Huddled under Beirut’s concrete bridges and around street corners are thousands of Syrian men who have crossed the border in recent months in the hope of finding work as day laborers.
From 13-year-old schoolboys to limping elderly men, most of them represent impoverished families from Syria’s rural regions who are suffering the brunt of a deepening economic crisis as a 14-month-old revolt against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad drags on.
“We could barely buy a pack of bread. We’re suffering from hunger, so I had to come here and do whatever I can,” said Mohammed Mahou, 23, a father of three from an eastern farming town called al-Qamishli.
Syrians who once headed for day work in Aleppo and Damascus have found construction projects halted. Farmers like Mahou say they are unable to work their fields because the price of fertilizer has risen sharply and some areas are unsafe to farm.
Meanwhile, prices for basic food staples in Syria have nearly tripled, they said.
Mahou is willing to do anything — construction work, carrying heavy objects, painting — to earn money to send back home. However, these days, finding work is not easy.
“I have come to this same intersection for more than a week but it’s no use,” he said. “I haven’t gotten a single lira.”
The Lebanese capital has always drawn Syrian laborers, but the workers are now flooding in. Although there are no official figures, one humanitarian worker estimated that an additional 20,000 Syrians had been drawn to the capital, increasing competition for jobs and pushing down wages by as much as 50 percent. Now, they try to earn about US$10 or US$15 for a day’s work, though most are grateful for anything at all.
Most of the workers waiting outside used to be farmers. Dressed in torn, paint-splattered shirts and jeans coated with dirt, the men look as battered as they say they feel.
“We don’t even care about reform in Syria anymore,” said Hafez, a pale 25-year-old with a wiry red beard. “There was a point when we wanted those things, but not any more. Now we just want to go home.”
Hafez jumps out at cars that slow down and scope out the crowd of workers, hoping one of them is looking for a handyman, but he is out of luck. No one stops.
“We suffered the most from all of this. At home we have no fuel, we can’t afford to buy seeds to farm. We barely have water. No electricity. Nothing,” says Hafez, who is from a village in eastern Hasaka Province, where his family has a cotton farm.
Syrian workers now fill the crumbling alleys of Beirut’s poorer districts, where the smell of sewage hangs in the heat and one-room shacks are stuffed with mattresses and tiny stoves for cooking.
Workers are crammed into a tiny concrete apartment with anywhere from 10 to 20 other men. Rents are around US$150 a month, and rising.
“Sometimes we take turns sleeping, we pick different times. The ones who get to sleep at night pay more rent than the others,” Mahou said.