GHAZZEH, Lebanon — Clutching Syrian drums and instruments made of spruce and walnut wood, 12 Syrian children filed nervously into a packed room in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley this week. None had been musicians before they fled Syria’s war, but after months of practice they were ready for their show.
The crowd of refugees stayed quiet as an Aleppo love song filled the air. But when it slipped from its verse to the chorus, suddenly a whole audience was singing.
“That’s it,” cried a woman from the front row, closing her eyes and smiling as she swayed. “I’m in Syria.”
None of the refugees had expected to stay away this long. As the tendrils of war crept through their homeland in 2011, the families crossing earliest into Lebanon thought they would return in weeks. Months at most. Instead the fighting swallowed everything, smashing homes, dividing communities, and turning those months from seasons into years.
As President Trump suspended the resettlement of Syrian refugees, many of the more than 1 million displaced to Lebanon have found their resources stretched to a breaking point.
“Life here is harder than we could ever have imagined,” said Om Ahmed, a widow from Aleppo, grabbing her son in a bear hug as he charged out of the performance room. “If you saw our tent, you wouldn’t believe we’d left Syria to give our boys a better life.”
According to a recent United Nations assessment, conditions for Lebanon’s refugees have deteriorated for a sixth year in a row. Ninety percent of households are taking out loans to afford basics necessities, leaving the average family to survive on less than two meals a day.
“When people first fled, they may have had some resources and were able to meet their needs,” said Niamh Murnaghan, Lebanon country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council. “As the crisis wore on, their money was used up.”
In the Bekaa Valley, a sweeping expanse near Syria’s western border, informal camps have become warrens of tents stacked on muddy ground. Many are kept neat as a pin, but no amount of care can save wooden boards from rotting or water from seeping through mattresses, blankets or anything else that touches the floor.
“Our children are starting to believe we were born like this, and this is how life is meant to be,” said Mounira Mohamed, 32, standing outside her tent in a small settlement near the town of Sadnayil. “They ask us about Syria as if it’s a place on the television.”
With a weak economy, a prewar population of just 4.5 million, and a history of accepting displaced Palestinians who later became a permanent fixture, Lebanon is ill-equipped and reluctant to offer long-term sanctuary to a new wave of refugees.
But as neighbor to one of the deadliest wars of the 21st century, it has found itself without a choice.
“If someone can tell me honestly that there will be security in my homeland, I would go back tomorrow,” Mohamed said. “I would go back faster than that.”
She left Aleppo the day a barrel bomb smashed through the family home, killing her sister outright and leaving three orphans in her care. Now 8 years old, the youngest boy recalls Syria only in the memory of his mother’s body in the rubble.
With limited opportunities to work, families can be heavily dependent on monthly cash payments from the U.N. refugee agency.
For Mohamed Ahmed, a 27-year-old former real estate agent from Syria’s western city of Homs, this has meant a downward spiral into debt.
“Every day I work to pay it off, but the children still need to eat. So we buy more vegetables on credit, take another loan for medical bills. And then there’s another thing to pay off,” he said, standing by the rack of cellphone chargers and bootleg Bruce Willis DVDs he now sells as one of two jobs.
Like many small businesses in the area, his shop allows the refugees to communicate daily with loved ones back home.
“These calls keep Syria alive for us,” said Mohamed, the mother from Aleppo, admitting that sometimes she did not know whether it was better to know or hide from what was happening to her relatives. “We worry about them and they worry about us. No one has mental peace here,” she said.
But everyday life also features memories of better times. In Sadnayil, a group of women stuffed pale-green zucchini with rice, bickering gently over whose recipe for the Syrian dish — known as mahshi — was the best. “This technique came from my mother,” one woman said with a shrug. “How can you argue with that?”
Relief groups are also bringing traditional music to camps and urban refugee communities, hoping that those they teach can someday earn a living through their new craft.
“Until early 2015, most of the people we worked with seemed to think this was temporary, that the regime would fall one day, and then they’d go back. But that didn’t happen,” said Basma el-Husseiny, director of the charity responsible for the children’s concert, Action for Hope.
“When they learn an instrument, they learn to stop feeling like victims. They’re not waiting for help, they are contributing,” she said.
As the performers darted around the organization’s kitchen after their show, many were still humming the tune to their final song.
“Did we sing this in Syria?” one girl asked a woman nearby. “Yes, love,” came the reply. “Yes we did.”