Noel Baker travels to Lebanon, where as many as 1.5m Syrian refugees find themselves in limbo on the fourth anniversary of the outbreak of the conflict
SOME winters bite harder than others. On the fringes of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, there is at least one woman who is unlikely ever to forget the cold months just gone.
In the gloom of the rickety, handmade structure in which she lives with her young family, she outlines how the roof fell in, literally, when snow piled on top of it. How the water seeped in from underneath, up through the sand, and how the need for heat became so desperate that, as temperatures plunged to —10°C and no firewood could be found, they resorted to burning old clothes and shoes instead.
Syrian refugee women line the side of a road, waiting to depart to the tomato fields in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley,where they work.
Then she mentions her youngest child, a boy named Ali who is just six months old. And it is at this point you realise that the small hammock at the back of the shelter, tied to the flimsy beams of the roof and made out of sacks, is actually the boy’s cradle. And that he is lying snugly in the depths of the blankets stuffed into the sack, the blankets they didn’t have to sacrifice to the stove during those freezing nights.
Ali doesn’t take too kindly to being removed from his cosy resting place, but then not many people in this part of northern Lebanon are too happy with having been uprooted. This informal tented settlement (ITS) in the Bekaa Valley is just one in a country dealing with as many as 1.5m refugees who have fled the apparently unending chaos in neighbouring Syria. There is little immediate prospect of a safe return for any of them.
Many of the refugees have been here for years now, and they’re grateful to be alive, but being alive and living and are two different things.
Ali’s mother, who does not want to give her name but who arrived in Lebanon three years ago from the disintegrating city of Homs, says: “The situation here is a lot worse than what it was like in Syria. There we were self-sufficient. Here we had to sometimes send the kids to get firewood for the stove and if they can’t get firewood we don’t use the stove.”
Abu Ali, right, his wife Um Ali, centre, and his mother, left, stand in front of their shelter in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley. Um Ali will deliver their 12th child in the country where the family has taken refuge since fleeing the war in Syria two years ago. The Jabaa settlement where they live with 180 other refugees in 26 tents was set up on agricultural land that turns into sludge come the first rain.
They currently have wood stockpiled in the corner of their sack and tarpaulin home, and the worst of the winter has passed. “It was really difficult,” she says.
“I don’t know how we survived it.” Her hands are working hands, maws like small shovels, and she waves them through the air as she explains the battles to keep the snow and ice out of their fragile home. At one stage, Ali got what seems to have been a bad flu and had to go to hospital. The United Nations provided half the $200 (€190) fee, but paying the other half was a job in itself. Now she says the other children, with a 15-year-old the eldest, will just have to make do if they become ill.
The image of the family traipsing out into the inclement weather to fetch firewood has echoes of a medieval age.
They are living in a land of fleeces and woolly hats, DIY wiring, and the risk of their home falling around their ears. Back in Syria, they had a three-storey house, a car, a tractor, and some land for olive trees. The woman shakes her head. “I don’t really see a future.
“I just want to go back to Syria because the situation here is below zero.”
She hopes Ali, who might be suffering from malnourishment, will be alright. There is a small pendant hanging from his ad hoc cradle, a miniature version of the Quran. “To protect him,” his mother says.
She is not alone in feeling the pressure. In the same camp at Btedii, there is a small bungalow occupied by a refugee family. The woman of the house is Randa and, as she speaks, it is clear that something is wrong.
The strain shows on her face. Her tone is somewhere between embittered rant and desperate appeal.
It turns out she has more than one problem. Her house, which seems colder and less cosy than the tents dotted around the adjacent fields, costs her $150 a month, rent she cannot pay. In fact, it hasn’t been paid for seven months, and the landlady is now calling it in. Randa is also in debt to the local grocery shop, where she has been receiving some foodstuffs on credit. That is now coming to an end. And she owes money to friends and others who lent her cash when she needed it. She has problems with her teeth and needs to see a dentist. All this, and she is three months pregnant.
