Jenny August 30, 2013

Yesterday, amidst all the uncertainty about a possible coming US-led strike on Syria, I went with my sweet (the best!) colleagues Alison and Alia to speak to people who are leaving Syria for Lebanon. Each week, thousands of people make the journey across the mountain range that separates the two countries.

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The number of Syrians in Lebanon today are somewhere between 1 and 1.5 million people – a quite staggering number in a country that’s so small you can easily drive from north to south in half a day (or, as they famously claim, “go skiing in the mountains and swimming in the sea in the same day”). UNHCR has 700,000 people registered as refugees, but many have not connected with the agency – some out of fear to give out their names, others because they don’t consider themselves refugees, yet others because of the bureaucracy and slowness (it takes many around two months from when they initially get in touch to when they receive help).

After talking to people on the road between Damascus and Beirut (find my report in Swedish here, or read what Alison wrote in English here), we stopped outside a small town close to the Masnaa border: el-Merj, where Alia and I went last summer to talk to refugees who had recently arrived (right after the bombing that killed the high-profile security officials in Damascus).

Back then, the families lived in a school that was closed for the summer. Shortly after we had been there, they had to move out as classes were about to start. The families, eventually some hundred of them, were shown to an area on the outskirts of the town where they could set up make-shift tents. This is where they have stayed since then. In Lebanon, the words “refugee” and, even more so, “refugee camp” are politically explosive, and even many people working with those coming from Syria refer to the refugees as “displaced”. Since groups of refugees in the past have been forced to flee their land to Lebanon and never return (notably the Palestinians, but also the Armenians), in the Lebanese context the topic inevitably has people ask “will they ever return or will they, too, stay in our small country?”.

Given this, and other reasons as well (like… there’s no government in Lebanon! and even when there is, it does politics in a terrible way), there have been no camps set up to house the refugees. Instead, the Syrian families are spread out across the country. Most live in the north or the Bekaa (1/3 in each of the two); the remaining 1/3 have settled down in Beirut, Mount Lebanon and the south. While some families have managed to find a room or even a small house to stay in, many live in very bad conditions in road-side tents, or are housed by Lebanese families.

It’s fair to say that the reception of the refugees has been, and remains to be, a mixed bag. Especially in the beginning, many Lebanese showed an admirable sense of generosity and hospitality towards the people who came. Families, often in rural and poor areas, opened their houses and shared whatever they had. Still, over two years into the conflict, this is the case in some parts of the country. But there are also many stories of Syrians who are experiencing hard times – not only in terms of difficult living conditions but also simply because they are Syrians. Most countries (every country?) have their own set of stereotypes and derogatory attitudes towards certain groups of “others”; in Lebanon one such group is the Syrians, the next-door neighbours with whom Lebanese share a long, common and pretty complicated political history. The topic can be spoken about in length and this is not the time (for those of you who speak Swedish thought, I just did a piece on it for the next issue of Amnesty Press), but I hope to come back to it in a blog post soon (the Lebanese Anti-Racism Movement do great work on this issue).

Meanwhile, here are some images from the “mukhayyam” in el-Merj (yes, people refer to it as a “camp”). Inhabited by people who said they most of all share one wish: to get back to their normal, everyday life.

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Red peppers drying in the sun. For making mouneh, the traditional way of storing food for the winter in Lebanon and Syria.

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The worse thing, one woman said, is the heat. At this time of the year, the Bekaa Valley can be unbearably hot. Some people had a fan inside their tents, but in cramped conditions, one fan is of little help.

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Habibi! Hamoudi is one of over 350 000 children registered with UNHCR in Lebanon (the total number of Syrian kids in the country is much higher, taking into account those who are not registered).

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A woman from Homs outside her home in el-Merj. Like many families in the camp, she keeps plastic buckets with herbs used in Syrian/Lebanese cooking: coriander, parsley, mint. And some lovely basil!

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Baby Ahmed, one month, with two of his sisters.

The families in this “camp” pay rent to stay on the land. Some said they pay 300 000 Lebanese pounds monthly, others 400 000. Housing costs have gone up a lot in Lebanon lately, not only in attractive areas like central parts of Beirut, but also in smaller towns and cities. For the refugees, finding a way to pay for housing is extremely difficult. The families in this location all said they got assistance from UNHCR, which helps them get by.

Alia and Alison.