Heartbreak and hope in a Syrian refugee camp
By Mohammed Fahad Al-Harthi
I visited a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley this week and was shocked to see tens of thousands of people living below the international poverty line in miserable and deteriorating conditions.
It is a nightmare seemingly without end as the people contend with hunger, disease and difficult weather conditions. Large numbers live in temporary tents completely dependent on international donations. Many have spent more than a year in the camp, which means children have lost a precious year of school.
Existence has been reduced to finding food for the day with no one trying to think too much of tomorrow. But for all this, there is a fighting spirit here, people will simply not surrender. Women have set up tents where they are spending time teaching children, while others have found temporary, low paid work on farms nearby.
There are still smiles and laughter. And importantly, there is faith, love and compassion. I was amazed to see couples from neighboring tents get married. The newlyweds then erect small tents close to those of their families. But as a consequence, there are many babies who are deprived of basic healthcare and nutrition.
It is tough to grow up here. Large numbers of children play together shouting and screaming at each other because there are no schools and daycare centers. Abdullah, a resident, said he was initially bothered by the noise. “Now we’ve adapted to the situation,” he told me. But the children have also formed strong bonds and share the little food they get.
It is here that one is confronted with what is really important in life. One of the women I met said: “We live in hope that we will go back to our homes in Syria. We have been following the news daily. We’re depressed, months have passed by and we’re still waiting.”
A woman working on a farm lost 36 relatives in the war. She fled with members of her family and does not know what happened to those left behind. She lives with her five children in a tent.
“They’re the most important thing in my life and the source of my happiness,” she said smiling. Her children attend a few classes, but it is not proper school. “If we go back to Syria they’ll be able to pursue their education,” she said hopefully.
The Bekaa area has many camps. More than one million Syrian refugees live in Lebanon. This makes up almost a quarter of Lebanon’s population. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) revealed recently that it registers about 2,500 new refugees daily. It is sad to see that children make up half of all refugees in the country.
The UNHCR has stated that the number of refugees could be even higher because many refuse to register with the UN. They are afraid they might be identified, resulting in the Syrian government punishing their relatives back home. So many rent out spaces on land owned by individuals where they set up their tents.
It is heartbreaking to see Arabs living in such tragic conditions. This is an example of what many Arab regimes will do to stay in power — even sacrificing the lives of hundreds of thousands of their own people. The International Criminal Court should surely record what is happening here and prosecute those responsible as war criminals.
Another travesty is that the aid for these displaced and desperate people is dwindling rapidly. Amnesty International said recently that the UN needs more than $1 billion to care for Syrian refugees. The UN has only received one fifth of the $4.2 billion it requested.
However, as the plight of the Syrians worsens, the seeds of retribution are being sowed. One of the lessons of history is that the people will eventually punish those who deprived them of their hopes and dreams.