Sadly, the complications don’t end there, either. “She has been bleeding so she is worried she might have had a miscarriage,” explains Imad Aoun, Oxfam’s regional media adviser, who is acting as interpreter.
“They have told her she needs to go to a doctor to check it, but also she has a sack of water somewhere around that area so she is going to need to go to the doctor to see what the problem is, but she can’t because she can’t afford it.
“A lot of doctors here in Lebanon generally charge a lot of money.”
Randa’s husband has been looking for work but like many Syrian refugees, he has found it exceptionally difficult to secure any kind of regular labour.
Her children are staying with her grandmother in Beirut, who in turn is staying with her brother and his family in a two-bedroom unit. She is 35, but could pass for older. Her children will return home in a few days, and at this precise moment in this broad, cool valley, she seems the loneliest person in the world.
Since Syria began to collapse in on itself, many of its people have been piling across its borders, desperate for sanctuary. According to the European Commission, the Syrian war, which began four years ago this week, has prompted the largest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War.
Of the millions of people displaced, something like 1.5m of them have made it across the border into Lebanon. While figures can vary, it is undoubtedly the case that Lebanon is less well-equipped to take on a new population of this magnitude than other, larger states. It is already densely populated, with almost 5m people crammed into an area half the size of Wales.
In an Irish context, it is like the entire population living in half of Munster, only for the population of the North to then pay an unexpected visit.
One map indicating the locations of refugee settlements in Lebanon makes it look like the country has a bad dose of measles. Little red dots perforate the whole country.
From the bustling streets of Beirut, a glorious jumble of concrete where Syrian children act as shoeshine boys, asking for money, to the Mediterranean coast and all the way back to the mountains, the displaced are everywhere. When the conflict in Syria began, there was a view — wildly misplaced, as it turned out — that it would end relatively quickly. As the world now knows, that did not happen, and the emptying-out of pockets of Syria began in earnest, into Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and even North Africa, but more than anywhere else, into Lebanon.
Away from the sophisticated clatter of Beirut and on the mountainous drive to Btedii and surrounding areas, checkpoints appear with increasing regularity, manned by tooled-up soldiers keeping an eye on passing vehicles, often under the gaze of posters depicting some of their comrades who have been killed or kidnapped in recent years, including in a border skirmish with Isis last year.
According to Colm Byrne, humanitarian manager with Oxfam Ireland, Lebanon has performed a minor miracle to accommodate so many people at a time when it has its own issues to deal with.
Somehow, it has held together, and he likens this intriguing, generous country to jigsaw pieces thrown up into the air — “somehow they landed and stuck together”. But, as his Oxfam colleague, Imad, quips: “Then you don’t want to touch it.” After all, what if it fell apart?
The Arabic equivalent of Cartoon Network is on the TV set as the adults begin to crowd in, taking it in turns to spark up cigarettes. This is another refugee settlement in Bekaa, in the Shaat area. Here, the snow has melted on the mountain tops. Both men and women contribute loudly as the talk turns to the shortcomings of their situation and the likelihood of ever being able to return home. As the sunlight beams down outside, catching the clouds of cigarette smoke, some of those seated near the doorway appear almost holographic.
The copybook of a Syrian refugee child staying at the Waivel Camp in northern Lebanon.
Khalsa, a woman from Raqqa, takes the lead. She and her family have been here two years. She says that apart from the water system provided by Oxfam, they have received little support from NGOs. Her husband can only get work once every 10 days or so and people here are in debt to the local grocery store to the tune of $400 to $600 per family.
The water has been leaking in throughout the winter; sometimes it was so cold that they, too, had to resort to burning some of their belongings. They also had to burn nappies bought in the shops, the same stores they accuse of taking advantage of the food card system used by the refugees. There are allegations that they are overcharging or double charging for certain items, shrinking refugees’ buying capacity.
The children, not registered for school, have had skin rashes and are possibly malnourished, but seem in reasonably high spirits. Two of the boys have a play swordfight outside, using sticks, as the adults become increasingly animated about their circumstances.
