By Shahera Khader
Maria Abou Diman, a 28-year-old social worker in charge of Caritas Lebanon’s center in Taalabaya (Bekaa Valley), sits outside her office on a plastic white chair. Around her are faces filled with anxiety, hunger and exhaustion. An 80-year-old woman stands directly beside her. She hands Abou Diman her I.D. Her hands, filled with rivers of deep wrinkles, are shaking uncontrollably. She pierces Abou Diman with her mournful eyes. “How can I help you?” Abou Diman asks the woman. “I need more blankets, please, my daughter is cold and hungry,” the woman said. Others crowd around Aboud Diman, telling her their own names and what they need. Abou Diman pulls a chair up for the old woman and motions for her to take a seat.
The Caritas Lebanon migrant center’s social worker stands and wipes the drops of sweat off her forehead; she has been receiving Syrian refugees and listening to their sorrows for hours. Small children stand close by, wearing old, ripped and ragged clothes. They clutch their parents with dirt-filled fingernails and cry loudly: “I’m hungry!” They all stare in apprehension at Abou Diman. She calls out, “Please stand in a line, I promise everyone will get their share of food and blankets, and medical assistance.”
Nearly 200 Syrian refugees showed up at this Caritas center in the Bekaa Valley on this Monday in August 2012. The families have fled from their destroyed homes in Syria to seek refuge in Lebanon. They came from makeshift tents they had constructed, seeking food, clothing, bedding and medical care.
Father Simon Faddoul, President of Caritas Lebanon, says it is imperative to try to ease the suffering of the refugees. The situation hits very close to home amongst the Lebanese people: “we have experienced displacement, hunger and sniper threats in our past wars; therefore, we find ourselves compelled to help.”
In the center, Jadaa Challal, an 80-year-old mother of six, fled from her town of Homs nearly two months ago. She sits near the center door in Taalbaya awaiting her turn.
“I came with one daughter who suffers from epilepsy. She can’t take care of me. The rest of my sons have passed away in the incidents… My poor son was burned to death while trying to save our flaming house. Another son of mine was killed in his bed. I have too much sorrow in my heart to find peace,” she said.
Families such as Challal’s come to Lebanon and live in camps together. “We live in a 20-square-meter tent with two other families. We are a total of fifteen people. My daughter and I cannot afford to have our own tent, I’m hoping they can give us our own blankets today,” Challal said. She continued: “I am an old, old lady, my health is getting worse and my legs can hardly hold my weight up, I’m waiting to see the doctor. My legs hurt and he can help me for free.”
Caritas Lebanon has established a mobile clinic to provide Syrian refugees with medical assistance every fifteen days. Sick people or pregnant woman can wait in turn to see the doctors. “We offer them free checkups by a certified gynecologist and a pediatrician,” Abou Diman said. “We worry mostly about the malnutrition in children and pregnant mothers who come alone,” she added.
Inside the mobile clinic, Dr. Simon Kolanjian welcomes each patient with a reassuring smile. “I know they come in here scared and distraught. I want them to feel safe with our team. After all we are here for them,” he said.
Dr. Kolanjian is a volunteering pediatrician, yet he uses his skills as a generalist to deal with emergency cases amongst adults as well using preventive medicine; “I give the adults medication pertaining to headaches, fevers, infections and such,” he declared. “There is only so much we can give because we need more funds in order to buy the medication needed.”
Dr. Kolanjian administers vitamins for the children that suffer malnutrition. “We see severe cases of malnutrition; these kids are not getting enough nutrients. They eat dirt when they feel hungry. The tap water they drink is extremely unhealthy; cases such as gastroenteritis are common. They grow bacteria in their stomach which requires urgent medication,” says Dr. Kolanjian.
Nour Dayaa fled along with her 2-year-old daughter from the town of Sayednaya. She stands in line carrying her screaming child. “My daughter is anemic and is underweight for her age. She cries all day and all night. I have no food to give her. I know she would not have made it if the doctor didn’t give us these vitamins,” she said. “I’m also pregnant; they gave me my prenatal vitamins to ensure my baby is healthy.” I don’t have a man to support me or give me money to buy such medications.”
Syrian men can rarely find jobs in Lebanon; and when they do, they are underpaid, and they have to accept $6 a day otherwise they can’t work. Abou Diman explains: “the difference in the cost of living between Lebanon and Syria is huge. It’s much more expensive in Lebanon than it is in Syria, and you can frequently encounter families with up to 18 members. It is very difficult to support such families with a low income. That’s where Caritas steps in trying to provide basic assistance so they can survive.”
According to the UNHCR, there are close to 37 thousand registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon, yet it’s a common knowledge that many thousands more are unaccounted for since they refuse to register with UNHCR for multiple reasons. Caritas and its international partners have launched a vigorous humanitarian campaign to respond to some of the needs of the refugees. However, needs outgrow resources and they are increasing with the hour.
In an interview with Vatican Radio, Father Simon encouraged the public not to forget Syrian refugees. “We need your moral, financial, and volunteering support. This campaign needs human potential and resources. We need all we can get in this crucial endeavor.”
“I am here without my children, without money or food. I’m standing in the sun with my old and broken body waiting for the unknown,” Challal said, “Caritas gave us hope. When fear had overcome us, they welcomed us and showed us that there is life ahead of us.”