ISTANBUL, Turkey/BEIRUT, Lebanon —An ironing board stands in the corner of the room, behind a television set showing Spiderman with Arabic subtitles. A 17-year-old Syrian smokes shisha on the couch in his undershirt and socks; his next coal glows on the stove. Another young man meticulously wipes down the kitchen counter and places dishes on the drying rack with care.
This Istanbul apartment is home to 25 Syrian men, or perhaps more accurately, men and boys—the youngest is barely 16. Some work during daylight hours, others at night; it is never fully quiet or fully dark here. They learn to sleep with the noise and the light: three sets of bunk beds, six men to a room.
“We talk to each other more than we talk to our families,” says Salih, 22, from Deraa, of the other young men he lives with. “They’ve become like my brothers.” A year ago, he was smuggled out of his hometown through Aleppo to Istanbul. But his family back in Syria is never far from his thoughts. “I talk to my family every day, on WhatsApp, on Facebook,” he says, “We’re talking all day long; we never get sick of each other.”
Mueed, 19, who arrived about a month ago hasn’t yet found his community: “I can’t really talk to anyone because my friends aren’t here, I don’t know anyone well enough… I talk to my mother a lot on Whatsapp.”
These men belong to the group facing some of the largest obstacles when it comes to building a new life in a new country: single refugee men. Seen, on the one hand, as a security threat and, on the other, as able to work and therefore capable of relying on themselves, single refugee men often fall through the cracks when it comes to receiving aid, and they live isolated existences at high risk of exploitation.
Donald Trump, for example, stated in an interview last year that refugees were “young, strong men.” And even in refugee-friendly Canada, young men are widely seen as neither vulnerable nor in need of protection, and often as a threat. Late last year, reports flooded the internet that Canada would exclude single refugee men from its resettlement plan, unless they were gay. In the end the government Special Coordinator for Syrian Refugee Settlement for the Canadian government Deborah Tunis announced that while Canada “has made its priority helping the most vulnerable Syrians” and that “families, women, children and sexual minorities at risk take precedence,” single men would not be ineligible for resettlement there per se. Young refugee men have been at the center of the controversies in Europe around accepting refugees—most recently as a result of the New Year’s Eve fiasco in Cologne, Germany.Two young Afghan men moments after they arrived on a boat in Lesbos, Greece.
According to an assessment of the vulnerability of single refugee men in Lebanon published by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), “single Syrian refugee men in Lebanon are the group most likely to be perceived as posing a risk to host communities. This is driven by public sphere rhetoric that seeks to frame refugees as a security threat or source of criminality, and to use this characterization to justify measures that further constrict the protection space available to them.”
Receiving countries’ concerns are certainly understandable. In most societies, wherever they are in the world, men and women pose different social dangers. The crimes that will happen at the hands of refugees will be overwhelmingly committed by men (as all crimes are). And whatever terrorist activity emerges out of the refugee flows will be largely a male affair too—as all terrorist activity historically has been. If you want to minimize social pathologies, taking women instead of men is a good move. The trouble is that this larger trend does not mean that individual refugee men are less vulnerable or in need of protection than anyone else or that any individual man is likely to cause social or security problems. As is so often the case, the actions of a few individuals ruin things for the rest of a very large and quite vulnerable population. And as is also so often the case, there’s a difference between reading press accounts of aggregate behavior and spending time in an apartment with individuals.
When speaking about creating a space for refugee men to come together to talk about their experiences, Jocelyn Knight, Protection Coordinator with IRC says, “it can be hard to organize things like that because groups of men gathering together doesn’t always look innocuous.” In contrast, there are “centers where busloads of women and girls go everyday, but it doesn’t cause concern. If they were of a different profile [i.e. single men] it might raise eyebrows.”
Many young refugee men in Lebanon have internalized the way they are perceived.
“Unmarried men will avoid hanging around together because they believe it creates a negative impression among the local community,” Knight says.
According to the report, there is little documentation as to the vulnerability of Syrian refugee men, so there is a perception that they don’t face any. One consequence is that this leads to “generalizations about the vulnerability of women and children, which can undermine genuine efforts to support and empower those groups.” And furthermore, it means that the vulnerabilities of refugee men are poorly understood and therefore remain unaddressed.
Refugee men are often perceived as not being in need of assistance and as capable of generating income, as well as supporting and protecting themselves.