As for the Raqqa of her homeland, Khalsa avoids referencing the situation. They have no contact with anyone there now.
Another man, from a different part of Syria, says the situation they faced as a family was overpowering, stuck in a crossfire between different factions. Someone else says they were in touch with another person who is still living in a conflict area. The message couldn’t be clearer. “They are telling us not to come back.” They know the stories from home, how women cannot move around freely, how everyone back there “feels like they are locked up”.
According to Khalsa: “There are two children [here] that remember Syria. They keep asking ‘when are we going back?’ I don’t know what to tell them. I only say I hope we will be able to go home soon.”
Under new rules in Lebanon, the tightening of border controls has brought changes to the way in which people can secure a residency card. One way to do it is to have a Lebanese sponsor who can provide assurances over an applicant’s financial status, but few people seem enamoured with this idea.
Firstly, few people know of anyone suitable. Secondly, there are stories about some sponsors striking deals with applicants, so they in turn are paid for being a sponsor in the first place. Finally, there is the fear that an applicant could be exploited by a sponsor, maybe relocated to another part of the country, or have to hand over scant pay to keep them onside. In any event, residency cards required to stay in the country have to be renewed every six months at $200 a go. All along the Bekaa Valley, many Syrians feel this is a heavy financial price to pay. As Colm Byrne points out, many of the refugees from across the border are well educated and middle class, and may have come here with access to money, but after three or four years, that is now running out, or gone.
He warns that, from now on, there could be a visible increase in the number of children begging, or of families using the “safety valve” of early marriage, in which a daughter is married off so as to alleviate the financial onus to provide for her. This, and any possible increase in the exploitation of vulnerable refugees, are bellwethers for longer-term problems that may follow.
Then there is the grinding uncertainty, the feeling of being in a state of stagnation: Children not going to school, adults unable to secure work, little prospect of resettlement overseas, even less chance of going home. There is the perpetual dread of being sent back against your will after being pulled over at a checkpoint. This has taken on an apocryphal tone: No one in the Shaat settlement seems to know anyone who has been sent back to Syria, but many people are sufficiently afraid of the prospect to limit the scope of their travel around the area. One old woman says: “They send them back to die in Syria.”
In some cases, there are local tensions. These are not necessarily with the local population, although there are hints of this in Shaat, but rather between families and clans living in some of the camps. This group in Shaat says they moved from their original location because of this localised friction.
“Sometimes we go out in the summer and sleep in the woods,” one man says, while another person claims that a resident was assaulted and that a tent caught fire, with the suggestion that the blaze may have been started intentionally. Sometimes, a person is selected to stay awake through the night to ensure everyone else is safe.
Figures provided by staff at the Oxfam office in Zahle, the largest city in this part of Lebanon, show that, in February, there were 1,370 cases involving 4,500 people who registered with the UN, with another 1,418 people scheduled for registration, which typically takes 11 days to complete. This shows the flow of refugees has eased, but then again, the border has effectively been closed since the start of the year.
“You will not see a big line at registration,” Yasmine, an Oxfam worker says, referring to the registration centre on the opposite side of the street in the town.
“There are still people coming but it’s small compared to what it used to be.”
On the map she shows how Bekaa Valley — home to 42% of Lebanese land and agricultural produce, is now also home to 35% of all refugees.
It is a vast corridor which runs parallel to the coast for virtually the entire length of the county. The valley floor is a putting green pressed against the sky, flanked on both sides by snow-fringed mountains. Driving north, the eastern range is part of the natural border between Syria and Lebanon.
While many refugees fleeing the chaos in Syria came through the main arterial routes, others would have slowly picked their way through the mountains, usually in summer, gaining entry by the back door. The problem for them is that they are still in the country unofficially, at a time when the borders have tightened up.
The unregistered, who may number as many as half a million, are living on their nerves. Given the proliferation of checkpoints, they are ever fearful of being stopped and questioned.
If they do not have valid residency permits, they worry they will be sent back. They all want to return home, but many know that they cannot.
