“Children were dying of hunger. There was no milk to feed newborn babies,” said Amal, a 27-year-old mother who has recently fled from Damascus.
“People were eating cats and dogs. We were boiling grass in water to make it go further. You hated the day because there was nothing to eat and you hated the night because there was nothing to eat,” she said.
Syrians continue to flee the war in their country, crossing the border to Lebanon and other neighbouring countries. Even if it is to face a life of uncertainty as a refugee, they say they have no choice because they have to save their children.
“They’ve lost everything, not just their homes and their belongings, but their self worth,” said Laurette Challita, coordinator in the north for the Caritas Lebanon Migrant Centre.
“Our job is to give them back their dignity. To give the refugees control of their own lives,” she said.
The refugees live in makeshift tented camps, abandoned buildings or apartments, for those who can still afford it. They need to pay for rent, electricity, food and water. The children need to go to school, mothers need to give birth in hospitals and the elderly need medical help.
While the wants increase, resources are dwindling. The U.N. says it’s received just 28 percent of the $6.5 billion it requires for 2014.
“I have a 2-year-old baby. When I see a mother with a new baby. I tell her she must eat so she can feed the baby. It breaks my heart because I know she can’t afford to,” said Laurette Challita.
Lebanon is a tiny country with a population of 3 million. It is struggling to cope with the influx.
“One million refugees has put huge pressure on Lebanon,” said Fr. Paul Karam, president of Caritas Lebanon. “A third of our population is now Syrian. Imagine if the UK, Italy or the USA had to host that many people.”
The scale of the crisis is staggering. Around 2.8 million Syrian refugees have fled to neighboring countries, while close to 10 million are in need of aid inside the country.
“We don’t have enough concrete material in our hands to help everyone ,” said Fr. Paul Karam. “The lack of aid is a scandal. Lebanon shouldn’t have to pay the bill for this crisis.”
Caritas is continuing to distribute aid such as food parcels, stoves and bedding to new arrivals. Its mobile clinics and medical centres provide basic health care.
“We’re able to provide a good level of care,” said Dr Joseph Dibeh, who works at a Caritas clinic in Beirut. He is proud that they haven’t recorded one fatality in two years.
“It’s frustrating as we could be doing more. Instead of the refugees having to come to us, we should have health points in the places they live, providing 24/7 care,” he said.
Caritas is diversifying its support, switching from distributions to providing life skills and education for children. Caritas has been able to get 60,000 Syrian refugee children into the school since the start of the year.
Myra Nassif is running a Caritas community centre for Syrian refugees in Dahr El Ain- Koura in the north of Lebanon. The centre provides skills training for adults and teenagers in English, information technology and hairdressing.
Younger children can attend an ‘Accelerated Learning Programme’. They can catch up on what they’ve lost over the last three years. It prepares them to enter the Lebanese school system, which follows a much different curriculum than in Syria.
“Their priorities are rent and food,” said Myra Nassif. “But once they start the activities they love it.”
“We don’t focus on numbers but on the quality of the work. It’s very demanding work, but when the Syrians tell me it’s the best community centre in the area, it makes it worthwhile,” she said.
The centre also provides group therapy. Every refugee has witnessed violence, they’ve seen people killed, lost friends and relatives.
“After therapy, they start to be more open. They start to sleep at night,” said psychiatrist Monette Kraitem. “We can’t erase their memories but we can help them face their current situation.”
Every refugee has the same wish – to go back to their lives before the war.
Hajar is 28 years old, but she looks 40. She comes from Hama, a Syrian city that is one of the main arenas of the three-year civil war. She left when the war began, then returned last year to give birth to her daughter. She got caught in the siege of the city.
“There was bombing during the day for two or three hours, at night it was worse,” she said.
She managed to escape through tunnels built by the French in the 1920’s and gave birth in a hospital. From there she came to northern Lebanon, where she lives in a giant abandoned shopping mall with 120 families. It’s hot, airless and claustrophobic.
Hajar means ‘flight’ in Arabic. In the Old Testament, Hajar was the mistress of Abraham and the mother of Ishmael, the founder of the Arab people. They were expelled into the desert, but God heard their cries and saved them.
Fast forward 4000 years to a similar plea. Raising her eyes up to the heavens, Hajar said, “I hope God hears our prayers for peace in Syria and that one day we’ll be able to go home.”