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20 Dec

While we wait for winter

Photos by  Martin Kurt Haglund Photos by Martin Kurt Haglund

The civil war in Syria has sent thousands on the run. Among other places to Lebanon, where hardship and fear of Lebanese authorities make up everyday life, while waiting for winter to truly begin.

Ahmed Balout lits another cigarette. He is sitting under the window in the rented room, which he shares with his own and his brother's family. His face is grave, and even when he smiles at his son, his expression quickly turns contemplative again.

Ahmed and his brother Hammad decided to flee from their village outside of Homs a month and a half ago, when they began to feel that the threat of snipers and bombs was too close. Ahmed walked for eight hours with his family of five across the mountains, while Hammad fled with his family of six via a border crossing.


They slept for three days in a small mosque in Qaa in northern Lebanon without much food or drink, before they decided to use their remaining savings on a journey of almost a 100 km to Majdal Aanjar in the eastern part of the Beeka valley, 12 km from the Syrian border. Here they are now living on 16 square metres with little more than what they managed to take with them from Syria. Since then they have been given rugs by a local Lebanese woman, as well as mattresses, hygiene products, a few blankets and food from Islamic Relief. The food ran out two weeks ago, and since then they have not had much to live on.

"We had heard there was easier access to relief organisations in Majdal Aanjar, but it is limited what we have received. We might as well have stayed in Qaa, because then we could have spent our savings on food instead," Ahmed explains.

Since the civil war in Syria broke out nearly two years ago, more than 130,000 civilian Syrians have fled across the border to the neighbouring country of Lebanon.
Because of the already politically and economically unstable situation in Lebanon, the government has decided, backed by UNHCR, that refugee camps must be a very last resort. This has scattered the Syrian refugees across most of Lebanon with the northern and eastern parts being most affected.

Syrian families, fleeing violence and chaos in their homeland, encounter a daily life of high rents for unfinished housings and chaotic and lacking relief aid. Inactivity and unemployment fill their day, and fear of the authorities and persecution, along with concerns about their children's future and the coming of winter, fill their minds.

One of the largest challenges faced by the UNHCR and their collaboration partners is finding housing for the rising number of Syrians entering the country. Official numbers show that as many as 20,000 Syrians flee to Lebanon each month. Winter is coming, and it is getting harder and harder to find houses that can resist the very low temperatures, which winter causes in northern Lebanon and Bekaa. At the same time there is a rising need for distributing blankets, food, heaters and fuel, so the families can survive winter.

Arsal is a small community of 30,000 inhabitants in eastern Lebanon on the other side of the Bekaa valley, some 10 km from the Syrian border. The population in the area has risen to almost 50,000 since the beginning of the civil war in Syria. It has put enormous pressure on an already weak electric grid, the schools do not have space for the Syrian pupils, and garbage is piling up.

"There's much pressure on the area right now. We can barely keep up with renovating old houses, all the while we have to build new, temporary shelters. And if those forced to flee internally in Damascus and Homs decide to escape to here, it would be impossible to find room for all of them," Deputy Mayor Ahmed Fleiti explains. 
Mayor Ali Hojayri adds:

"This area has always had good relations with the Syrian population. We are socially obligated to accept Syrian refugees. Right now we have about 11,000 refugees in the area and we have room for 5000 more. We do not cause any problems for the government, we work well with the relief organisations and we do everything we can to finish building houses. We have to follow the law and the government's decision not to erect tent camps, but if it becomes necessary, we will do it ourselves until there are enough houses."


To relieve the increasing problem of finding usable shelters, UNHCR has applied to the Lebanese Social Ministry for using abandoned public buildings as collective shelters.
Dana Sleiman, who is the spokeswoman for UNHCR in Lebanon, estimates that private accommodations would be the best solution, although it means that the refugees will be spread over a geographically large area.

"We are offering local families to finish and renovate their houses, if they will accept Syrian families. We begin with covering the windows with plastic and installing sanitation, and then we gradually insert windows and doors. By living in as normal conditions as possible, we avoid stigmatising the Syrian families, and we also help the local community. It's a challenge with such a wide scattering, but until we can establish permanent offices in the areas hit the hardest, there is little else to do but be as visible as possible," she explains.

The idea is also that those Lebanese people, who make accommodations available, will receive monetary compensation, so the Syrian families do not have to worry about rent that in some cases creep above 300 USD a month. Even so, many of the Syrian families have to dig deep in their pockets to have a roof.

