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Downwardly mobile

Khaled Habib

From Hama, Syria

now in Kalamoun, Lebanon

Left Syria November 2011

Khaled Habib and his family live in a vacant lot, about an acre of fudge-thick brown mud, surrounded by a cinder-block wall, with an olive grove beyond that they use as their bathroom.

Maybe if they had a house, or even a roof, the Mediterranean Sea right across the road would be beautiful. But to them, on a rainy and windy day, its gray whitecaps are just another source of cold and worry.

Their only shelter is an old refrigerated truck trailer that the landowner, who is letting them live here for free, parked on the lot. It once carried Danish fish to market, but now it is home to 16 Syrians.

Habib’s mother, Fatima, is boiling seven sheep heads — donated by a local charity — in two pots over an open fire. She scoops the heads — eyeballs intact, teeth locked in a grotesque smile — into bowls.

“If we could die, it would be better than this,” she says, pulling her scarf tight against the spitting rain.

Like many Syrian refugees, the Habib family had some money when they crossed into Lebanon in November 2011. They expected the crisis to be resolved in a few weeks, maybe a few months.

But as they start their third year as refugees, the money is spent. They have joined thousands of other downwardly mobile Syrians who are finding that even in a refugee’s life, things can always get worse.

Habib, 26, is a jovial man, quick to laugh and make dark-humor jokes about the family’s situation. But his wife is pregnant with their first child. His family lives up to their ankles in mud. He is broke and afraid of the future.

If we could die, it would be better than this.

“We laugh,” he says. “But we laugh because we are desperate.”

Habib studied agriculture at a technical school back in Hama, and his family lived a comfortable life farming lentils and other vegetables. They had a five-bedroom house with a big yard.

“We were really happy,” Habib says.

When the fighting became so intense that they were afraid to step outside their house, they decided to flee. They crossed the border legally, with passports, and settled in the Akkar district in northern Lebanon.

A farmer allowed them to move into a small house he was building for his son, who was soon to get married. Then the son got married and the owner asked them to move on.

They heard about the al-Waha shopping complex, near Tripoli, an unfinished mall that has been abandoned by its owners and has become a five-level shelter for about 1,000 refugees.

They moved into one of the unfinished shops.

After a few months, a man showed up demanding that they pay $200 a month in rent. They had no idea whether the man actually owned the place. But their savings were dwindling and they could not afford the rent, so they moved to a smaller shop. The same thing happened, and they quickly found themselves forced out again.

A brother-in-law had found a day-labor job at a car dealership owned by a wealthy Palestinian man who had himself lived as a refugee. The Palestinian man told them about the vacant lot he owned.

He backed the old fish trailer onto the lot, and he gave the family a small Ford van so they could get around. He asked for no money in return.

“He’s been a refugee himself, so he knows what it is like,” Habib says.

Habib was married a few months ago, and his wife is now five months pregnant. He worries about what they will do when the baby comes.

“We need to get a proper place to live,” he says.

Does he have enough money to do that?

The answer is all around him.

“No,” he says.

Every day, about 3,000 Syrians leave the country.

Since you started reading, roughly ## Syrians have left the country.