Everyone seems to smoke in Lebanon, but few deal with cigarettes with the kind of flamboyance displayed by Riyiam, a seemingly indestructible woman who came from Syria on her own and who has now settled in Btedii. Her tent is a wonder, small and cosy with some incongruous furnishings, such as the Manchester City FC pillow case and matching sheets which line the walls.
Dead or alive
Between cigarettes, young children flock to her; she has become an auxiliary granny. “I have plenty of time on my hands,” she jokes. As for her age, she says bashfully: “I am over 50.” In all the time she has been in Bekaa, she has not seen her own children. “I don’t know if they are dead or alive.” she says.
Sitting beside her is Amina, who travelled here from Aleppo with her 11 children, her husband having passed away some years ago. They range in age from 13 to 25 and the eldest three are themselves married and are in tents nearby. She is luckier than most in one way: Some of her children had been working in Lebanon before the war started. They moved a few times within Syria once the conflict got under way but a year and a half ago the situation became so intolerable they left. She had heard from the children that had lived here that “life was better here”.
She misses her home but has found the people in Lebanon to be hospitable and helpful. Still, “it doesn’t feel like home,” she says.
Everyone has to do the best they can in the circumstances, and the level of resilience on show is remarkable, both here and elsewhere.
Marwan, a cheerful father of four, explains how his house in Homs began to crumble around him. “When I was there the house started to get hit,” he says, outlining how the family ended up living in one room due to repeated shelling. “I suspect that it has been wiped out.” Riyiam indicates that she was injured on her head when a wall collapsed at her home. “It still hurts,” she says.
Marwan used to work in construction in Syria and came here three years ago with his wife and children. Since then he has managed some days of agricultural work, which typically pays $1 an hour, but the “really intense” winter just gone meant fewer opportunities.
This is a common theme for men in all the settlements. He is still hopeful of returning but he includes a caveat. “I want to live in the Syria that was there before the war,” he says. “There was no other country that was able to provide for the children the way that it was before the war, but I’m doubtful it will ever happen again. I don’t think that is ever going to come back.
“There is now even tension between brothers; they don’t trust each other now.”
His children have not asked him about home, but he says he is actually happy that they are too young to remember what it was like before the conflict. “Even we as adults don’t know how to describe what is happening in Syria, even those living there don’t know what is happening, so it is hard to explain it to young kids.”
Shadi, 32, and his wife Samar, 34, try to warm themselves by the fire in an informal settlement in North Lebanon. They came from Aleppo and this is their third winter as refugees.
Degree of control
Naufal is the designated motorcyclist, with a wind-burnt face and leather jacket. He leads the visiting party out of the village of Budai and down a long and bumpy lane to a settlement where the residents have taken a degree of control over their lives.
The settlement here is similar to others in Bekaa, but the people here seem to have fine-tuned a system of committee work, supported by Oxfam, in which the refugees themselves have a big say in how their camp is designed and serviced. As the motorbike and the cars pull in they are waved on their way by two toddlers.
Inside, as in all the other settlements, the people are incredibly hospitable.
Turkish coffee is provided to visitors and the answers flow as people chip in from all angles. As they speak, a young boy puts a jelly on the floor in front of another toddler, urging her to crawl over for it, but it stays out of reach, no matter how much she pivots this way and that on her tummy.
The focal point for the committee is Ibrahim, who wears a keffiyeh across his face, which muffles his words a little. He says he is not the leader and does not want to be one, claiming: “We all feel responsible for each other.” The people here had direct input in relation to the design of the camp, where the water tanks and latrines would go, and accessing provisions.
However, he says, “there are still gaps”, even with the water vouchers for 1,000 litres per person per month available from Oxfam.
Three of the children are young. They need milk and nappies and they cannot afford to get all they need, he says. As in other settlements, the reduction in UN provisions from $30 a month to $19 has hit spending power. As he speaks the two light bulbs stapled to the roof ebb and flicker.
The motorbike is the only form of transport for the people here and one older woman says she walks an hour to the grocery shop once a month. Another resident, Khadija, 33, resplendent in matching blue dress and headscarf, says she can’t afford to go more than once a month to the shop anyway.
