The pictures tell the story.
In the pages of school copybooks, kept at the Al-Jalil Children’s Centre in the Waivel Camp in Lebanon, children from Syria have sketched their memories of the conflict that has driven them out of their country.
Some of the drawings show friends and cousins that the Syrian children don’t see anymore, but other illustrations are more stark and unsettling. There’s the picture of an apartment block being bombed from above, orange flame jutting out of the roof.
There’s a drawing of a helicopter flying in the air and a tank on the ground, its turret firing.
The saddest is the scene where a helicopter drops bombs from above as an ambulance drives beneath it, attending to a man and a woman lying on the ground, bleeding. It’s only on closer inspection that you notice the yellow sun in the top left hand corner is crying.
Ali Taha, the executive director of the Al-Jalil Centre, leafs through the copybooks. “Here they are missing their playing together, here are swings, here they are sad for their sister and brother,” he says. “As you see here, the rockets were bombing the buildings…”
The Waivel Camp is a fascinating oddity. Located within the town of Baalbek, it was first established in 1950 and since then has been home to generations of refugees from Palestine. In all that time, as families have grown up alongside its cramped, dusty streets, the people there have remained Palestinian. It is a town-within-a-town, with its own entrance gate; it feels like you should hand over a passport as you pass through.
Walking through the maze of streets, it’s easy to imagine that almost 8,000 people who consider themselves Palestinian live here. What is even more remarkable is that in recent years the population of Waivel and its surroundings has actually doubled, due to another 8,000 Syrians arriving from across the border.
Ali says there have been some “tensions”, yet for the most part the Syrians have received a warm welcome from a population who know the refugee life.
For the children there are outdoor trips, counselling sessions, and monthly discussions with parents as to how their offspring are faring. The Al-Jalil centre was set up in 2007 and has now become a focal point in helping Syrian children, often traumatised by what they have seen, to restore some normality and fun to their lives.
The fun part is led by a stylishly dressed man called Ali Ibrahim, who leads Syrian children through games, including musical chairs. He’s a natural entertainer: Sunglasses worn in reverse on his neck, displaying powerful rhythm on the drums — a real all-rounder. He even coaches some of the underage football teams. “I know I’m having an impact on their lives,” he says.
His footballing inspirations are “Barcelona, Brazil, and Messi”. Already, the trophies are stacking up in the office.
Two bright-eyed Syrian children, a boy and a girl, have been here for two years. “We are very happy here,” they say. “We are getting along with everyone in the school.”
Yet life isn’t always simple around here.
The two children say: “We know Syria is all destroyed and no longer the same.” Ali Taha says he knows of one Syrian child who left a UN-funded school “for an economical reason”.
The Al-Jalil centre sent emails on his behalf but to no avail. “Last week, this kid was with two teenagers and they steal from a house of Lebanese families and the child is now in the jail,” Ali says. “Twelve years [old].”
He says that Syrians in Lebanon are now “in a dark scene”, living minute-to-minute.
“We expect to receive the displaced for two months or one month and this is the fourth year for them,” he explains. “The Syrian refugees — they paid the receipt of this war.”
That they have.
To the rear of the Waivel settlement there is a cemetery which, Ali explains, is now also home to 54 refugees from across the border.
Maybe in one way it’s apt that they have had to resort to living among the headstones, like ghosts in a foreign land.
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