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'My nephew was hit by a rocket, we couldn't find any trace of him': Syrians explain why they fled their homes

NGOs in Lebanon are trying to build bridges between Syrian refugees and local people, using techniques from Northern Ireland.

Órla Ryan reports from Lebanon, where she travelled to in early March prior to the Covid-19 travel restrictions.

IMG_20200410_135325 Afka in Lebanon. Source: Órla Ryan

THERE’S AN OLD saying in Lebanon that is as accurate in 2020 as when it was first coined, if not more so: Whenever it rains in Syria, the Lebanese have to open their umbrellas.

It has been pouring for several years now.

The Middle Eastern neighbours have a long and complicated history, as well as a border that spans 375 kilometres.

People have crossed back and forth for generations with many seasonal farmers coming from Syria to Lebanon for work every year – similar to how many Irish people travelled to the UK to work in construction in the past.

And that’s not where the similarities between these countries end. Tensions between people from Lebanon and refugees living in the country – be they Syrian, Palestinian or from elsewhere – have increased recently amid two ongoing crises – the Syrian War and a severe economic recession in Lebanon.

Stereotypes and perceptions see many Syrians believing Lebanese people are racist or prejudiced, while some Lebanese look at Syrians as potential terrorists, a burden on the economy or a threat to the community.

IMG_20200410_135158 Martyrs' Square in Beirut where many protests took place in recent months. Source: Órla Ryan

In a bid to improve relationships between Lebanese and Syrian youth in particular, some experts are using conflict resolution techniques utilised in Northern Ireland among Catholics and Protestants.

Assem Chreif, the Director of the Lebanese Organization for Studies and Technology (LOST), an NGO that provides educational training for young people as well as services for refugees, said that in order to understand the present, one must understand the past.

Chreif compared the divisions there to what life is like in parts of Northern Ireland. He said the ‘peace walls’ in Lebanon are invisible but have the same end result.

A long and complicated history 

About 1.5 million Syrian refugees live in Lebanon, which has a total population of 6.8 million people. The country has the highest concentration per capita of refugees in the world.

Syrian people have lived in Lebanon for decades and, for about 30 years, the Syrian Army was also present.

Syrian troops occupied Lebanon from 1976, moving in during early days of the Lebanese Civil War, until 2005, after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri.

Syria’s own civil war erupted in March 2011 and is ongoing. An estimated 500,000 people have been killed; about six million refugees have fled the country – mainly to Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan; and a similar number are displaced internally.

A large number of Syrian refugees have settled in the Bekaa area of Lebanon – about 350,000 are registered with the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, but the actual figure could be higher.

“The influx of Syrian refugees to this region was immense because it’s very easy and manageable to cross the border, there are many border paths with no checks,” Chreif explained.

Screenshot 2020-04-10 at 12.59.36 Assem Chreif, the Director of the Lebanese Organization for Studies and Technology (LOST). Source: Órla Ryan

Speaking to TheJournal.ie at LOST’s centre in Bednayel in Bekaa almost nine years to the day the Syrian Civil War began, Chreif said Syrian people originally settled in “safe havens” with people of the same religion.

“The Sunni came from Syria to Sunni areas and the Alawites came to Shia areas and the Christians came to Christian areas. Why did they come to Baalbek Hermel (in Bekaa)? Because of easy access.  

Syrian people came into Lebanon even before the crisis as seasonal farmers. So what happened is they came along again, bringing with them their relatives, their neighbours.

Bednayel is located about 80km or a 1.5 hour drive from Damascus. When the war escalated in 2013, Chreif said a “huge influx” of Syrian people fled to Lebanon and settled wherever they could.

“We have 76 villages in Baalbek Hermel, there is a Syrian presence in each of the 76 villages – now you can see Syrian refugees who are Sunni living in a Shia neighbourhood (and vice versa). Although they don’t share the same political side, they still live with each other,” Chreif explained.

