UNHCR estimates nearly 1.8 million Syrian refugees are in Lebanon. They live wherever they can find a space–abandoned buildings, garages, sheds, or in makeshift tent settlements in vacant lots or rented farmland. A New York Times article reports that the United Nations estimates that the percentage of refugees living in “insecure dwellings” had risen to 55 percent from 35 percent the last year.”
Most of the tent settlements are in the Bekaa Valley, which runs most of the length of the eastern side of Lebanon, which borders Syria. According to UNHCR, there are more than 850 informal tent settlements in Lebanon. The settlements I visited each housed 800 to 1000 men, women and children. The structures are built like a one-level house of cards and made out of material scavenged by the refugees — discarded billboards, plastic, wood, tarps, and other materials. Many settlements are formed by people from the same regions or neighborhoods in Syria. If the refugees are lucky, an NGO has poured concrete slabs on which they can build their make-shift housing. If not, the settlements rest on soil and dirt, which turn to mud when it rains or the snow melts.
Many settlements pay rent for the land and run electrical wires into the camps off existing power lines. Most do not have running water — and what water they do have access to is often unclean. An August 2014 report by UNHCR and UN Habitat underscored the dire living conditions that Syrian refugees are facing: “Poor quality shelter, overcrowding, and limited access to water, sanitation, and urban services are the norm throughout the country for the vast majority of vulnerable refugees.”
Our guides in Lebanon estimated that over half of the refugees living in tent settlements are children. Most of the refugee children have not been in school since they left Syria. Many of them have lost parents, brothers or sisters in the war or during the journey from Syria. Nowara’s two brothers and father were killed in Syria (little girl in the red jacket, above). Suzan’s mother died in childbirth at a checkpoint while trying to get to a hospital in Syria (little girl in the blue jacket, above).
I met Suzan’s father, Achmed (above), in a tent settlement outside Zahle. He told us that his unborn child died with his wife, and Suzan’s brother was killed by a bullet to the stomach. Achmed was separated from Suzan and his other children during the three month journey through the mountains to Lebanon, during which he described how he and those he traveled with survived by eating grass and scavenging any food they could find. He was reunited with his children in Lebanon.
In another camp, I was invited to another tent to visit with two women. As I entered the tent, one of them added empty potato chip wrappers and other trash to a small black stove in the middle of the tent in an effort to warm the tent for us. It was the only heating source for the space. There was no other furniture, just two thin pads on a carpet. Pillows leaned against a plastic tarp draped over two-by-fours spaced every foot or so, serving as the “walls” between rooms. One of the women lived with her children (woman with baby, above). Her husband was in Beirut trying to find work; his brother was in prison in Syria, often seen as a death sentence by the refugees. The other spoke about her husband, who died in surgery after they arrived in Lebanon (older woman, above). She lives with another woman, her husband’s second wife, in another tent.
Most refugees have little–only what they could carry or wear when they fled. Since most do not have money, they often find themselves trading their labor for rent. This leaves them no resources with which to buy or trade for food and necessities. The need is overwhelming.
Heart for Lebanon, a faith-based organization ministering to the refugees that hosted us in Lebanon, provides monthly food distributions to 1300 Syrian families, most in 13 of the UNHCR-estimated 850 camps in the Bekaa Valley. Most of the refugees are Muslim; about 250 refugees are from a Christian background. The majority of the refugees came from Homs; others came from Aleppo and Idlib.
H4L visits each refugee family, listens to their stories, and distributes food and hygiene portions to them once a month. The food and hygiene portions include items like bread, cooking oil, rice, sugar, other grains, canned meat, cheese, vegetables, shampoo, laundry detergent and hand soap. The food packages are delivered to the camps by truck once a month.
In addition, H4L funds and runs a small school for refugee children in a small church in the Bekaa Valley that sits at the foot of the tall mountains that separate Lebanon from Syria. When we visited, we could hear the booms of artillery on the other side of the mountains. Inside the church, the children were learning Arabic, reading, writing and math. Most of the children were the most vulnerable of their peers, orphans or physically disabled or having lost multiple family members.
While the efforts of H4L are making a significant difference in the lives of refugees, the need is so overwhelming. Please share these stories with others. Talk to your church. See what the charities you support are doing. Check out the How To Help tab on this website.
Please do something, because “for such a time as this” is now.