Scales for Justice

Working towards peace and reconciliation



Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

 

Background

 In March 2011 the Syrian civil war started between as a new chapter of the long series of the “Arab spring”. However, the war was not framed only between government and opposition groups, but was later hijacked by Islamic extremists who grabbed the opportunity to establish their power on Syrian lands. These groups known as the Islamic state or ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) forced sharia law in some Syrian cities and established severe punishments for those who did not follow the new regime, with death as a penalty in most of the cases.

Distribution of the Syrian refugees along the different districts in Lebanon as of 31 January 2015 - Source: UNHCR

Taking together, these circumstances pushed a very high number of the Syrian population to move out of their country as refugees, and seek shelter in countries that touch their borders such as Lebanon, Turkey as well as Jordan and Iraq. Until today More than 3 million people, most of them women and children, have fled the Syrian Arab Republic and neighboring countries. In particular Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq have borne the primary responsibility for hosting one of the largest exoduses in recent history. A further 6.5 million people are internally displaced. An estimated 10.8 million are in need of humanitarian assistance inside the Syrian Arab Republic, with 4.6 million living under siege or in hard-to-access areas (see report by the UN commission of inquiry on Syria, February 2015

UNHCR statistics from January 2015 show that 1.4 million Syrian refugees are dispatched all over the Lebanese cities, without the number of refugees that are living there without any notice. Such number is extremely high in a country where the total population is around 4 million citizens.

The Syrian refugees are either living under tents in agriculture fields or in apartments, depending on their financial situation. The table on the left established by the UNHCR shows the distribution of those refugees in Lebanon. “Lebanon hosts the highest concentration of refugees in recent history. We cannot let it shoulder this burden alone”, said António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees in April 2014. 

 Scales for Justice (S4J) visit to Lebanon

 S4J strongly believes that advocacy and practical help have to go hand in hand to make a real difference on the ground. In order to decifer the needs and prepare  practical actions S4J therefore decided to gain a first hand impression by visiting the refugee camps and deciphering their urgent needs.  The visit took place during a trip to Lebanon in December 2014. S4J therefore visited some camps located in the Bekaa valley, one of the highest refugee-condensed Lebanese districts.  

From Beirut to the camps

On the way from Beirut Rafic Hariri International airport to the Bekaa valley, the Lebanese army established many checkpoints to avoid car bombs and more chaos. On the other hand, the Beirut-Damascus international road was cut off by the parents of some Lebanese soldiers kidnapped by ISIS, while trying to defend the Lebanese borders against the invading attempts.  The parents were desperately trying to convince the Lebanese government to further a useful solution to determine the fate of their children and save them from a certain decapitation.

In the Bekaa valley, refugees are everywhere: in agriculture fields of potatoes and onions, in old construction sites, in deserted houses… In Beirut, young children were begging for food, money, and maybe a smile or a nice word that was often not found, especially that the Lebanese people are suffering from the massive presence of the Syrians.

In the Bekaa Valley

While driving, the tents were visible from the car and they are divided into different camps according to families. Each family stays together and in many cases, the camps are called after the “Chief” or the most powerful man in the group. The camps we visited were located in Rayak, a small city in the valley. The night before was rainy, so mud was surrounding the tents and it was not possible to enter without solid and high boots. The Lord lands of the agriculture fields made a price range from 10,000 to 30,000 Lebanese liras per month and per tent. This is equivalent to 6-18 euros. Even though the requested amount is very low, some families are not able to provide it at the end of each month. On the other hand, this was the only way for Lebanese people to accept Syrian refugees on their lands, without being economically affected.  

 

In the camps

Clothes and heating

It was a cold season with many snowstorms. Tents were succumbing under the heavy weight of snow and fuel was never enough to keep the tents warm during that long winter. The heating system is fuel stoves, and there is usually one stove per tent. This year, two children died from low temperatures and lack of blankets. Many NGOs are providing blankets, clothes such as Jackets, hats, scarfs but also shoes and socks. The joy of those people is indescribable when they know that there are some new aids coming soon. All the families of one camp gather hours before the appointment with the NGOs to make sure that they will get what they desperately need. However, many kids were without jackets and their shoes were not warm at all. Their feet were dry due to cold and dust. 

Above: Refugees waiting and receiving clothes from active NGOs in Lebanon..

 

Food

After asking several families about their daily meal, their answer was always the same: potatoes, onions and thyme.  Pasta and rice are kept for special occasions as well as fruits and eggs. As for meat, big families do not eat it at all whereas some smaller families can afford it once per month. Juice, coffee, and other drinks are like a very far dream and many already forgot the taste. They usually drink tea by drying leaves from the herbs surrounding their tents, or just water. Kids also expressed what do they miss eating: chocolate and chips. “ It has been so long that I didn’t eat chocolate! Do you have one?” asked a 9 years old boy.

 

On a sunny day, a group of Lebanese people gathered to cook for these families some lunch food. They made beans and potatoes with rice and meat, a typical and delicious Lebanese meal, and most of all, very healthy. Every family came with the biggest plate they have to get a portion big enough for all the family members. Many Lebanese think about the Syrian refugees when they want to get rid of some clothes or they have some leftovers from big events to give them. Some Syrian families can afford to live in a house and to continue the business they had back in Syria, which is mainly cooking. Therefore, in many weddings , Syrian refugees provide food, which costs much less than a Lebanese catering.  However, this fact is creating a wave of anger within the Lebanese restaurants that are loosing customers and money each and every day.

Above: Lebanese people volunteering to serve food for the Refugees in their camps

 

Education and work

Children are working under the legal age with no education for some of them due to the lack of parental guidance or to the saturation of Lebanese public schools. They make up half the Syrian refugee population in Lebanon. The number of school-aged children is now over 400,000, eclipsing the number of Lebanese children in public schools. These schools have opened their doors to over 100,000 refugees, yet the ability to accept more is severely limited”, as the UNHCR reported.