‘My nephew was hit by a rocket, we couldn’t find any trace of him’

Most Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in informal tented settlements (ITS) that range from five tents to over 100.

Permanent structures are not allowed to be built-in ITS – the government doesn’t want them to become formal refugee camps.

IMG_5749 An ITS in Ghazze, west Bekaa. Source: Órla Ryan

TheJournal.ie spoke to Syrian refugees about why they fled and what life is like in informal settlements in Bekaa. 

Many of them had relatives or friends killed in the war. Most of those we spoke to wanted to return home, not emigrate.

Nadia lives with her husband and four children in an ITS in Zahle.

The family is originally from Aleppo, a city devastated by the war.

They fled during the early stages of the Battle of Aleppo, deciding to leave when her 16-year-old nephew was killed in an airstrike.

“He was hit by a rocket, we could not find any trace of him,” Nadia recalled. “We fled very, very quickly so I did not pack anything, my husband and I just took the kids, we didn’t have anything else.

A lot of people left Aleppo – half of them died and the other half fled.

Nadia paid the equivalent of about €1,000 to come to Lebanon, getting money from relatives and friends.

IMG_5686 Nadia Source: Órla Ryan

She said the journey from Aleppo to Zahle took three days, telling us: “we jumped from car to another”.

Nadia’s youngest child was just one-month-old at the time.

“It was so difficult that at some points we wished we would be killed instead of doing this trip,” she said, recalling the impact of “the things that you would see on the road under the bombing”.

She saw people killed in front of her, telling us: “The airplanes would be bombing and shelling and the military were on the ground and we were passing in front of all of this.”

She said the violence they saw impacted all of them, particularly her husband and her oldest daughter who is now 16.

“[My daughter] is still traumatised, she can’t watch the news.”

IMG_5808 Residents are growing plants at this communal area and throughout this ITS in Ghazze. Source: Órla Ryan

Nadia has not sought mental health support but her husband did. He was deeply affected by the violence and dead bodies he saw in Syria, and experienced suicidal thoughts. He is now on medication provided by an NGO.

Nadia’s three sisters and their families are internally displaced in Syria. She hasn’t spoken to her eldest sister in two years but last she heard she was in Idlib.

I’m very worried about my sisters, especially my oldest sister. I don’t know if she is still alive.

“I just wish that the war would stop, we have had enough. I don’t care who ‘wins’ as long as the war is over,” Nadia said.

“I used to hope that next year would be better than the previous year but now the hope is gone, I’m not hopeful anymore. That’s life. It’s difficult, it’s true misery … our lives have become so worthless.”

‘Sometimes we cook leaves’ 

Nadia said her family often has to go without food, telling us: “My main concern is getting food. The good thing now is that the weather is getting better and winter is over. It was so difficult during winter – we would burn anything just to get warm, plastic, anything we could find.”

She hasn’t eaten meat in about a year or vegetables for months.

“When my children see a piece of potato, for them as if it’s a feast. We eat whatever we find on the ground. Sometimes we pick up leaves and cook them, whether it’s tasteless or not, it’s just something to feed the kids.”

Nadia pays 800,000 Lebanese pounds (about €500) per month on rent (for their six-by-eight-metre tent) and bills, receiving financial support from the UNHCR.

She recently underwent surgery to remove a cyst at Médecins Sans Frontières’ clinic in Bar Elias, where vulnerable people of any nationality can access free, high-quality healthcare. She had been in pain for years but unable to afford the surgery.

She is deeply grateful to the doctors and nurses who treated her, saying they have helped to restore her faith in humanity.

IMG_5708 MSF's free clinic in Bar Elias, Bekaa. Source: Órla Ryan

If Nadia could have anything, it would be for the war to end so she could return to Syria.

She dreams of moving back to her hometown and starting a small farm – buying a sheep and planting vegetables.

She doesn’t want to move to another country, saying “life is difficult everywhere but at home”.