She has another reason for missing home, as back in Syria she was undergoing IVF treatment. Married 13 years, she says: “Everything that has happened, if I had a child it would have been better. I am just praying to God to give me a child.”
Young Syrian boys from an informal refugee settlement in Ghaza, in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley, sit between water tanks that supply the camp. The tented settlement was set up more than two years ago.
On arrival at the Chekaa settlement near Barsa, on the coast south of Tripoli, an elderly man with a creased nose and a red head scarf approaches. His brown shoes are too small for his feet, the heels poking out the back. In a tone more of resignation than anger, he says he doesn’t want to speak to anyone, that “we have talked a lot and no one has listened to us”. As he finishes this mini-tirade, he makes a gesture of washing his hands, presumably either claiming he is done, or maybe that others have washed their hands of him.
Luckily, the mood was lighter inside the main living room of a semi-concrete structure which is home to Mohammed, his wife and their seven children.
Mohammed, who is from Homs and one of seven brothers, almost all now living in Lebanon, jokes that his hair started to go grey because after the violence in Syria, the sounds of hunting rifles and fireworks here makes him jump.
“The situation got really bad — there was a lot of shelling nearby, gangsters were going in, arresting and killing people,” he says, as sweet tea known as ‘the head of the horse’ is passed to the visitors. A return home is unlikely. “It is completely impossible to go now,” he says, using his Samsung smartphone to illustrate.
He slides from one picture to the other, the same area in Homs city centre, the before-and-after shot. One image shows a vibrant and colourful place, full of people and cars, and the other depicts a post-apocalyptic deadzone, grey and pockmarked, a ghostly terrain.
Their own house was ultimately destroyed. People — he does not want to say who — came and smashed everything. His phone has photographs of the damage, seen on a brief and possibly unwise visit back home.
He points to the expensive tiling the family had placed in the kitchen, the way it had been finished just the way they wanted, only for it to become debris in a derelict house. “We have to get used to it, but when I first saw it I was devastated,” he says.
“A lot of the kids have been through a lot,” he continues. “They get a bit scared if they hear a lot of noise; they cry sometimes. The army came a few months ago to check for documents and the children were afraid.”
The issue of education is uppermost for everyone. The UN runs afterschool programmes from 2pm to 7pm during the week but families such as Mohammed’s are still hit with transport costs. In their case, the school is 20km away. The difficulties they face do not stop there, with the curriculum different to what the children were used to in Syria, as well as the unwanted attention of some classmates. “A lot of bullying is going on with Lebanese kids to the Syrian kids,” Imad translates, reflecting the words of the father as he gestures at a six-year-old with his hands in the pockets of his hoodie.
“The kids are scared too because the bus driver is really reckless.”
In a tent a few yards away sits Mashour, his blind eyes behind a pair of aviator shades. He has a degree in Arabic literature and had been working in a university “when the trouble started”. He was the family’s main breadwinner, representative of an educated, middle class from Syria forced to trade comfortable lives for refugee status. Now his independence has gone and his 17- year-old son must go out and earn whenever he can.
Mashour has applied for jobs teaching Arabic but has had no luck in securing one. In any case, he has problems closer to home.
“It is difficult for him to move around, even going to the bathroom,” his wife says. The rocky and sometimes slippy terrain here does him no favours. He has to be led to the kitchen, to the toilet, to the shower room.
As we speak, the septic tank is being emptied outside. The stench is all pervading. One of his daughters covers her nose with the tail of her headscarf. His wife issues tutting disapproval.
As the visiting party makes to leave, the old man with the creased nose looks up from underneath the olive tree where he was sitting in silence, smoking, and throws over a wave. “We have talked a lot and no one has listened to us,” are his words. As he resumes his cigarette, he could be forgiven for thinking, how many more years? How many more winters?
Noel Baker was in Lebanon as part of an Oxfam initiative. See www.OxfamIreland.org for more information.
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