When Mariam al-Khawli set herself on fire Tuesday in Tripoli in protest against UNHCR’s decision to cut aid to Syrian families with a male breadwinner, she restarted the debate about how much neighboring countries via global aid organizations owe Syrian refugees.
Mariam’s neighbors rushed her to the city’s al-Salam Hospital, where she remains. But her actions have forced the plight of refugees in neighboring countries back into the international spotlight.
Her family says Mariam escaped Homs to the northern Lebanese border city of Tripoli recently with her four children, only to find conditions so harsh that some Syrians were choosing to return home.
The situation of Mariam and her family is similar to that of other refugees. Thousands now reside in northern Lebanon in worsening poverty, telling stories of being let go without being paid due to a lack of accountability and the absence of a labor law that protects them.
Female refugees in Tripoli repeatedly say they are harassed by the Lebanese, and thousands of refugee children have become laborers, often selling gum or other small items by the side of the road. Many live in apartments or shops that lack the most basic sanitation requirements, and men are often day laborers, receiving an average of 10,000 Lebanese pounds ($6.50) per day.
Mariam is not the first Syrian refugee to self-immolate, though the manner in which she did, in front of Tripoli’s UN agency office, has made her a lightning rod. Months before, another refugee set himself on fire in a makeshift camp in the Bekaa Valley, protesting food aid shortages.
Doctor Gabriel al-Sabe’, the coroner who examined Marian, says that she had second-degree burns over 75 percent of her body and third-degree burns over much of the rest.
The day after the incident, Mariam’s husband says that “the reason she threw herself into the fire was because the UNHCR stopped providing Syrian refugees with in-kind aid as well as food aid, claiming that some refugees do not meet the set conditions” to receive aid.
One of the new conditions set by the UNHCR states “that a family [eligible for aid] must not have a male provider capable of working and earning an income.”
Like many others, Mariam’s husband is able-bodied and capable of work, but cannot find a job in an already-poor border city that, flooded with thousands of Syrian refugees, now has high unemployment rates.
He says the family had no money at all, and the four children were going hungry. Mariam often visited the UNCHR offices, located in the al-Maarad area, a wealthy part of town where most of Tripoli’s politicians live. There, she repeatedly tried to plead her case, but to no avail.
Her husband says that hardship broke her. Living in two small rooms in an apartment near the poor Bab al-Hadeed neighborhood, he recalls the last months of their life together: unable to feed their children and the feeling that they were a family without a real life or a future.
With the new regulation, “UNHCR stopped giving [us our] aid,” he says, adding that “the refugee card we had, which allowed us to receive in-kind assistance and food aid as well as $50 per person, had been cancelled.”
Mariam and her husband stood for hours in the rain or beating sun in what refugees here have dubbed the “queues of humiliation” in hopes of receiving an explanation from aid officials as to why their refugee aid card had been cancelled.
A UNHCR source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says that “the rations and aid, which include food and clothing, only benefit those who don’t have a provider, mainly women, children and people with special needs.” He says that “Mariam’s husband can work and therefore he is able to make money to support [his family]” and that “the large number [of refugees] has forced the organization to set these conditions to monitor the distribution of aid and to ensure it gets to those who need it.”
A Transterra Media correspondent reported from Tripoli and Karen Leigh from Istanbul.