The torturous wait for Lebanese migrants detained in Cyprus

Thirty men left irregularly to the neighboring island from Bibnine, Akkar, and are currently incarcerated there. Their families urged the Lebanese authorities to negotiate their return.

The torturous wait for Lebanese migrants detained in Cyprus

Fatmeh has been crying ever since her son Nour set sail for the neighboring island without warning her. (Credit: Mohammad Yassine)

“Please, come in!” said Doha al-Dali, 23, who has been married for nearly 10 years. Doha is a mother of four, with the youngest aged one and a half.

She welcomed us into her house, which lacked pieces of furniture, as she carried two plastic chairs in her modest dwelling in Bibnine, Akkar.

The apartment has no front door, its walls are dilapidated and wires hang everywhere. Apart from this vestibule where the young woman received us, there’s a large room with a thin mattress on the floor, apparently used as a bedroom for the whole family, mother-in-law and sisters-in-law included.

Doha is married to one of the 30 Bebnine residents currently behind bars in Cyprus for having entered the island irregularly in makeshift boats. These boats carry Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian migrants desperate to reach Europe and find a job.

This large village at the entrance to Akkar, in the far north of the country, is home to some 70,000 families, said its mukhtar Zaher al-Kassar.

Traditionally dependent on fishing, this population was hard hit by the 2019 economic crisis, especially by the rise in fuel prices which has eroded the meager profits fishermen in these small boats generate.

Doha’s husband, Hassan, 29, left one day seven months ago without telling his family, along with his brother Mohammad, 19. Both have been sentenced to two and a half years in prison in Cyprus and can rarely talk to their families due to the lack of money. The family has been left even more destitute since their departure.

“We have to pay a rent of $90 for this dilapidated house, not to mention the children’s expenses, while our main provider is no longer here,” said Hassan’s mother, Fadwa.

Alleys inhabited by fishermen and their families, all hard hit by the economic crisis and rising fuel prices. (Credit: Mohammad Yassine)

But why were these men sentenced to prison? Roula Kowaiza, whose husband Mohammad, 47, has been sentenced to five years in Cyprus’ prison, has an idea. She said, “After the death of his mother, whom he was unable to care for, he was desperate due to not being able to hospitalize his father, who was suffering from cancer.” She added that he managed to take the boat for free, as he offered his services to the smuggler, a Syrian national. “Once there, the immigrants were detained and several of them, encouraged by the real smuggler, said that my husband is their smuggler,” she said.

It’s often heard in Bibnine that the Lebanese are judged more harshly than Syrians or Palestinians in Cyprus. “The island has decided to take tougher measures against the Lebanese. If our sons had known, they would probably have refrained from taking the risk,” said Zaher al-Kassar.

L’Orient-Le Jour tried to contact the Cypriot authorities via their embassy in Beirut, but they declined to comment. However, a source familiar with the case said “Illegal entry into the island is not sufficient grounds for detention; there must probably be something else.”

“If they see in which conditions we live here, they’d stop taking us for smugglers who exploit the distress of others, and send us back these men who are fleeing the country because they can no longer support their families,” said Roula.

Still, she would rather see her husband by her side. “My father-in-law has just died, and we’ve spent our scarce financial resources in vain. When my husband found out, he banged his head against the wall. Today, my children and I live on occasional handouts,” she said.

‘He often threatened to leave, but I didn’t believe him’

In Bibnine, there’s hardly a street where people don’t mourn the absence of sons who tried to flee misery by taking to the sea in recent months. In a narrow pedestrian street, fishing nets placed in baskets in front of doorways bear witness to the main activity of its sons. The wind blew hard for several days and has kept the fishermen on the quayside.

“It smells good here!” the mukhtar said to one of the citizens. “Those are potatoes, mukhtar, not fish, there’s nothing else to eat these days,” replied the other.

The interior of a residence in Bibnine. (Credit: Mohammad Yassine)

Ilaa, 30, mother of three and nine months pregnant, welcomed us into a house as bare as any we’d visit in the village. Her husband Mahmoud al-Mechmechi, 30, sailed away three months ago without telling her, and she has heard very little from him ever since.

“He couldn’t make ends meet anymore, working for LL200,000 or LL300,000 a day (around $2 to $3). He was probably hoping to give us a better life, but now I’m giving birth alone, with a sick child,” she said.

