Exhausted endurance - Syrian refugees in Lebanon

Rob Henderson first visited Lebanon in 2013 amid rumblings that the country, already playing host to half a million Syrian refugees, was at bursting point. Despite the hard realities of daily life, Rob still managed to find stories of hope. However, when he returned to Lebanon a year later on secondment, that hope was greatly eroded.

By Rob Henderson, Public Affairs & Advocacy Officer

When I remember the build up to my first trip to Lebanon in June 2013 I remember worrying a lot. I had been asked to take a Member of Parliament out to see our programmes and meet the children and families we’re helping. I was worried about the logistics and perceptions: Would the flights run smoothly? (They wouldn’t). Would the MP get what she was looking for from the trip? Was I prepared? Would it be a good use of our time? On reflection, these worries were all so trivial.

In June 2013 I had heard that the situation was now hopeless. Lebanon couldn’t take anymore. A tiny country about the size of Wales, with a population of four million, it had already absorbed half a million refugees from Syria. Tension was increasing and the undoubtedly generous Lebanese host population was now growing weary after two years of conflict. I’d heard this from World Vision’s staff, from the media and from people in the street.

They were right, the situation was deteriorating, but I still couldn’t help but feel hopeful. You saw and felt it everywhere you went. Yalda, a Syrian mother, showed me the cramped, dark outbuilding where she was living with her three children and she told me about the war that had ripped her country apart. Yalda had lost two of her sons and her home had been destroyed, but against all odds she was planning a return to Syria once it was safe. Her dream was for her daughter to fulfil her dream and go to university to become a journalist. I also saw the same determination and hope from the Lebanese host community, religious leaders and politicians. Yes the situation was hard, but surely it would pass?

Thousands of refugees and a year later

I knew that first visit to Lebanon in 2013 couldn’t be my final one. I wanted to return to this beautiful, welcoming, generous country and so in June 2014 I set off once again, this time for an eight month secondment with our local office, assisting World Vision’s Syrian crisis response. It turns out that that narrative from 2013 had been wrong. Lebanon had indeed been able to take more refugees, and was now hosting over 1.2 million Syrians who had fled the continued violence. It turns out the Lebanese host communities and their refugees were both more remarkable and more resilient than any of us had given them credit for. However, when I left again in January 2015, some of that hope I had felt had been diminished.

Since the start of the Syrian crisis, everyday life in Lebanon has been transformed. The country’s population is estimated at 5.3 million and rising; almost a quarter of those are refugees.

In July 2014 I met a family in the Bekaa Valley, a region of Lebanon along the border with Syria that has taken the most refugees. The family perfectly illustrated the changing narrative in Lebanon. The mother, Leila, and her four young children were living in a stiflingly hot makeshift tent. They couldn’t afford to rent anywhere else, and the children now had to work so that their family could make ends meet. Just a few years earlier Leila had been living in a middle class suburb of Damascus while her children were in school and her husband worked. Now she seemed defeated.

While I was working on the refugee response in January, a winter storm claimed the lives of several children who froze to death in their tents. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the loss; these children had already endured so much just to arrive there. I hadn’t prepared myself for the fact that this extended to our ability to provide adequate heating for their tents. This has to change.

At breaking point

An inevitable result of the unprecedented refugee influx, coupled with a lack of funding, means that all of Lebanon’s families, regardless of their place of birth, have suffered. Intense pressure has hindered access to health care, education, and other vital services like electricity and water. This, in turn, has led to an increase in tensions. When I first returned to Lebanon in 2014 a colleague told me that I’d know I’d adapted when I no longer noticed the lights going out. And indeed, the power shortages were so commonplace that this happened even sooner than I’d anticipated.

Almost inevitably, conflict between Syrian refugees and Lebanese communities is increasing. The popular
narrative has changed; I heard Syrians increasingly referred to as ‘dirty’ and ‘lazy’. Almost daily there were reports of Syrians being attacked, evicted and abused. To many Lebanese, the Syrians are no longer guests, but have become squatters. They have nowhere to go and increasingly, they have nothing to live on.

The truth is this situation cannot simply continue. No matter how remarkable and resilient the Syrian refugees and Lebanese host communities are, they cannot simply be expected to carry on. The feeling in Lebanon in winter 2015 is markedly different to the feeling in June 2013.

Things can change, we can help. Lebanon is at a critical point as we approach the fourth anniversary of the crisis. Supporting Lebanon now can make a critical difference for the millions of people residing there, and help to prevent any more senseless deaths in the cold. World Vision is working with the government to increase its funding in Lebanon and redouble efforts to find a political solution to the crisis in Syria. As part of Action 2015, we are campaigning to prevent any lost childhoods in the future – any new sustainable development goals must also extend to improving the lives of children living in conflict. Since our Syria appeal was first launched in December 2012, supporters in the UK have donated almost a million pounds, which has helped to ensure families throughout the region have access to safe water and toilets, provide heaters and blankets during the winter months, distribute much needed food, and establish safe places for traumatised children to play and learn.

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