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Refugees in Lebanon Find Shelter Where They Can

On the side of the highway in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, Mohammed, a 14-year-old Syrian boy, sells baby chickens. Dyed neon, they wait in a cage for new owners. They are only 500 Lebanese Lira ($0.33), commonly purchased as gifts for young children.

Written by Alison Tahmizian Meuse Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

If Mohammed is lucky, they will sell out of chicks by dusk and he will take home half the earnings, roughly $20, to feed his family.

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“People yell at me from their cars. They curse and make fun of me,” he says. Back in Aleppo he was in school, but now he and his brothers must try and make a living since his father has not been able to find work.

Every fourth person in Lebanon is now a Syrian refugee. But its government, fearing a demographic shift, has not allowed for the establishment of designated refugee areas. Instead, Syrians are hidden in crowded apartments in urban centers, scattered along highways and living in sprawling unofficial “camps.” Mohammed says he feels like an alien in Lebanon and that even his fellow Syrians no longer trust one another.

Seeking Refuge Where They Find It

On the outskirts of the village of Yammouneh in the Beqaa, a family of four takes little shelter from the sun, under a bedsheet. Um Mohammed cries silently as she reminisces about her five married children back in Syria. She has not spoken to them for months. Her youngest son, Ahmed, is developmentally disabled and the couple is spending what little they have on his medication, which costs 50,000 Lira ($33) a month. Neither Ahmed, 13, nor his sister Fatima, 10, are in school.

The family stayed with relatives elsewhere in Beqaa during their first five months in Lebanon, but struck out on their own because, Um Mohammed said, “We did not want to burden them any longer.” Hospitality here has its limits.

“There is humanitarian aid from the parties. I will put you in touch with them,” a local farmer tells her teary husband, referring to charities operated by the Shiite movement Amal, and by Hezbollah.

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Living on the side of the road in a far-flung village, they are only four of the hundreds, or even thousands, of Syrian refugees who have no idea how to reach out for aid. “We heard about the U.N. registration and we want to do it, but we have no idea where to go,” Um Mohammed says.

Lebanon currently hosts over 700,000 registered Syrian refugees. One-third live here in the Beqaa, another one-third in the north, concentrated around Tripoli, and the rest are divided between Beirut, Mount Lebanon and the south. That number could easily surpass 1 million when considering that many people are still unregistered out of fear, pride or simply because they are unsure how.

The U.N. would like to register everyone. “The problem is, we don’t know where [the unregistered refugees] are,” a U.N. staffer tells Syria Deeply.

“Spillover” is often used to describe the impact of the Syrian crisis on Lebanon. But there is little understanding of the challenges local communities here face, and why there is so much tension between newcomers and long-term refugees.

“If the village once relied on one power generator, now they need another,” the U.N. staffer says. “The sewage system that used to suffice is now overflowing. Prostitution is rampant, and many families are breaking down, because the Lebanese husband will take a second Syrian wife, and the first wife takes the kids and leaves. There is only one police officer and so many towns, even in Sunni areas, are starting to enforce curfews [for Syrian workers],” said the staffer, whose task is to help mitigate the negative effects of population influx on struggling Lebanese communities.

“If we as the U.N. want to talk to a local mayor, first we have to give them something and help fix infrastructure. Turkey and Jordan have camps so it is easy to know where people are and help them directly. Here, people are scattered everywhere, and we must also deal with the needs of the local community.”

Um Muhammed sums it up: “Syrians have started to become afraid of each other.”

A Camp That’s Not a Camp

Near the Syrian border, a school that had been converted into a temporary shelter for refugees stands empty.

“They are living in the camp now,” the building’s caretaker says of the Syrian family that once found shelter there. Despite the official policy against camps, unofficial tent cities have been established.

The town of al-Marj in the Beqaa has ancient ties with Syria. Its inhabitants once had Syrian nationality. It is also a Sunni town in a largely Shiite area. According to a local farmer, its farmland has functioned like a camp for “more than a year.”

In the late summer heat, children are playing amid the rows of shelters built from wood and repurposed canvas ad banners. For the vast majority of the group, school is not an option.

Marwa, a smiling girl with brunette hair, should be entering her freshman year of high school this fall. Instead she is reviewing old photocopied textbooks and passing the time practicing drawing, her favorite hobby.

“I wish I could put her in school, but we cannot afford the fees,” says her mother. “It would cost 50,000 lira ($33) to register.”

Their neighbor Dalal, 22, says a missile destroyed her house back in Homs, and that she and her family were unable to salvage their Syrian ID cards. When they arrived in Lebanon, they made the journey by bus to the nearest U.N. center in Zahle intending to register, but were turned away for lack of proper identification.

Most of the families here receive vouchers from the U.N. each month to put towards groceries and other necessities, but it is not enough to cover the costs of education or a decent living space.

“When we first arrived here the owner didn’t ask for anything, but as soon as we started getting settled he told us we need to pay 400,000 lira (over $250) for the year,” Dalal says. Apartments in the area cost more than that each month, and there’s not much generosity from the locals. “No one gives us so much as a glass of water,” Dalal says.

Asked why they chose to live in al-Marj, the women gathered with her start to say that it’s because they’d heard it was a safe place.

“Let’s be honest,” says a tough middle-aged mother named Hamida. “It’s because they are Sunni like us, and we’re afraid!”

Hamida is elegant in a wrapped black scarf and dark eyeliner. She walks to her makeshift home, where she is growing potted mint, basil, parsley and peppers to use for cooking. She cries as she watches children play in the pathways between the tents. “Every day my husband goes to look for work to support our two kids,” she says. “Look what we’ve been reduced to.”

But Hamida and her husband are healthy. In a tent nearby, 42-year-old Haytham is bedridden, his hands and legs covered in antibacterial cream for third-degree burns. His brother’s tent caught fire 15 days earlier, and he jumped in to save his small niece. Unlike her uncle, five-year-old Shahed escaped with minimal burns. The U.N. does not cover the cost of medication for Haytham, who has three girls and a baby boy of his own.

In this makeshift camp, he’s a real hero. “Uncle Haytham is my favorite,” says Shahed, glued to his side.

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