Middle-class Syrian refugees forced to live in tents

The situation of Syrian refugees is going from bad to worse, as they use up their last savings and move into tents.

al-monitor Syrian refugees are seen at a refugee camp in Zahle in the Bekaa Valley, Nov. 18, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir.

Topics covered

syrian refugees in lebanon, syrian refugees, syrian civil war, refugee issues, refugee camps

Jun 25, 2015

“I believe we are humiliated,” said Abu Uday when asked whether he believes that he and his family are refugees. They have been in Lebanon for 2½ years now, during which they lost all the trappings of the social class to which they belonged back in Syria. Abu Uday said, “I am afraid we will have the same fate as the Palestinians and spend our lives waiting to return to Syria.” He said he keeps repeating that this crisis is temporary to reassure himself. As tears trickled down his face he said, “I am afraid of tomorrow. I fear for the future of my children. What if Lebanon witnesses security unrest? Where can we go?”

Abu Uday has every reason to fear the future. The man used to be a government employee in Syria, his daughter Afraa was studying agricultural engineering at a university and his three sons were in school and learning trades. He lived with his wife and children on one of Damascus' side streets and he owned a two-story house and shops in his hometown in eastern Qalamoun. He is now a destitute refugee in Lebanon. Two years after his displacement, he has become helpless. He hopes that the situation does not get any worse worse and that he won’t end up in front of a judge or a doctor.

When Abu Uday and his family first came to Lebanon, they rented an apartment in the industrial city of Zahle for $300 per month. Then they moved to an apartment in a building between Zahle and al-Dalhamieh for $250 per month. When the family used up all of their savings, Abu Uday started contacting friends who stayed in Syria, asking them to sell his furniture and family properties, until they had nothing left to sell. Then, the worst happened. The family that used to belong to the Syrian middle class was forced to live in a tent.

An-Nahar met Abu Uday in his tent during a tour organized for reporters by the Swiss nongovernmental organization Medair on the occasion of World Refugee Day. Medair spokesman Hiba Fares said, “The NGO has been working with Syrian refugees in Lebanon since 2012 to improve the camps distribute shelter items, including wood and canvas and tents, building equipment, general hygiene and sanitation items and water tanks and water filters. The NGO provides health services and prepares digital maps of the camps used by all relief organizations.” She added, “Medair is working in more than 900 camps out of 2,178 camps in the western and central Bekaa region and in the northern Bekaa, except for Arsal.”

Fares pointed out that the number of camps in the Bekaa increases every couple of days. Fares noticed an increase in the number of Syrian families forced by circumstances to move from rented apartments or rooms to tents. She said, “What was unthinkable for these families became an unavoidable reality. Four years after the start of the crisis in Syria, these families spent all their savings and now they lack income to pay rent and afford the expenses of everyday life.”

Medair gave Abu Uday free wood and canvas, allowing him to build a tent in the camp near the Litani River after renting a space for the structure. During the first nights they spent in the tent, Um Uday woke up horrified whenever she heard a sound outside, with only canvas to protect her.

Refugees have no privacy in the overcrowded camps with wall-to-wall tents. They all share a limited space with other families coming from different environments, and have to live near the Litani River and endure its horrid smell. All this became too much for Abu Uday when he found out that living in the camp meant that his wife and daughter were forced to work the land with the camp officer, against Abu Uday’s values and principles. As his shelter collapsed under the weight of snow, Abu Uday had had enough, and the family moved to the vicinity of the building where they used to rent an apartment. For 500,000 pounds ($330) per year, they rented a space for another tent that they built from the wood and canvas provided by Medair.

In this structure, five Syrian refugee families lived with Abu Uday’s family. Eventually, one moved to Faour in the Bekaa Valley, another headed to Beirut and three families returned to Syria. Abu Uday and his family returned to Syria in the same way they came into Lebanon, clandestinely through Arsal. In Syria, the family found their house completely destroyed and moved in with Abu Uday’s uncle. The two families celebrated the wedding of Afraa, who was studying to become an agricultural engineer, to her father's cousin, a mechanical engineer.

But staying in Syria was impossible. Abu Uday had fled with his children to prevent them from being forced to take up arms in the ranks of the Syrian army or joining the Free Syrian Army. So the family returned to Lebanon, but legitimately this time, with the exception of two sons who had become adults, complicating their entry procedures into Lebanon. After paying bribes to prevent the two sons from being arrested at all the security checkpoints that the family passed through in Syria, the family had to pay $500 for a taxi that sneaked the two young men into Lebanon on mountainous road behind al-Masnaa crossing.

The two young men live very cautiously in Lebanon because their stay is illegal. They are strangers, with no friends or relatives. They do not socialize with anyone and move carefully. Their movement is limited to Zahle’s roundabout, where they wait to be picked up as day workers.

The family had been excluded from the refugee list one month after their registration with the UNHCR, which keeps restricting its services, and they benefit only from medical care covered by the United Nations. Three months after Afraa gave birth to her daughter Cham, her husband is still unable to legally enter Lebanon.

Abu Uday’s family is left totally destitute. The seven members live today in a single room. The family uses cardboard boxes to protect themselves from heat, cold and insects. They lay carpets and mats on a floor that is dirt instead of concrete, which they cannot afford.

Abu Uday says that all relief organizations, including those of the United Nations, only help people living in the camps and forget about those living elsewhere in dire need of help. It is as if the Syrians have to lose their honor to be entitled to help or aid, he says.

On the occasion of World Refugee Day, Medair's Fares appeals to the international community: “The Syrian refugees’ situation is going from bad to worse after four years, and the crisis is ongoing and being exacerbated. Do not forget about them.”

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