 

 


Hamza is a 6 years old boy who lives in a tent together with his family. He has kidney problems and already had 5 surgeries but is still in pain. He doesn’t go to school because his parents cannot afford it.

 

“When my parents want to punish me, they hit me on my kidneys so I feel the pain and stop being naughty but one day I want to be a doctor and help all the kids that suffer from pain”.

 

Hany is an 11 years old boy that never had the chance to go to school and still doesn’t know how to read nor write, not even his own name.  

 

“I know that I don’t know how to read and write but I want to learn and one day I want to be a pilot and go around the world”.

 

And at the end of our visit, he came to us with tears in his eyes and said “Thank you because you thought of us, you are very good people, I wish everyone was like that and I hope to see you soon”.


Some of the children do not go to school because of the financial situation and the health of the father that is very old to go and fetch for a job.

“When Lebanese people see me on the street, all old and grumpy, they do not choose me to go for construction fields to help. They say I am too old to carry stones and I will slow them down” said an old man of 65 years old. And when we asked about the alternative solution, he replied “My son who is 12 years old goes sometimes to work for a day and comes back with money so we can survive. I know it is not the way it should be, but what can I do? Should we starve? I cannot provide security and food for my family… I am useless,” he said with tears in his eyes.


Ahlam is a 14 years old girl who is not going the to school as she used to, back in Syria. Instead of getting a proper education, she goes to agriculture fields and works with other girls from sunset to sunrise, harvesting potatoes and onions.  

They treat us very bad there, our boss beats us if we take a minute of break. I really hate it and I wish that someone can erase those awful memories from my mind and I can go back to school as I used to in Syria”. 

 While crying, she continued: “ I want to sleep well and eat well, I want to be respected and not beaten every day so that at the end, they come to take my money and I cannot even eat when I am hungry. It hurts. I want to have my old life back. Please help me, don’t leave and never come back.”

Birth rate

Among five women we spoke to, three were pregnant. The reproduction and birth rate are very high and unfavorable for the conditions they are living in. More than a million of children are among the 2.2 million Syrians that fled their country. According to the refugee council in Lebanon, 24 children are born every day among the Syrian refugees from March 2011 till September 2014.

 The big problem is that thousands of Syrian infants born to refugee parents are now stateless. Their births are unregistered and will pose many difficult challenges in this long-term conflict. The exact numbers are far from certain. A recent report by the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, suggests that 75 percent of Syrians born in Lebanon since 2011 have not been properly registered. Many families don't have any identification documents, which were destroyed in the fighting or left behind in a panicked escape.

And about the reason behind the continuous pregnancy, women said that the more they have children, the more they get help from NGOs. In this case they register their children as born, but the child does not have an ID or any other papers. This is a big issue specially that underage forced marriage is very common in these camps as a way to keep good relationship between families of the bride and groom, but also to unload the burden of one more child by letting him have his own aids as another independent family.

OUR Role in This conflict

 As individuals and groups we do have a role to play in every situation of war and injustice, even across seas. It starts from caring about people who suffer, even if we do not feel the pain itself. People need to feel that someone is caring about them, about their daily fear, and that their suffering does not go unnoticed. Yes, there are people sleeping without food, who wake up on the sound of bombs, that do not have electricity nor water, who cannot attend schools and universities, who lost their mother, father, child, brother, sister, best friend, house, arm, leg… There are tortured people punished with electric chairs and beaten to death with electric wires, loosing their limbs just to fulfill the desires of their superiors and to be “a lesson” for those who do not “obey”… Yes it does exist! And our attitude can play a big role in this chaos. 

What can be done ?

Facing the reality on the ground is not easy. It is not about Syria alone. It is about Syria and Lebanon and Iraq and Pakistan and Nigeria and many others. It is about all those people who are suffering since decades from the same problems without any sensed clearance. If it is not happening in our countries, this doesn’t mean it is not happening elsewhere.  

As S4J team, we do believe that we have a role to play in the Syrian conflict at the humanitarian level and we are concerned about the refugees’ survival and fate. War started four years ago, many NGOs are very active on the field in Syria and Lebanon but it is never enough. Every year, the number of people in need is increasing and aidsis always welcome.

We may not be able to change the political situation or to stop the war but we can do our small little share to other human being to pass this difficult phase without loosing hope and strength: hope that it will be all right and humanity is not lost yet, and strength to survive this hell that he didn’t choose but was implied on him. A game is going on, gamers are making their moves, but with every move a price should be paid. Right now, the price is paid by those people, Syrians, Lebanese, Iraqis, Pakistanis…

What you can do !

  • You can express yourself on social medias by joining groups that are fighting against injustice, and getting involved in their activities. If you do not have the time or the experience, you can simply share their posts so that someone else knows what is going around.
  • Donations, even a small amount can make a real difference.  Did you know that 1-euro will buy a bag of Lebanese bread, which is sufficient for a family of 5 members to survive for 2 days? 
  • Participate in manifestations that your school or university or city organizes instead of ignoring because “it does not concern me”.
  • Talk around you, with your friends, with your family and always remind yourself that IT IS NOT NORMAL. Do not get used to violence or war in the Middle East.

If we all stand together and fight against violence and injustice, our voices will be heard. When our politicians feel that they lost the support of their people on this case, they will reconsider their actions because we are the reason behind their posts and we are their point of strength.

Remember, it is not how it should be.

Together we CAN make a difference!

 

Written by: Sarah Al-Haddad

 

 

 

 

 

 

Take the test - Syrian Journey: Choose your own escape route

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-32057601