Ahmed's family receives five coupons a month, which all go towards paying the rent of 150 USD. The actual value of the coupons should easily cover the rent, but the landlord will only accept them at a value of 120 USD in total. The money for the remaining rent, food, fuel and transport are earned by the men by working as day labourers for 3 USD a day. And it is not every day they can find work. Right now they have to cook food over open fire, since it is far too expensive to buy fuel for a burner that also functions as a heating apparatus.

Ahmed and Hammad Balout have not had a steady income in a year and a half. They have both been accustomed to earning 20 USD a day back home in Syria, and could easily provide for their families.

"This is what I have now," Ahmed says and shows 1500 Lebanese lira. It is the same as one dollar and might be enough to buy a little bread and a vegetable.
He would like to send his son to the doctor, so he can be treated for his crooked legs, but he cannot afford it and he also fears the Lebanese authorities. Ahmed has been told by the local imam that a man had been taken by the Lebanese authorities and they threatened to extradite him to Syria if he did not pay them 200 USD.

Hammad has tried to find a place where he can get registered, but since UNHCR so far has only used mobile registration offices in the area, his search has been in vain. He does hope though that it can be done soon, so they can afford covering more of their expenses. He would also like to buy proper food for his 1-year old daughter, who is far too small for her age. Right now she is only getting breast milk replacement, which is intended for babies aged 2 months, and it does not give her enough nourishment.

The entire situation has had dire consequences for Ahmed and his family. He has been married to his wife for five years, but he is on the verge of losing her. She is thinking about leaving him, because she cannot bear to live under current conditions. She is from a rich family that can better take care of her and the children. They have not decided yet, and Ahmed does joke about how after five years of marriage they are finally on their honeymoon. Despite the joke, his face turns contemplative again, as he thinks of the situation in his homeland:

"Things may be tough for us here, but those still in Syria can only wait to die."


Fear of authorities

Mobile phones with video recordings go from one man to the other, while they are drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. One shows how bombs have destroyed his house and the rest of the neighbourhood. Another shows a recording from his village outside of Homs, where 13 elderly men have been shot through the head and left in a backyard. Somewhere else, a man shows a recording where two men, tied up, get their heads sawn off with a chainsaw by a man in uniform, while he yells:

"You have no God except Bashar Al-Assad!" What happens on the video is real enough. But nobody can say if it is propaganda against the regime, or if it really is a soldier from the regime committing these atrocities.

During coffee, a group of men talks about cousins used as shields against the bullets of the Free Syrian Army. Snipers that fire at anything that moves, regardless of whether it is women, children or men. They talk of rape and torture, family members disappearing and turning up weeks later in a ditch, mutilated and dead. And nobody understands how a leader can make himself use weapons on his own people.

Propaganda or not, the videos and stories bear witness of a population living in fear of being targeted by Shabiha militias, bombs, and the concern of whether they will see their families again.
The refugees arrive in a country, which has officially distanced itself from the civil war in Syria, but which nonetheless is strongly affected by the events. The militant and political Shiite group Hezbollah has strong relations with the regime in Syria. Last year they helped topple the pro-Western government in Lebanon and are now dominating the political landscape in the country.
With such close ties to the Syrian regime, many refugees fear that registration with the UNHCR can be intercepted by the Lebanese authorities and passed on to the Syrian government. Because of the fear of being taken by the Lebanese security forces or Syrian patrols and fearing for the safety of remaining family members, many keep to themselves.

In a small village outside of the second largest city in Lebanon, Tripoli, six young men are staying, who all fought for the Free Syrian Army in Baba Amr near Homs. They were all wounded in battle and were smuggled into Lebanon, when the hospital where they were treated was attacked by the Syrian army.

None of the men are given help to manage their daily lives. They cannot register with the UNHCR, both because they do not have their ID's and because they are afraid of making the trip into Tripoli. A trip that would bring them through the Alawit-dominated neighbourhood Jabal Mohsen. The men fear that they would be recognised and that the consequences could be fatal for both them and their families in Syria.

UNHCR does not support unregistered refugees and cannot register refugees without ID, but they are working intensely on a solution. Dana Sleiman does understand the fear among the Syrian refugees, but explains that UNHCR and their partners are working hard to inform the families that UNHCR is a humanitarian organisation, which works independently of politics, and that registration is confidential.

In August, tension erupted at the Lebanese-Syrian border, when kidnappings between Sunni and Shiite clans in the Bekaa valley became proof of the effects that the conflict has on the Lebanese border area. The wave of kidnappings between Lebanese Sunnis and Shiites was a reaction to allegations of kidnappings against Lebanese Shiites, done by the Free Syrian Army.
That had made a clan of Shiites target Syrian refugees in the area. They claimed at some point to have taken 40 members of the Free Syrian Army prisoner in Lebanon, of whom many had been taken from hospitals at various places in the Bekaa valley.

