One evening in March, 15-year-old Ayat Hariri—a Syrian refugee in Lebanon—emerged in front of a packed house at a popular bistro in Beirut. She began narrating the story of how when she first came to Lebanon five years earlier, she had thought she was a tourist. “I was wondering, why is it taking so long at the military check points?” she said, recalling the 80-kilometre drive from Deraa, a city in Syria. Just ten years old at the time, Hariri had not understood the chaos descending on her country.
Her parents had told her that the family was on a holiday to meet her father, who lived and earned handsomely in Beirut. After having lived a year in Lebanon, Hariri’s family finally enrolled her in a school. This is when she first found out why they were not going back to Syria. “I started to understand what a ‘tourist’ means and what a ‘refugee’ means,” she told the audience.
In recent years, many cafes in urban Lebanon have been hosting storytelling sessions where performers come forward with diverse kinds of material—from jokes to folk tales to personal experiences. Now, many young Syrian refugees like Hariri have started taking the stage at such events to share stories of trauma experienced during war, and their struggle to adjust in a new country. While Lebanon has been commended for opening its borders to refugees, a steady influx of people from its neighbour seems to have changed how Syrians are perceived. Discrimination against refugees—who are now seen as a strain on the country’s resources—has been mounting, as have sectarian or ethnic tensions. Syrian refugee children, who reportedly constitute more than half of over a million refugees in Lebanon, have been directly experiencing this rise in hostilities at school, where they are struggling to protect their identities.