However, the physical ability to work doesn’t guarantee a steady income. Like undocumented workers everywhere, these men can face exploitation in the form of withheld wages and abuse in the workplace but cannot go to the authorities because they are often living and working without proper legal status. Single men are less likely to be registered with UNHCR than the broader refugee population and are most often the targets of raids and arrests.A group of refugee men stand around a fire in the early morning in the makeshift settlement outside Moria Camp in Lesbos, Greece.
A man wraps himself in a blanket in the early morning in Moria on Lesbos, Greece.
A group of young Yazidi men from Mount Sinjar, Iraq on Lesbos, Greece.
The movement of refugee men is often restricted by the Lebanese government on the grounds that they are a security threat, a measure which greatly reduces their ability to generate income. Some men even report turning down jobs because of a reluctance to travel far from where they live. Checkpoints are particularly dangerous.
A 23-year-old refugee man, from Aarsal (North Bekaa) explained in the IRC report: “I am afraid to cross checkpoints because I tried once and I was detained for a week, insulted and beaten. I would rather die than cross any checkpoint and risk detention.” Restrictions on freedom of movement and men’s fear of being arrested in the public sphere has led to a spike in child labor as men increasingly remain indoors to avoid detection.
In some cases, refugee men have been duped into paying money by people pretending to be Lebanese officials.
Single refugee men often don’t receive aid. Fewer than one in ten of those surveyed by IRC reported receiving aid in the month prior to the survey. One in ten said he had been unable to find a safe place to sleep at least once in the previous month. For many, getting enough to eat is a challenge.
“I received a box of food, but it was all raw grains and I did not know how to prepare a meal with it so it was not useful for me,” said a 19-year-old single refugee man from Assoun/El Minieh Dennie, describing aid he’d received from a local organization. More than one in five refugee men surveyed in a new study by the International Rescue committee reported that they “sometimes,” “not very often,” or “never” had enough to eat at meals over the 30 days.
In the hostel in Istanbul, only three of the 25 men know how to cook. They buy food and cook collectively. Those who can’t are responsible for cleaning and other chores.
“In Syria, my mom would cook,” says Mueed. “I know how to make eggs and potatoes, so that’s what I make: egg and potato and more egg and potato.”
In Syria, as well as Iraq and Afghanistan where other young men come from, most of the young men belonged to tight family networks. In addition to not being used to cooking for themselves, for most it is very difficult to go without the emotional support their families once provided.
A 35-year-old refugee man, living in Baouchriye/El Meten (Mount Lebanon) explained: “I can only see [my family] maybe every six months. It is not enough, I miss them so much.”
As with all refugees, trust is a big issue, and many young refugee men report not having enough time to build up trust with new acquaintances. For men, this problem is particularly acute because—as everywhere, but particularly in patriarchal societies—talking about their feelings and need for emotional support is somewhat taboo.
A 21-year-old refugee man living in Fanar/El Meten (Mount Lebanon) said: “I spend most of my time working, so there is no opportunity to communicate with others and know if I can trust them.”
For some, this leads to a sense of hopelessness and to feeling like less of a man. A 28-year-old refugee man in El Meten/Baabdat (Mount Lebanon) illustrated this link well: “I am unemployed and at home most of the time, feeling useless, because I am powerless to stand up for my rights in front of the authorities when they treat me badly.”
“I don’t expect to get married,” is a common refrain among many young men I’ve met.
“I can do nothing. I have nothing. I am worth nothing. This makes me approximately zero,” said a 22-year-old refugee man, living in Fanar/El Meten (Mount Lebanon).
Having large numbers of frustrated young men rarely benefits the security of a country.
“Psychosocial and mental health can deteriorate if they’re not part of a social network of any kind,” according to the conclusions of the IRC report, and can lead to “heightened vulnerability to abuse and exploitation.”
That said, for some, this journey is also something of an adventure. I have met many young men along the way who are excited about what lies ahead for them.
There’s one other reason for host countries to take seriously the needs of single men and for the world community to stop seeing them as, first and foremost, a threat. That is that these things have a way of being a self-fulfilling prophesy. The sustained failure to address their needs could lead them, like frustrated despairing young men everywhere, to seek support with less savory groups who can offer a sense that they have a future, and perhaps more importantly, a sense that they belong. Those are the very groups that these men are currently fleeing.A young Afghan man in a tent in a makeshift settlement next to Moria camp on Lesbos, Greece