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'I never truly understood what it was like to go without, but I do now'

Lorraine Courtney has just returned from Lebanon’s Syrian refugees where she saw firsthand Concern’s great work.

Lorraine Courtney Freelance journalist

AROUND THIS TIME every year I get asked: ‘”What do you want for Christmas?’ And the truth is not very much. I’m one of the lucky ones and have lived without ever truly understanding what it was like to go without.

Usually, I’ll try rack my brain, and think of something that I might want. But not this year. Not anymore. Enough is enough. I’ve just come back from a trip to Lebanon’s Syrian refugees where I saw firsthand Concern’s fieldwork.

Suddenly the value of things take on a new meaning. I now know exactly how much it costs to buy a thermal blanket, I know what one meal costs, what a sleeping bag costs in Lebanon.

SONY DSC Izdihar Al-Harfoush and her child in a refugee settlement in northern Lebanon. Source: Lorraine Courtney

“I’m disabled and I would go by sea if I could,” says Mamoud softly, his lips betraying quiet anger as he speaks. “I want to go to Germany, but I don’t have that money. If I had it, yes, even if I might die in the sea I would go – life here is too hard.”

Mamoud, 25, is just one of more than one million Syrian refugees being hosted by Lebanon, a diminutive country that had a population of four million before civil war broke out in neighbouring Syria.

Fearing for his life

His story is typical. Fearing for his life, he fled to Lebanon with his extended family and now lives in deprivation in an informal camp in a scrap metal yard.

Concern stepped in and set up water and sewage facilities. And Concern’s “Winterisation” programme provided wood to reinforce the flimsy tents against northern Lebanon’s blustery weather. The Levantine winter is bitterly cold.

SONY DSC Ghada (5) plays with some metal. Source: Lorraine Courtney

But Lebanon is being asked to do what no other country has to face – to take in a refugee population soon to equal one-third of their resident population; it has been overwhelmed by its refugee crisis. Up at the border, more and more checkpoints are going up, guns are going in and refugees are coming out. The sparks are all here for Lebanon to catch Syria’s fire.

The government has refused to set up formal camps like those in Turkey and Jordan, which provide refugees with plumbing, drinkable water, weather-proof shelters and regular electricity.

Depending on others

No shelter can have more than a basic timber-and-plastic structure; more robust building by refugees is prohibited. Instead, refugees like Mamoud are scattered across the country, mostly in poor, rustic neighbourhoods and have to depend on handouts from humanitarian organisations like Concern.

The hope for a better life – particularly for one’s children – is the driving factor behind a refugee crisis that much of the Middle East has been shouldering for years, and that has now begun to wash up on our shores.

Families I meet do not want to embark on dangerous voyages to Europe. That is not their first choice. They want to ensure their children have hope for the future and they want to be well-placed nearby for their eventual return to Syria.

SONY DSC Ahmad Al Hasan and his family in a tented settlement. Source: Lorraine Courtney

The people of Lebanon cannot help them without proper funding from the international community.

Elke Leidel is the dynamic country director for Concern in Lebanon, and oversees a myriad of programmes from direct aid to education and protection (a programme aimed at men who now struggle with the frustrations of being idle).

Leidel is always very conscious of possible resentments building up among Lebanon’s poor towards refugees, and also runs projects open to both communities like a cross-community embroidery programme where sales money goes directly to the woman.

She’s also highly conscious of the huge challenge that schooling is creating, and meets this with a combination of accelerated learning programmes, extra tuition and non-formal education to ensure children keep learning. Because the risk is that if the war grinds on and they don’t get education, those kids will become Lebanon’s next problem – a lost generation of disaffected, unemployable young misfits.

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Spending Christmas in a flimsy shelter

NGOs are struggling to find funding for the crisis. Concern has nothing near the money it needs and is already working on the largest “winterisation” programme ever attempted – an effort to try to reinforce the flimsy shelters with sheets of plastic and plywood, and to provide blankets and fuel to tide people over the worst month.

At Halba, an informal settlement, mothers cradle babies with flushed cheeks and sticky eyes while shoeless children dart in and out of the tents they call home. This part of northern Lebanon, which juts like a knucklebone into Syria, is so close to the war that the villagers can watch the rockets land and the outlying villages of Homs begin. “I can see our house,” Ahmad, the head of this family, tells us.

We’ve come to deliver Christmas messages of goodwill from Concern’s Irish donors. This year Concern’s Christmas appeal allows donors to contribute towards essential items like stoves and fuel as well as writing a personal message to the recipient.

Sinead and Declan from Limerick write:

We are so sorry this has happened to your people and your beautiful country. Sending love, blessings and prayers. X.

Kathy (no address given) says:

May you feel peace and safety this Christmas. Thinking of you.

Source: Video TheJournal.ie/YouTube

These beautiful messages of goodwill are translated via an interpreter and suddenly everybody is beaming. It’s such a simple thing, yet so important. This Syrian family realise that they are not forgotten. They realise that people out there do care about them.

Despite the refugees’ sense of abandonment, their hospitality remains as overwhelming as ever. Every family we meet tries to make us drink tea. We naturally have to accept Ahmad’s offer, and sip sweet tea as we sit cross-legged on a mat with his wife and a dozen lively children.

Lorraine Courtney is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @lorrainecath.

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About the author:

Lorraine Courtney  / Freelance journalist

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