Before Zahour al-Wais left her home in southern Syria six years ago, she put all of her most treasured possessions into a plastic bag and buried it under a tree in her family’s garden. The bag contained a diary full of notes about her daily activities and happiest memories; certificates of achievement given to her by teachers in school; and small gifts, like seashells, that she had traded back and forth with her friends. Once the bag was safely in the ground, Zahour and her parents and eight siblings crowded into a bus packed with as many of their possessions as they could fit and then headed toward the border with Lebanon.
Zahour was 15 at the time, and the war in Syria was still in its first year. The peaceful protests that began in March 2011 had been met with brutal repression by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and as the uprising spread and more and more people fell to the bullets of regime soldiers and snipers, the opposition started to arm. The spiraling conflict had not yet reached the town of Adra in the countryside of Damascus where Zahour and her family lived, but it was getting close. The sound of airplanes and fighting in the distance was ominous and frightening, and Zahour and her younger siblings asked their father if they could leave.
“Everyone around us was starting to flee. So we decided not to stay there and die, but to come here and live,” Zahour, now 21, says while leaning against a pillow in the tent she calls home in a makeshift refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.
By leaving Syria, Zahour and her family became part of a massive exodus. More than 5 million people—nearly a quarter of Syria’s prewar population—have fled the country since 2011, with the vast majority seeking refuge in neighboring or nearby countries. In many cases, people chose to flee to Lebanon simply because it was the closest safe haven. Now the country, which in 2010 had a population of 4.3 million people, is host to an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees—the largest per capita refugee population in the world. Most come from areas sympathetic to the opposition and were displaced by fighting and heavy bombing by the Syrian regime.
Initially, Lebanon did little to restrict the number of Syrians entering the country. Although the government didn’t make life easy for the refugees, it didn’t try to push them out. But as the crisis dragged on, the mood in the country shifted decisively against the refugees, and the already thin welcome mat began to fray. In January 2015, the Lebanese government introduced visa restrictions that prevented most Syrians fleeing the war from entering the country legally, and in May of that year it ordered the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to stop registering new cases, meaning that the UNHCR can no longer grant new arrivals status as refugees. Most ominous of all, Lebanese politicians have increasingly, and almost unanimously, begun saying that it’s time for Syrian refugees to go home.