Mohammed Matar lives with his wife and their three children in an apartment building above a mosque outside of the border town of Majdal Aanjar in eastern Lebanon. He was wrongfully imprisoned during his time as a conscript and interrogated by every military authority in Syria. That is why he did not dare travel across the border into Lebanon, but chose to flee through the mountains. The family left without anything but the clothes they could wear and a small bag each, and they saw several families that had to leave belongings on the way.

"It was a very stressful trip. Our children walked almost the entire way themselves, and we were all very nervous. We had to hide several times to avoid detection by Syrian patrols. I am sure, it would have meant our deaths, if we had been discovered," Mohammed says.

Mohammed and his family are registered with the UNHCR, so they can receive aid, but he and the others in the building do not feel that the situation in Lebanon is particularly safe for Syrian refugees:

"We tried to escape the Syrian regime, but ended up in a country that supports it. Here we are afraid of being kidnapped or attacked by the parts of the Lebanese population loyal to the regime. In Jordan and Turkey there are guards at the camps, but here it is just chaos. If you really wanted to, you could easily gain access to us!"


Winter is coming

In northern and eastern Lebanon, temperatures at night are already below zero, and the wind, which has free reign over the barren plains of the Bekaa valley, chills you to the bone.
UNHCR and their partners are working day and night with registering refugees, distributing blankets and other forms of aid each month and finishing shelters and unfinished houses for the winter, but it is a slow process, and donations are needed to reach everybody with the aid. They have only reached 35% of the budget of 70 million USD for winter preparations, so they are first helping those families that are exposed the most.

Despite the slow distribution of aid for winter, many families are in general satisfied with the UNHCR's work, although many would wish that distributing blankets would go faster.
Like most other families, Mohammed Matar has received mattresses and a heating apparatus, which works on oil. But they cannot afford diesel and the mattresses are so thin that Mohammed can feel the cold of the stone floor. "But that's how it has to be," he adds.


The apartment building is not yet done, but it's in the nicer end of the scale. The apartments are big, most have windows and doors, but the isolation is poor.
The problem is a recurring one for nearly all Syrian families in Lebanon. In November, 47,000 refugees received aid through UNHCR and their partners. The packages contained blankets, basic food supplies, hygiene products and as something new they are now distributing coupons during winter for fuel, so the families can heat up their homes.

At the foot of an unfinished mosque in a barren and dusty area on the edge of Arsal live around 200 families in shelters resembling barracks. The walls are bare both indoors and outdoors, and the large gaps between the bricks are evidence of the speed with which construction took place.

Only the first third of the houses have windows and doors. The last ones have plastic covering the windows and blankets as doors. It gives a bit of privacy, but the wind and the cold does not care about that.

Behind this, a new row of shelters are being built. It is Syrian men and boys from the other shelters, who are working as unpaid labourers, building for the next round of refugees. They have collected amongst the families in the area, so they could buy mortar and finish construction.


Back to school

In a tool shed below a school, Mrs. Hadhoud is practising Arabic letters with her two sons. They have borrowed the space from the Majdal Aanjar football club and they share the room with a slide, a carrousel and many other pieces of trash.

Mrs. Hadhoud arrived to Majdal Aanjar from Baba Amr with her husband Mohammed a month ago. The boys were supposed to start school this year, but could not due to the heavy fighting in Baba Amr and Homs. That is why Mrs. Hadhoud is working towards getting the boys prepared as much as possible, so they can start school as soon as the family is registered.
53% of the registered refugees in Lebanon are children, and most have not been to school for nearly two years. Those children, who join Lebanese schools, encounter a system, where teaching is mainly done in French and English, while back home in Syria they were taught almost exclusively in Arabic.


With an eye towards the danger of the Syrian children falling far behind the Lebanese ones, UNHCR has made programmes in partnership with the Lebanese schools, Save the Children and UNICEF, which will prepare the children for this different kind of school day.

In Arsal, a mother of three school children does not feel that the relief organisations are living up to their promises. She is clearly frustrated as she explains:

"I can't see any future for my children! They are lost in the Lebanese system. They can't keep up and are teased by the other children. They are told to go back to their own country. Something has to be done."

Syrian refugees

There are nearly 500,000 Syrian refugees in the countries around Syria. Lebanon has received 133,000 Syrian refugees. That is more than what Turkey has received, and only 4,000 less than Jordan. 78% of the Syrian refugees are women and children.

Last modified on Thursday, 20 December 2012 13:50
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Martin Kurt Haglund

Martin Kurt Haglund is a danish freelance photojournalist based in Copenhagen, Denmark.

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