Along the highway running from Beirut into the Bekaa valley a lot of construction and development is going on. A brand new dealer in luxury cars and billboards for cosmetic surgery are lined up along the road; we pass by a vineyard. In one hour by car from the vibrant Beirut we enter into a different world. Damascus is only another hour away. It is surreal. At the foot of snow covered mountain tops, in green fields and along roads more and more small tents pop up. Made of plastic, sackcloth or old advertising posters these tents are a temporary shelter for Syrian refugees. Some have been here for two years.
A total of 80 families are living in the camp, and ten more are expected this week alone. They are among the 4500 new Syrian refugees that register every day at the UN refugee organization UNHCR. (In the Netherlands ten to fifteen thousand individuals apply for asylum each year, in Lebanon this number is reached in just 3 days). Many do not register at all, either out of fear, or simply because they cannot afford the journey to the registrations office. As a result, these people do not receive food stamps, and are not counted in the official numbers.
Kids are running around, playing, chasing birds, or dangling on electricity cords spanning from tent to tent. ‘There will be deaths from electrocution’, an aid worker warned. With a few words of French or English they curiously approach the visitors. Their parents open up with stories and tell us they are hoping for sanitary facilities and work. Most of these families came from Homs where the men worked in construction. Some women are without their husbands. Laundry dries in the sun, and there are jerrycans on the ground. It is a long walk to get drinking water.
Most Syrians do not stay in such camps, and are therefore less visible. We do not see images of tents reaching till the horizon. And fortunately, these children are not starving. The refugees feel welcome and mostly get help from local communities. It is with incredible flexibility that Lebanese families welcome Syrians in their homes, including those with a different ethnic background. Approximately one million Syrians live in Lebanon now, which itself has a population of 4 milion. Over half of the refugees is under eighteen years old.
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So far, the cause of their suffering, the war in Syria, has not been ended by the international community. But we can do much more for these people. We can provide for more than the 1.2 million Euros Dutch people donated during a televised fundraiser. Political leadership is needed to prevent Lebanon, between Israel and Syria, from becoming the spark that ignites further conflict in the Middle East. To ensure that the lives of people improve and the burden on Lebanon is relieved. To ensure that the pledged funds are actually reaching the people in need. So far only 40% of committed donations have been transferred.
Lebanon’s absorption capacity is stretched to its limits. Competition for day laborers, pressure on its infrastructure and the ever present risk of ethnical tensions spurred by the overflowing war. Frankly, it is surprising that the country has coped so well thus far. This might also explain the lack of attention, and relatively smaller amounts of aid funds for Lebanon.
The Lebanese have done their part. Now we must step up to the plate once more. The fact that the EU practically does not take in Syrian refugees itself, stands in sharp contrast with the open arms and borders between Syria and Lebanon. The least we can do is to provide solid shelter and care. Tents, sanitary facilities, medicine, education and particularly the reinforcement of Lebanese communities, stability, services and infrastructure are needed, as well as to build capacity to handle the growing flow of refugees. We should also consider relocating refugees to other areas. A daunting task that might prove unavoidable.
At the end of our visit a group of women invites me for a glass of tea. I ask a young man who speaks a few words English how his mother is doing, he translates: “Our lives: black”.
Let us at least alleviate their burdens.
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