“We had normal lives. We had our own business. We had beautiful houses…it’s all gone, it has been destroyed and burned during the war and now I live in this tent.” Salwa is one of the 100,000 Syrian refugees registered in Lebanon. She lives in a camp in the Bekaa Valley. The rickety tent she shares with her five children is her new home. Made of stitched up bags and rags, it is wholly inadequate for the coming winter rain.
“They don’t know where to sleep. Every day we receive many families who tell us they have been sleeping in the open,” said Maria Abou Diman a social worker for Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center.
The number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is estimated at 200,000. Many choose not to register, mainly through fear of reprisals. “Some people think that when they register, their name will be sent back to Syria, and there will be consequences,” said Fr Simon Faddoul, President of Caritas Lebanon.
“You need to understand the close relationship we have with the Syrians. There is no formal border which means that people can go in and out all the time, no visa or papers are required,” he said. “There are mixed marriage and many Syrian workers have homes and families here in Lebanon , so we are talking more about 300,000 Syrians in Lebanon – not just 100,000” said Fr Faddoul.
Syrian nationals are not the only people fleeing the war. Palestinians and Iraqis are also seeking refuge in Lebanon. More unusual though are the Lebanese who have lived for generations in Syria and are now coming to Lebanon. Caritas Lebanon wants to fund a programme to help them.
“No one has been able to help this group of people, they are Lebanese citizens but have lived for decades in Syria and no longer have connections or family ties here in Lebanon. So far we have identified 3000 people falling into that category. They are in dire need of assistance and we are hoping to be able to provide it for them,” said the Caritas President.
Among the many Caritas priorities, winterisation, food and education are critical issues. As temperatures drop, the refugees will need better shelters as well as warm clothes.
“I hope that we get heating for the winter and that my kids can go back to school. They have already missed a whole year. This tent will not keep us warm. I don’t have anyone working in my family nor money to pay for the things I need,” said Salwa.
Many refugee families are facing the same issues. The working men have either gone back to Syria to fight, have been killed or as in Salwa’s husband case, arrested. Many heads of families will send their older children to work in order to generate a little income to survive. The issue is reflected in the statistics; out of the 100,000 registered refugees, 75 percent are women and children, of which 20 percent are under the age of four.
Across the four neighbouring countries surrounding Syria, the number of registered refugees totals half a million. This number has increased significantly in the past four month as the fighting has intensified and spread to more towns and villages in Syria. The number of people killed is estimated at 30,000 while the number of internally displaced has reached a million.
Caritas Lebanon has a team of 3,500 volunteers networking across the country. They visit vulnerable families and identify refugees unable to register or travel to the Caritas centres. Volunteers give their time, travel on their own means and often at risk to assist the refugees.
“In Lebanon, Christian culture is still very much alive, and we Caritas help without discrimination, our volunteers are the embodiment of those values,” says Fr Faddoul.
Of the 30,000 people Caritas is currently assisting , 92 percent are Muslims, the remaining six percent are Christians.
With needs so great, Fr Faddoul is worried about the shortage in funding to help the refugees. “Since our second appeal we have barely reached 40 percent of the funds required,” he said. “Donors are trying to anticipate the end of the conflict. Since some don’t see a rapid resolution to the crisis they are more reluctant to donate.
“Much harder times are ahead of us. We, as Caritas Lebanon, can only hope and pray for the best but need to prepare for the worst”.