“There’s nothing better than feeling at home, although there is nothing there now. But I want to see my sisters. I would love to smell my home, to see our land, to visit my parents’ graves. I belong there more than here.”

‘I saw the bomb fall’

Aymon* lives in an ITS in Ghazze.

His family fled Hama in Syria in 2013 after his cousin was killed by a bomb. He said they left in such a hurry they didn’t have time to put on their shoes.

“We were under siege, and there was a lot of shelling and a lot of bombing. It was a very bad situation so we left.

“My cousin was killed by a bomb, he was 30 years old … We fled without even shoes on, it was very difficult.”

Aymon is married and has seven children aged six to 19, the youngest of which was born in the settlement.

IMG_5826 Aymon at the ITS where he lives in Ghazze. Source: Órla Ryan

The 45-year-old said the journey from Hama to Bekaa took eight days.

“There was a lot of bombing, a lot of violence,” he said. 

During one airstrike he saw a bomb fall and kill members of several different families.

“I saw it happen, then I saw them under the ruins. I remember the images very clearly,” he recalled. 

He paid around 150,000 Syrian pounds (about €300 now, but more in 2013) for help getting from Hama to Ghazze.

Aymon receives cash assistance from the UNHCR and support from MSF but struggles to pay rent and other bills.

He and his wife and children all live in one tent, and his brothers and their families live in other tents in the same camp. Three of his children normally go to school but all schools in Lebanon are currently closed due to the Covid-19 lockdown.

IMG_5829 A family home at an ITS in Ghazze. Source: Órla Ryan

Two of his children have asthma and another has allergies – he is very worried they will get sick if the virus gets into the camp, and makes them shower twice a day in a bid to stay clean.

Many ITS have access to water, usually provided by NGOs like the UNHCR, but others do not. LOST works with Unicef to deliver water and toiletries to many settlements.

LOST also trains people in the camps so they can give information to other residents about healthcare and hygiene – a tool now being utilised to raise awareness of Covid-19 guidelines. Chreif previously told us if the virus starts to spread within settlements the results could be “disastrous” given the cramped conditions and poor sanitation

Fires and burns

Aymon said the settlement is a “difficult” place for children to grow up in – it’s cramped and beside a main road with little room to play.

Burns from stoves are common in settlements and, sometimes, much more serious accidents.

About two years ago an electrical socket caught fire and a blaze quickly engulfed the camp where Aymon lives.

Eight children died.

IMG_5783 Clothes drying at an ITS in Ghazze. Source: Órla Ryan

Aymon recalled how quickly the fire spread throughout the tents, saying people were very distressed afterwards and are now much more careful with electrical wires and when cooking.

Aymon said he is “so affected” by the violence he saw in Syria but has not sought any mental health support, though NGOs like MSF provide free services in the area.

He said residents in the camp get on well – many of them knew each other in Syria and “talk to each other about what we have seen”. 

He added that people in the camp “very rarely mix with people outside the camp” bar occasions such as funerals. Despite the daily hardships, Aymon is grateful he and his family are alive and safe but he would like to leave the camp “if there was a better option”.

Ideally, they could all move home.

His parents, who are both in their 70s, are still in Hama. The violence has lessened there in recent times but the area is still unstable and Aymon is very concerned about them.

“They’re surviving but of course I worry about them, I haven’t seen them in years.

“If it was safe in Syria, I would definitely go back. It’s a tragedy. I wouldn’t go back unless the war is over and it’s safe.”

Riots and recession

Chreif said most Lebanese people initially welcomed the refugees because they understood their plight, and many still feel empathy for them. 

IMG_20200410_135152 A burnt-out car near Martyrs' Square in Beirut. Source: Órla Ryan

However, now that the war has dragged on for so long and the fact that Lebanon is in the midst of a severe recession and political unrest, conflict between locals and the refugees is becoming more common.

