ANJAR, Lebanon — Images of wounded children and displaced families continue to emerge across the Middle East and along the shores of Europe, as the ongoing Mosul offensive has left more than 10,000 Iraqis in refugee camps for the displaced and the Syrian crisis continues to push masses of people to a stateless condition.
Syrians continue to escape war-torn cities and villages that are bearers of daily attacks carried out by a cadre of adversaries that include the Bashar al-Assad regime and its allies, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), terror groups and mercenary forces. As host countries like Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon continue to struggle with assimilating and supporting the large influx of refugees, a group of young Syrian refugee professionals in Lebanon are striving to break the burdensome stereotypes of refugees.
“Many of the refugees you see here in Lebanon wanted to stay in Syria, but had no choice,” Dr. Fadi al-Halabi, a Syrian refugee who fled his hometown of Damascus to Lebanon in 2013, told Al-Monitor. He was completing his last year of residency as a neurosurgeon back home, and is currently the general director of Multi Aid Programs (MAPS), a grass-roots organization in Lebanon founded by Halabi and fellow Syrian refugees through the support of a virtual Lebanese board.
Since its establishment in 2013, MAPS has provided various medical and educational services to some 300,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon and has served vulnerable members of the Lebanese host community.
Dr. Ibrahim al-Masri is a Syrian refugee from the suburbs of Damascus who serves as the health program manager of MAPS. “We are doing what we can with the limited resources that we have,” he told Al-Monitor. According to Masri, who is a physician, 13 Syrian doctors and nurses as well as two Lebanese physicians support 150 patients on a regular basis at MAPS’ Ghiras al-Khair clinic in Anjar, at a fee of $2 for the Syrians and $6 for the Lebanese. A patient can pay this amount and get any needed service, from dental care to a visit with a nurse or pediatrician.
Halabi said that if professionals like himself and Masri do not provide support for the Syrian refugee population, there is no infrastructure in Lebanon to support this massive influx. “We are working hard to keep the integrity of the Syrians, and keep our hope alive,” said Halabi, who used to work at a public hospital in the regime-held city of Damascus and was forced to flee his home after two of his fellow physician colleagues were arrested and interrogated by the security forces in Syria over allegations of treating opposition forces.
According to the Physicians for Human Rights campaign, since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, more than 269 hospitals endured over 400 attacks — 90% of them conducted by the Assad government and its allies, whose defense department is in charge of the country’s blood banks. These blood banks, according to an August 2016 investigation by The Guardian, have received more than $5 million in aid from the World Health Organization since the beginning of the crisis in 2011.
“Being a doctor in Syria is the first and worst person to be accused by either side — the Assad regime accuses you of healing the opposition and the opposition accuses you of healing Assad supporters,” said Halabi, as he sat in a modest office in Anjar pointing at the VEX prize the MAPS robotic team won in April for their “Hope of Syria” robot during the international VEX robotics competition in Kentucky.
“Hope is something that is hard to hold on to. Lebanon is the hardest place to be a refugee,” said Mohammad al-Masri, a young Syrian teacher who fled his hometown of Homs in 2014. Masri (not a relative of Ibrahim) is MAPS’ education manager and oversees the organization’s informal education programming. He told Al-Monitor that there is a large gap “between the work of the UNHCR, what the Lebanese government demands and what Syrian refugees want to do to support their peers in need.”
According to both Ibrahim al-Masri and Halabi, health care and education remain the top two challenges for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Many of them are not registered and live in unofficial camps along Lebanon’s borders with Syria, and those in the urban areas have no prospect for work or education due to the host country’s limited capacity.
Masri recalls last winter when his pregnant aunt, who fled Homs, was refused admittance by three hospitals in Tripoli as she was bleeding at the entrances of the hospitals. “We kept saying that she was bleeding, but they turned us away because they wanted her UNHCR papers first and we didn’t have any — the discrimination you feel is heavy and is everywhere,” Masri said.
Many of the MAPS employees suggest that if refugee professionals such as doctors and teachers were able to receive a work permit from the Ministry of Labor in Lebanon, they could tackle many challenges, not just for the refugees but also for the Lebanese government that continues to struggle with this influx.
Lebanon’s Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi told Al-Monitor that his country of 4.5 million people does not have the capacity to either hold the refugees or give them work permits. “Lebanon is like a very small hand — it can hold 5 kilograms, but cannot physically hold 15 kilograms. That’s what we are facing today and the solution is for the refugees to go back,” Azzi said.
According to reports released by the UNHCR, there are over 1 million registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon. In reality, however, the number is much higher given that many of them are unable to register with the UNHCR because of a 2015 government mandate that stipulates that the government does not want the refugees to stay considering its limited infrastructure and capacity to support this influx of people. This further complicates conditions for refugees whose numbers, according to local nongovernmental organizations, reach close to 2 million.
Despite work permit and funding limitations, and with the financial support of the Qatari Red Crescent and the Syrian American Medical Society, Halabi and his team have built medical clinics and facilities that were not available in their villages and communities. Their services are available for both the refugee population and the Lebanese in the various neighborhoods of Anjar, Arsal and Tripoli. This includes a medical hotline, a mental health clinic, physiotherapy clinic and a modest-sized breast cancer clinic that is the first of its kind in Lebanon.
Even though they currently do not have the capacity to provide surgery or cancer treatment, Masri takes special pride in the newly opened breast cancer clinic in Anjar. He said that the UNHCR does not provide any cancer medication or treatment to refugees, and that the organization’s aim is to “at least detect and prevent the disease from spreading among women.”
In response to possible solutions to alleviate some of the challenges facing this influx, Azzi said, “Syrian refugees have to go back and the international community has to find a safe zone in Syria or somewhere else so that these people can go back.”
Despite the lack of any proper infrastructure, doctors and educators like those at MAPS are hopeful they can defy these challenges. Halabi said that their vision is not to stay in Lebanon, but to “keep working and creating an infrastructure that one day — God willing — we can take back with us to a new Syria.”