety,” one Syrian family living in Northern Lebanon told the researchers. “We left everything behind.”

“We do not care about money. We just want safety for our kids,” another family said.

Of the millions of Syrians who have fled the war, about one million left to neighbouring Lebanon, where they now make up about one quarter of Lebanon’s population.

In 2016, Laurier social work Prof. Bree Akesson decided to set up a research team in the country. She had been researching the experiences of families and children in crisis-affected countries for more than a decade and wanted to see where the Syrians in Lebanon lived, how they navigated everyday challenges, and where they went.

“2016 was an interesting time in Lebanon, where lots of people in one of the regions in the north were being displaced from their tents by the Lebanese government,” said Akesson, adding that at that point in time many refugees had been living in Lebanon for years.

“Families’ hope for returning (to Syria) was diminishing,” she said. “When they came to Lebanon, they thought it would just be a short trip and then they’d go back. But 2016 was a bit of a turning point in terms of their hope for return. A lot of the families were becoming a bit more hopeless at that time.”

Akesson and a team of Lebanese university students visited families who lived in three geographic areas in the country: Bekaa Valley, which has the highest number of refugees in the country; Northern Lebanon; and the capital city of Beirut.

“Many of the homes were very small. They were maybe a tent with a small furnace in the middle … and the family sleeps in that one tent,” Akesson said. “Or maybe, (they live in) an overcrowded apartment in Beirut.”

Every family was interviewed together, then each member was given a GPS device for a week to track where they travelled.

All family members — including children — were also encouraged to draw or make maps of the neighbourhood they lived in and to keep a journal of daily activities. Researchers also got permission to have the children take them on a tour of their neighbourhood.

“They’d show us, ‘Oh, this is the place where we play football,’ or ‘This is where we buy groceries for Mom,’ or ‘This is where Dad works,'” said Akesson.

The researchers looked for patterns in the data collected, particularly when it came to what families said about life in Syria, fleeing their country, life in Lebanon and their hopes for the future.

Some spoke of difficulty finding work in their new home, about being separated by loved ones, about violence in Syria and about homelessness.

“I’ve noticed that when I do interviews, families often times tell me they want their stories to be shared, and this was the case with … the Syrian families in Lebanon,” said Akesson. “That was really powerful for me, because you want to respect their wishes.”

That’s when the team of researchers, including academics associated with the project in Canada, decided to publish the stories. The website is only available in English at the moment, but Akesson said the goal is to make it available in Arabic as well.

She hopes these stories will allow people who are removed from the crisis, to find commonalities with the families.

“It changed me by being there and hearing these families’ stories,” she said. “I think we’ll see ourselves in the families.”