Prior to the war, there was already a strain on resources which are now overwhelmed in many areas.

Even before the Covid-19 lockdown – which resulted in the closure of the majority of businesses – kicked in last month, hundreds of firms had already shut up shop in recent months and the unemployment rate was steadily increasing.

In October 2019, civil protests erupted in Lebanon. The demonstrations were initially triggered by planned taxes on gas, tobacco and WhatsApp but morphed into a nationwide display of anger over the state of the economy, sectarianism and widespread corruption.

IMG_20200410_135156 Broken windows are a common sight in certain parts of Beirut after the recent mass demonstrations. Source: Órla Ryan

The huge demonstrations seen late last year have ceased for now but unrest is still brewing. Many refugees in Lebanon cannot find employment or are restricted from working in certain sectors.

Those who do have jobs often work extremely long hours for very little pay. Some people blame refugees for ‘taking’ their jobs but Chreif says this oversimplifies a complex situation – the jobs often aren’t there in the first place.

“Conflict started with the Syrian refugees for many reasons. It’s not merely political, it’s not merely social, it’s not merely economic. It’s all of the above. So, it is a blanket assumption to say that the conflict between Syrian refugees and the Lebanese hosting community is economic,” he explained.

Peace walls in Northern Ireland

LOST provides educational training for people aged 10 to 18 years – from basic literacy and homework support to vocational training and life-building workshops.

Another part of its work is conflict resolution.

The NGO brings Lebanese and Syrian youths together for workshops on peacebuilding and reconciliation, using techniques also utilised in Northern Ireland.

shutterstock_401928220 File photo of a peace wall separating Republican and Loyalist areas in Belfast. Source: Shutterstock/Federico Zovadelli

Chreif has been to the North twice – in 2009 and again last year. He was part of a group of NGO workers who carried out a comparative study between the Catholic-Protestant conflict there and the Shia-Sunni conflict in Lebanon.

“There are many similarities between the two conflicts,” he told us.

You know the peace walls in Northern Ireland? It’s the same here, but here it’s still invisible. We are still one step back, because we haven’t admitted that we have these walls, even if they’re not physical. We’re still in the denial phase.

While people of different religions or sects now live together in some areas of Lebanon, there is deep-rooted conflict – part of which stems from old wounds caused by wars of the past.

Chreif said previous wars have not been “reconciled” in Lebanon and divisions are still evident between Muslims and Christians, as well as within religions. 

Racist or dangerous 

Chreif said integration of people from different backgrounds is “difficult” but LOST is seeing some positive results among the young people it works with.

“We are trying to help them get along better and break down barriers,” he said, adding it’s “essential” Lebanese and Syrian young people attend the same workshops and educational classes where possible (many schools have separate classes for Lebanese and Syrians students).

“They have perceptions, stereotypes. What we’re doing is trying to break the barriers down, but in a very innovative way. Putting people together is not enough, training people is not enough, and this is our theory of change – you need to learn social cohesion.”

Chreif said some of the perceptions Syrians have about Lebanese people is that they are racist and don’t like refugees.

IMG_20200410_135154 Graffiti near Martyrs' Square in Beirut. Source: Órla Ryan

In turn, Syrians are sometimes “perceived as potential terrorists or at least as a burden on the community or a threat to the community”.

“You need to break down these perceptions. They are not real, they are not true, but they are promoted in the media very heavily.

“We bring [young people] together … We give them workshops on communication skills, leadership skills, respect for diversity, self-control, leadership, stuff like that,” Chreif explained.

He said when young people spend time with their peers and learn together, the stereotypes start to fade away.

“The Syrians are no longer perceived as a threat and the Lebanese are not perceived as racist because they are communicating with each other, engaging with each other.”

*Aymon’s name has been changed to protect his identity.

This article is supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund. It is the first article in a three-part series on the reality of life for refugees in Lebanon, part two will be published tomorrow.

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Órla Ryan

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