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The noise is deafening. More than a dozen people sit in rows, eyes down, focused on the swathes of cloth they glide underneath the needles of their sewing machines. Dresses, work clothes, school uniforms, wholesale or made to order, they stitch them all inside this small workshop in Bourj Hammoud, a suburb of Beirut.
Beside a large whirring fan, spluttering as it struggles to keep temperatures bearable, sits Mohamed Saleh Ismail. An ethnic Kurd from Kobanî, a town on Syria’s northern border with Turkey, the 30-year-old has experienced some of the most intense fighting of the five-year-long civil war.
Mohamed fled to Lebanon two years ago when Kobanî became too dangerous. “I had no future in Syria,” he says. “There was no security. It might take 10 years for hope to return.”
But the journey to safety was fraught with risk as well. “I travelled by bus in a convoy, and the bus behind was attacked as we passed through Idlib,” he recalls, adding, “I never found out what happened to those on board.”
When he climbed on board his bus, Mohamed became one of 4.8 million Syrians driven from their homes, and one of 1.5 million who have landed in Lebanon. (Today, one in four residents of the city is a refugee.)
Life for Mohamed in Beirut has been harder than most. Propped up against the wall next to his sewing machine is his walking stick. Finding work is hard enough for Syrian refugees, but for those with disabilities it’s practically impossible.
“I wasn’t born with problems with my leg, but I contracted something when I was very young, maybe only two years old, which left me like this,” he explains. “One of my legs is paralysed below the knee. I need an operation but it’s not possible without money.”
Through our apprenticeship programme in Lebanon, the IRC has placed:
Syrian refugees with some 200 employers, including florists, bakers, butchers, tailors, hairdressers and mechanics.
The IRC provides direct assistance for people as they try to feed their families and find a safe place to live, and we work to improve livelihoods opportunities for long-term economic wellbeing.Read about our economic wellbeing work.
Mohamed initially linked up with friends within Beirut’s Kurdish community, but he realised he could not impose on them for long. “My friends just didn’t have the space to let me stay with them all the time, so I’ve had to sleep on the streets and under bridges, sometimes for a couple of months at a time.” He would rely on the kindness of strangers to eat during the day.
More than half of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in extreme poverty. About 70 percent lack legal status, few having enough money to renew residency permits. Mohamed is among them, but unlike many others, he hasn’t been detained for breaking any rules. He says police are sympathetic to him because of his disability.
“I used to know a lot of people in Beirut but they’ve all moved on to Europe,” he says. “My family all moved to Germany. They took the dinghy to Greece. My family wanted me to join them, but my disability means I can’t walk long distances.”
Fortunately, Mohamed has one staunch friend—the International Rescue Committee, which not only provided him an emergency payment of $200 so he could pay rent, but also placed him in its apprenticeship programme. The IRC persuades employers to train vulnerable Syrian refugees for three months by providing for their wages.
The IRC has placed more than 300 apprentices with some 200 employers, including florists, bakers, butchers, tailors, hairdressers and mechanics. Apprentices have even been placed with interior design companies and photography studios.
One major advantage of the IRC’s apprenticeship programme: each IRC employer is closely vetted and the rights of the apprentice clearly explained. The exploitation of Syrian refugees has become a growing concern.
“The apprenticeship was difficult at first, but I’m happy in this type of work because I can do it sitting down,” says Mohamed. “I’m proud that by learning a trade I can better rely on myself.”
Mohamed’s employer is also happy. He says his new worker can become a professional with a little more practice. And then, like a ray of sun in a troubled sky, this survivor will be able to support himself in his new life in Lebanon.
One in four people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. The IRC is providing employment support to help Syrians build a future far from their war-torn home and to assist struggling locals.
With 60 percent of refugees worldwide living in cities rather than camps, cash has proven to be an effective way to reach them faster and at lower cost. The International Rescue Committee recently released a report outlining how cash works as a short-term solution for the most vulnerable individuals, but a combination of long-term economic opportunities such as jobs and skills trainings are critical. Read our report.