The Syrian Embassy in Lebanon: A Kafkaesque Nightmare

Thursday 16 March 201703:32 pm
“All the officials papers, seals, stamps, and certificates [we have to get] are no big deal; they can be easily obtained. All but the Syrian embassy’s—that is the one certificate that requires more effort, time, and money than all the others combined.” This is how Nabih (28), who preferred not to mention his full name, begins his narrative of the difficulties of living as a Syrian student in Lebanon—through the yearly renewal of his residency card. At the beginning of 2015, a decision was made stipulating that Syrians could obtain official residency papers either through a Lebanese sponsor, through a leasing contract, or as a student, in addition to other means. Previously, they had been allowed to remain in Lebanon using the entry permits they received at the security points on the border crossings. Renewing these permits required visiting the embassy. [h2]Over a Million People in One Place[/h2] Nabih’s is not an exceptional case. At the end of the past year, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) issued a report citing the number of Syrian refugees registered in Lebanon at 1,011,366, in addition to an estimated 400,000 unregistered Syrians. Every one of these must consult the Syrian embassy for different transactions, from certifying their paper to registering for marriage, and from postponing their military service to issuing and extending their passports. As though their lives as refugees were not difficult enough, the daily obstacles only multiplied in regards to their legal affairs and their urgent transactions in the embassy, which has failed to meet an adequate minimum of its duties toward its citizens. It is customary for Syrians to wait hours on end outside the embassy in the cold, wasting countless precious hours for a seal or a signature, often for a costly fee, despite their urgent need for it. [h2]Hours Upon Hours of Waiting[/h2] Nabih lists the papers he needs to obtain a residency permit. “A university statement that is stamped by the Lebanese ministries of education and foreign affairs and the Syrian embassy, proof of housing, a pledge of non-employment from the notary, receipts for the payment of college tuition, and a bank statement indicating a source of income.” Each paper equates to thirty minutes waiting time, and a sum ranging between approximately $0.65 to $24. That is, with the exception of the Syrian embassy’s seal on the Lebanese foreign ministry stamp. That alone requires hours upon hours of waiting, and a $25 sum imposed as the fee for each document. This does not take into account the costs of transport to the embassy, which is located about 14 kilometers southeast of Beirut, in the Yarze village. Nabih acknowledges the need for the majority of the paperwork, but questions the purpose of adding the Syrian embassy’s seal on a document issued by and intended for Lebanese authorities. “Having to go to the Syrian embassy to review any matter is truly a burden that mentally drains me for weeks before I have to go,” he says, noting that no amount of verbal explanation can do justice to the situation. One must experience the suffering of hundreds of Syrians daily in their representative authority in order to truly understand it. The number of employees at the embassy is ill-suited to handle the visitors, compounded by their poor performance and the lack of organization in the work and timings for the reviews, in light of the millions of Syrians living in Lebanon. Further, the standard of services offered is not commensurate with the amount of income that the embassy secures through fees and stamps. A simple calculation based on the observations of auditors in the embassy indicates that one hour of work at the certification window yields an average of $1,000, while the passport window yields over $2,400 per hour, on average. [h2]The Journey into the Embassy[/h2] Nabih has attempted to make use of the new system that was activated on the embassy’s website, allowing people to book an appointment for a transaction at the embassy.
On the day of the appointment, thinking that booking an appointment would expedite the process, he reached a crossroad close to the embassy. The taxi dropped him off there, refusing to take him any further. Recent security procedures had effectively banned cars from traveling past the crossroad, particularly due to the embassy’s proximity to the Lebanese Ministry of Defense. Nabih had to walk the rest of the way. He was stopped by a Lebanese officer at a barricade set up for pedestrians to check their identity papers. He continued walking to the entrance of the embassy, when he was stopped by another officer who ordered to wait in an abandoned area adjacent to the embassy, with no less than 170 other Syrian citizens awaiting their turn. The clock read 8:15 am, just 15 minutes from the appointment he had booked weeks earlier. However, he discovered that certifying papers does not require an appointment, in spite of the contradictory information offered by the embassy website. And so, he waited in line in the area adjacent to the embassy, until he was allowed into a new line formed at the entrance to the building at 10:15. He waited for 45 minutes there, handed in his cell phone to security, and entered the building. [h2]Inside the Embassy[/h2] The embassy building is in relatively good condition, with an acceptable level of cleanliness, with the exception of the toilets. There is a fair number of seats in the waiting area, and the building is heated, while the employees’ treatment of citizens is marginally better than in official circles inside Syria. Moreover, the frequency and openness of asking for bribes is quite low, compared to the case within Syria, where they are quite customary. This improvement has occurred over the past year. Yet, there is a noticeable difference in treatment if one of the employees deems a woman attractive, as well as the inevitable favoritism on different bases. There are those who jump lines without viable justification, while others have their papers stamped and signed in the section designated for embassy employees, exempting them from the customary procedures imposed on average visitors. [h2]The Final Stretch[/h2] Inside the embassy, a third line awaited Nabih, who stood in it for over two hours until he reached his window and submitted his university statement and payed the set fee. The statement was signed and stamped. All that remained was the consul’s signature. Nabih’s final wait came after the documents were gathered and sent to the consul for ratification. Nabih waited for an employee to come out with a pile of signed documents and call out the names of their owners. He waited for over two hours. At long last, he heard his name and received his document. “You have to see the looks on people’s faces as they leave the embassy six hours after arriving. It’s a mixture of exasperation and elation… you could clearly hear a multitude of angry mutterings,” Nabih says. He grins as he conjectures that every person who has walked into the embassy has spontaneously heard in their mind the theme music from a famous Syrian show called Spotlight, which satirizes the bureaucracy of Syrian government offices. “I came to the embassy at 8:15 am, 15 minutes before my appointment, and left shortly before 3:00 pm, just to get a seal, stamp, and signature,” he notes.
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