As War Drags On, Syrian Refugees In Lebanon Sink Into Debt Trap : Parallels Barred from legal work in Lebanon, Syrian refugees are accumulating huge debts as they struggle to pay for rent and other necessities.
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As War Drags On, Syrian Refugees In Lebanon Sink Into Debt Trap

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As War Drags On, Syrian Refugees In Lebanon Sink Into Debt Trap

As War Drags On, Syrian Refugees In Lebanon Sink Into Debt Trap

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And we're looking from the fallout from another war in Syria. The civil war there has caused many, many people to flee their homes. Many have been living for years as refugees outside of Syria and by now, they have started to run out of money. They're cutting back their spending even on food for their families. And if that is not hard enough, many are trapped in debt. NPR's Alice Fordham reports from Lebanon.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Here's something we see a lot in Lebanon, a construction site where every laborer slapping cement onto cinderblock is a Syrian refugee working illegally. The guys take a break to smoke and tell me they owe money, of course.

RADWAN MAHMOUD: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: Many people do, says Radwan Mahmoud, especially in the winter when we can't get work on farms. He's supporting 12 of his family. He'll make 16 bucks today, and he doesn't get many days' work.

MAHMOUD: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: He buys food on credit. He's four months behind on rent. The other guys chime in, all in similar situations. They see no way out. They go back to work. At the U.N.'s refugee agency, I meet Dana Sleiman.

DANA SLEIMAN: So we run vulnerability assessments every year with our partners, and the most recent one found that 90 percent of the more than 1 million refugees in Lebanon are in deepening debt. And they're not able to pull themselves out of this debt.

FORDHAM: The average debt of each family is about $850. There aren't refugee camps in Lebanon because the government doesn't want to encourage them to stay, so most pay rent.

SLEIMAN: And that's not something they can afford, so they start to accumulate debt.

FORDHAM: And they're trapped by that debt because they can't legally work.

Here in the little town of Bar Elias, residents are outnumbered by refugees living in tents and shabby houses with their animals. You can see how the debt builds up.

ABDULLAH ALI EL-ALI: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: We're in the store of Lebanese grocer Abdullah Ali el-Ali.

EL-ALI: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: Syrians come in and they ask me to be patient until they can pay, he tells me. He says it's got worse since the U.N. made deep cuts in food aid.

EL-ALI: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: Sometimes it gets awkward, he says, when people come in and say I need two packs of bread on credit just for the children. He will often do it even when they already owe hundreds of dollars. People tell me similar stories of patient landlords, winter clothes bought in tiny installments. I talked to Younes Shereedeh, a Syrian refugee, middle-aged, who's a little shy to talk about more than $500 he owes the grocer. Back home, he used to run a mini-market much like this one.

YOUNES SHEREEDEH: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: No, I had no idea I'd be asking for credit like this, he says, looking away. He'd never have let someone run up a debt as big as his. It's a lot of money. Alice Fordham, NPR News.

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