Sajam, her sister-in-law, joined the conversation. “My husband finds himself supporting two families, and I damage my hands mending fishing nets,” she said, pointing to the marks on her palms. Her house, adjoining Ilaa’s, is in slightly better condition. They all pay rent in dollars.

Fatmeh al-Halawi does not dry her tears anymore. This widow and mother of 16 children held a photo of her son Nour and hesitated when asked about his age. “He’s 20, excuse me, I can’t think straight,” she said.

She recounted how, after the death of her husband, and the marriage of some of her children who could barely support their households, Nour, a bachelor, was left alone to support seven members of his family from his modest job on a fishing boat.

“Sometimes he could barely bring home a bread bundle. It’s not surprising that he ran away. He often threatened to leave, but I didn’t believe him,” she added.

Doha, holding her youngest child, carries photos of her husband and brother-in-law, both detained in Cyprus. (Credit: Mohammad Yassine)

Depressed even before departing

Extreme poverty, the crisis that has made life so difficult and the total absence of state development policies are at the root of these departures. Many of the families interviewed said that their sons who had immigrated irregularly were in a state of deep depression.

Like Hassan Rcheidi, 23, who suffers from a rare disease that alters his appearance, and dreamed of treatment and integration in Europe before finding himself behind bars in Cyprus, said his mother Salma.

“Many tried to immigrate legally, to Canada in particular, without success, but some reached Italy and Germany on makeshift boats, and settled there. This encouraged others to try their luck before things changed,” said Kassar.

In the streets of Bibnine, many young men looked idle, which showed the extent of unemployment. “I certainly wouldn’t want to end up in prison, but if I get the chance to leave, I won’t stay here a second,” said one of them.

In the living room of Nisrine, 40, whose husband Mounzer, also 40, has been in prison in Cyprus for eight months, a heated debate ensued. “He left without telling anyone, leaving us in charge of his children,” said his father.

While the men who left Bibnine were deeply depressed at not being able to feed their families, those who remain are no less so. Here, Fawaz's brother awaits his return. (Credit: Mohammad Yassine)

“You’re very harsh, these young people have no prospects. Do you expect them to just sit there and do nothing?” replied a neighbor.

Nisrine, for her part, stuck with her standpoint. “He knew I needed an operation, and he was suffering because he couldn’t afford to treat me. I just want him back,” she said.

A hint of escalation

Other wives got angrier. Rihab, the wife of Fawaz Jawhar, 41. “He left just as I was due to undertake an operation because I had a miscarriage,” she said, bursting into tears. “If he had asked my opinion, I would have held him back,” added the woman who had to move with her three daughters to her in-laws.

Mohammad's daughters are impatient with their father's absence, while their mother Hasnaa has to do small farming jobs to feed them. (Credit: Mohammad Yassine)

All these women, without education or employment, find themselves in difficult situations after the unexpected departure of their husbands. Since the imprisonment of her husband Mohammad, 33, Hasnaa Boustany, 30, mother of seven children (one of whom is five months old), has been forced to make bundles of mloukhieh leaves for LL20,000 each (around 20 cents), to feed her offspring. “My children ask for their father and I don’t know what to say. We’re crammed into a single room at the mercy of the weather, humidity and heat,” she said.

For all these families, there is only one hope: The promise caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati made following his meeting with Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides on May 2. “The prime minister told us that he had discussed our sons’ case with the Cypriot official, and promised us a response within 10 days,” said the mukhtar.

Our attempts to obtain a reply from the prime minister’s office have been unsuccessful.

Among the families, the desire to escalate is clear. “If we don’t get an answer from the authorities, we won’t get out of the street,” said Roula. “They have to come back, even if it means serving a prison sentence here. At least they’ll be close to us,” added Nisrine.

This article was originally published in L'Orient-Le Jour. Edited by Yara Malka.

“Please, come in!” said Doha al-Dali, 23, who has been married for nearly 10 years. Doha is a mother of four, with the youngest aged one and a half.She welcomed us into her house, which lacked pieces of furniture, as she carried two plastic chairs in her modest dwelling in Bibnine, Akkar.The apartment has no front door, its walls are dilapidated and wires hang everywhere. Apart from this...