Storm clouds gather over a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon. Credit:  Andreas Zinggl/Caritas Austria

Storm clouds gather over a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon. Credit: Andreas Zinggl/Caritas Austria

The humanitarian situation in Lebanon is desperate as over a million Syrian refugees seek safety in their tiny neighbour. “What we have been seeing is unbelievable, says President of Caritas Lebanon, Fr. Simon Faddoul. “The numbers are growing in an incredible way. The situation is getting worse. It’s becoming disastrous.”

Caritas Lebanon reports that there is a shortage of shelter to house the refugees, that diseases are spreading due to the unhygienic situation of the makeshift camps and that Lebanon’s delicate political balance is at risk.

Fr. Simon says, “To all those good hearted people, please listen to the suffering of the Syrian people inside Syria and in the neighbouring countries. Lebanon has four million inhabitants – we are hosting 1.2 million Syrian people. That means more than 25 percent of the population has become Syrian. From the humanitarian side, it is becoming uncontrollable.”

In Lebanon, we look at the lives of people caught up in the crisis.

Ibrahim

Mor Gabriel Church, Mount Lebanon. Photo by Stefan Maier/Caritas Austria

Mor Gabriel Church, Mount Lebanon. Photo by Stefan Maier/Caritas Austria

For Mr Ibrahim, 60 years old, it all started 8 November 2012 at 2.30 in the morning. Armed men attacked his village of Ras Al Ain in north eastern Syria, firing wildly in the air. The men, believed to be jihadists with links to foreign countries, were targeting the 250 Christian families living in the village, going from house to house in search of them. Those who could not flee fast enough were killed. Schools and shops were destroyed.  Everything with a Christian connection was destroyed.

“I don’t understand why they did this,” he said. “We have never done anything to anyone. We have lived in peace. We have never possessed weapons.”

Mr Ibrahim and his family managed to escape. Two sons are in Turkey, while he reached Lebanon with his wife and another son. For five months they have been living in the Church of St Gabriel (Mor Gabriel) in Ajaltoun , Mount Lebanon. The only aid he has received is an emergency aid kit from Caritas, including a food parcel.

Occasionally he goes to Beirut to an embassy to see about getting asylum in a European country, but the chances are poor. Most of the time he just paces in the Church grounds, fearing the future. He watches every piece of news from Syria, most of which is, he says, “blood and destruction”.

Maria

Maria at the Caritas office in Taalabaya. Photo by Stefan Maier/Caritas Austria

Maria at the Caritas office in Taalabaya. Photo by Stefan Maier/Caritas Austria

Crowds gather outside the Caritas office in Taalabaya, a small town in the Bekaa Valley. Women calm their children as they patiently queue. They’ve arrived from Syria only a few days ago and have heard that they can get aid here.

“Every day there are more,” said Maria, a 30 year old trained nurse who has managed the Caritas office for four years now. She says at first there was a few, then for several months they would receive 80 new refugees a day and recently the figure is 150 every day. And there are always more who need help and not enough hours in the day for the Caritas staff. The refugees receive a food package, a hygiene kit, blankets, vouchers for clothes.

A mobile clinic is constantly in use and provides the most urgent medical emergencies. Most common are minor injuries and skin diseases, lung infections and diarrhoea. “Recently, we have cases of scabies and leishmaniasis (a skin disease),” she says.

Maria’s team looks after refugees in about a 20 km radius. In the beginning, the local population was very supportive and the situation calm. Maria says the demands on the Lebanese people are becoming too much and, with no end in sight to the crisis, she wonders how long things can remain stable.

Welcome to the Banana Camp

Skin diseases in the camps in Lebanon are spreading fast. Credit: Andreas Zinggl/Caritas Austria

Skin diseases in the camps in Lebanon are spreading fast. Credit: Andreas Zinggl/Caritas Austria

It’s not easy to reach the family of Methai Mubarak Adaher. First you must pass over a wooden board across a stream. Then you must get past Hassan Al Methai. The young Syrian is strongly built, his expression severe. Only those he trust will he let by. Luckily Caritas has his confidence, and its social workers can enter.

The story of Banana Camp begins with Hassan. At the beginning of 2012, the battle for the Syrian city of Homs raged. Hassan and his family were desperate to leave the city. His business partner had built apartments for 74 families in Sidon. The building work was finished outside, but inside it was all untouched. But it was a roof over his family’s heads.

