On a winter day eighteen months ago, Mohammed and his family, from Aleppo province, stood awkwardly in front of a makeshift outdoors photography studio set up at a refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.
Mohammed's wife held their grandson and the two stood behind four chairs - one each for their two daughters and two sons. One remained empty, representing their missing 21-year-old eldest, Reem.
She was separated from the family on her wedding night in 2013, when the region was being bombed by Syrian government forces; the family never knew what happened to her.
Their lips are pursed thinly as they pose next to a physical reminder of their loss.
The haunting series of photographs of refugee families by Italian Dario Mitidieri was part of a campaign by Cafod and creative agency M&C Saatchi which drew the world’s attention to the plight of Lebanon’s estimated 1.5 million refugees; families posed for portraits with spaces or empty chairs symbolising those killed, missing or still trapped in the war-torn country.
Mitidieri’s work won several awards, including a 2016 World Press Photo prize.
When Cafod returned to the area in June this year to check how the families were doing, the agency was met with a rare piece of good news: Reem had managed to track her family down by searching social media profiles.
“I am very happy. It had been four years that I didn’t know anything about her,” Mohammed said, eagerly showing photos on his picture phone of Reem, her husband and two young children in Turkey.
“When we found out about her and where she is we spent two days speaking on the phone.”
Reem is now trying to get a Turkish passport, which will allow her to visit her family, who are stranded in Lebanon in poverty sadly familiar in the tiny country of four million, where around one in four people are Syrian.
Spiralling residency costs, a lack of real work opportunities and a punishing cycle of debt mean that after six years of war next door, many refugees are losing hope.
Wary of how generations of Palestinians stayed in Lebanon after fleeing the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, when Syrians began to arrive in the country in earnest in 2013, the government refused to build official refugee camps in an effort to dissuade people from staying.
As a result, most Syrians live in rented, often substandard or abandoned accommodation in towns, cities and informal settlements in the agricultural Bekaa Valley.
“We feel here that we aren’t stable any more,” Mohammed said. “We are always afraid we might need to evacuate where we are living... Things are getting worse.”
While the struggles of Syrian refugees now rarely make headlines, their needs remain great.
“The situation is just stagnating or getting worse,” said Laura Ouseley, Cafod’s World News Officer.
“Mohammed’s story is a bittersweet one. It should be a reminder that even though these issues are out of the news, these people still need international help."
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