Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Syrian, Palestinian Refugees Flee Hostilities in Syria for Uncertainty in Lebanon

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Syrian, Palestinian Refugees Flee Hostilities in Syria for Uncertainty in Lebanon

Article excerpt

Stranded in a school building seemingly in the middle of nowhere, Umm Yousef and Umm Mohammed have managed with the scarcest of resources to make the classrooms in which the two mothers and their children took refuge a few months ago somehow resemble a home. Improvised cloth curtains separate different sections of the school's second and third floors to allow some kind of privacy for the few families who live here. Classroom chairs are pushed back to free up some space for a few mattresses, which serve as a place to sit, eat and sleep. The school's new occupants built primitive bathrooms in the classrooms to avoid the long trip to the school's restrooms.

Confined most of the time to this school in 'Amar Bykat, in the outskirts of Akkar in the north of Lebanon, the two women described their accommodation as a "prison." "When we hear a car approaching the school we all jump to see who came to visit, since no one ever comes and we hardly leave the premises," both women said. Umm Mohammed's husband was jailed and tortured at the hands of the Syrian Army for allegedly transferring weapons from Lebanon to Syria. Following his release, he fled Aleppo with his wife and five daughters. Unable to pay for a room, given that rents have skyrocketed since the beginning of the Syrian exodus, Abu Mohammed chose to house his family in this school. Sheikh Jamal Kasem, imam of the town's mosque, who owns the school, offered to accommodate these refugees free of charge.

The new residents worried that, once school began, Sheikh Kasem would ask them to leave the building so the students could resume their classes. Because of the limited number of students, however, Sheikh Kasem so far has been able to hold classes on the first floor, allowing the refugees to live on the second and third floors. Throughout Lebanon, however, hundreds of Syrian families have been forced by local authorities and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to leave the public schools in which they took refuge to be resettled in abandoned buildings. Dana Sleiman, UNHCR public information associate, confirmed that the problem of shelter represents a major challenge, and the agency is working with the Lebanese government to identify alternative options. "Plan B would be building shelter boxes or prefabricated houses in the backyard of schools or in public gardens," she told the Washington Report, "and Plan C would be to provide rent temporarily to landlords so they can accommodate the families until we finish renovating abandoned schools."

According to UNHCR, more than 80,400 Syrians were registered at the beginning of October as refugees or awaiting registration. The estimates of local authorities and aid organizations are much higher than that, however. The Syrian refugee presence in Lebanon was first registered in the north of Lebanon, then in the Bekaa area. A significant refugee presence has now been recorded in the south and in Beirut itself. Some refugees live with Lebanese host families, while others live either in unused schools or have managed to rent a room.

Abu Ali, who worked for years as a blacksmith in northern Lebanon before bringing his family back over a year ago from Talkalakh, believes that despite the dire living conditions of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, they fare better than his compatriots who fled to Jordan and Turkey. "They are being placed in concentration camps in Jordan and Turkey," he asserted. "At least here we enjoy freedom of movement."

As reported by UNHCR, the pre-existing ties between Syrians and Lebanese allowed families in Lebanon to host Syrian refugees, which helped avoid such a situation. "A camp situation would have been very difficult on the refugees in terms of weather conditions, protection problems and stigmatization of refugees," Sleiman explained.

But the availability of aid from various organizations remains problematic for refugees like Abu Mohammed, a 34-year-old Syrian, who managed to find seasonal work as a tile worker. …

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