Others soon followed: relatives, friends, friends of friends.  It’s now full. The residents pay $100 per month, which is cheap by local standards. Just 300m away, the same amount of money will get you a plot of land that you can put up a tent in. And the other attraction is that it’s next to a banana plantation where there is the possibility to work. The flight from Syria is expensive. It costs as much as $1500 per family in bribes and other expenses. Once in Lebanon, prices are much higher than in Syria.

Methai Mubarak Adaher is happy to talk. Normally there would be coffee, but times are hard. He arrived with his family five months ago from Homs. At first it was very difficult. But with a starter pack of food, clothing vouchers, and personal hygiene items from Caritas, things started to look up. They still need mattresses.

At least he says they are safe from gunfire and artillery. One day he hopes to return to Syria, though he says, “At home, everything is destroyed.”

Yassar

Yassar grew up a Palestinian refugee in Syria. After his home and business were destroyed, he's now fled to Lebanon. Credit:  Andreas Zinggl/Caritas Austria

Yassar grew up a Palestinian refugee in Syria. After his home and business were destroyed, he’s now fled to Lebanon. Credit: Andreas Zinggl/Caritas Austria

“Work,” says Yassar, 41 years old. “I just need work.” But it’s not that he doesn’t want for anything else. His windows are covered with makeshift cardboard. There is little to eat. There is no medical care. He is in a wheelchair.

He has lived in Nahr El Bared camp for a few months along with his wife and three children, aged 6 years to 6 months. Nahr El Bared is a camp originally for Palestinian refugees, about 10 km from Tripoli in the north of Lebanon. In 2007, the whole camp was bombed during heavy fighting between Islamist terrorists and the Lebanese army. It’s being rebuilt and the standard of accommodation is poor. But at least it is a roof for new arrival of refugees, Palestinians from Syria like Yassar and his family.

In Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp in the Syrian capital Damascus, Yassar had a repair shop for radios, televisions and other electronic devices. He was doing well and had three employees As a child of Palestinian refugees, Yassar grew up with nothing. Now his children are in the same situation.

On 5 November, 2012 his home in Syria was were bombed. Now he must start again from nothing. “If I could at least work, then I wouldn’t need help from anyone. I could organise everything for myself,” he says.

“Caritas cannot provide him with a job, but have given his family a starter pack with food, hygiene items, blankets and mattresses have him to help with his new beginning in Lebanon.

Massnaa

Caritas helps Filippinos employed as domestic workers in Syria flee the conflict. Massnaa crossing. Credit: Andreas Zinggl/Caritas Austria

Caritas helps Filippinos employed as domestic workers in Syria flee the conflict. Massnaa crossing. Credit: Andreas Zinggl/Caritas Austria

It’s Sunday, 10 clock in the morning on the Syrian-Lebanese border crossing of Massnaa. From here it’s 60 km to the Syrian capital Damascus.  Massnaa is the only way to legally cross the border. There is a traffic jam in both directions. Many Syrians are travelling to Lebanon to buy food, fuel and other things that are now scarce in Damascus.

Others cross the border by foot to seek safety from the conflict. Hundreds a day. But thousands cross illegally elsewhere.

Two white buses have just arrived from Damascus. On the buses are 69 Filipino women, from 16 to 60 years old. They will be met by the officials from the Embassy of the Philippines and two Caritas assistants who help with border formalities.

The large majority of the women are victims of human trafficking, according to the Embassy staff. They have been lured away with all sorts of promises of work in Europe and North America. But instead they end up in the Middle East, working around the clock as housemaids, their passports are taken away, their salaries unpaid. For many, the war in Syria has been the only way to escape this captivity.

It’s the 12th evacuation of foreign domestic workers from Syria that Caritas’ Jeanne d’Arc Hobeika has been involved with. She has worked for Caritas for over a decade. A few years ago, she helped Filipino maids to escape the war in Lebanon to reach safety in Syria!

The mood on the bus is upbeat. “It’s a mixture of worry, fear and optimism,” said Hobeika. “It’s a survival strategy.”

She says that only parts of Damascus have been affected by the fighting, but if the fighting escalates then it will be too late to brings these people to safety.

An escalation in fighting is the great fear in Lebanon. What if the situation in Syria and Damascus gets worse and another one or two million people make their way to Lebanon. And what if they come not over two years but in one week. These are dark days for Syria and the region.

Sources Andreas Zinggl and These blogs were first published (in German) on the Caritas Austria website