23 December 2013 | by Amy Merone
When Layal greets me at the door of the home that she shares with her husband and their three children, she turns away in shame. ‘I am embarrassed for you to come in,’ she tells me.
Christian Aid / Natalie Naccache
Layal: living in an electricity storeroom
Layal and her family are Palestinian refugees from Syria. They once led a comfortable and happy life in the Syrian city of Homs. But on the afternoon that I meet Layal and her husband, Faysal, and their two-year-old daughter, Helen, their lives seem anything but that. They live in what used to be an electricity storeroom, which they rent for $150 a month. It’s cold and dark.
‘We used to work and provide for ourselves, but look where we are now.’ Layal looks around the storeroom, as if taking in her new surroundings for the first time. I’m struck by how little there is in their home. In the makeshift kitchen behind a curtain, a small frying pan hangs from the wall. A cheese grater sits on a sparse shelf next to two eggs.
‘When we fled Syria we fled with nothing but the clothes we had on,’ Layal explains. ‘We have no winter clothes – nothing. My main concern here is my children. I worry about them. Nothing here feels stable.’
Winter weather approaches
Layal’s family are among the 785,000 official refugees from Syria in Lebanon. For a country with a population of only 4.5 million, the influx of refugees has swelled its population by almost 25 per cent. Lebanon is a country, I’m told, teetering on the edge of breaking point.
Refugees face a miserable winter, the third since the crisis began. Many fled with next to nothing; they struggle to find warm and safe places of sanctuary. I met families living in abandoned shops, in garages and in the basement of a disused mosque. These places offer little protection from the harsh winter weather now sweeping across the Middle East. Children are still clothed in T-shirts and shorts; often having fled from Syria during the searing heat in the summer months.
Helen: fled four months pregnant
Many of the individuals and families whom I met on my recent trip appeared to be in a state of shock. Layal’s sister, Helen, lives next door in what was once a shop. She speaks quickly and laughs often during our time together, but it’s a laughter borne out of disbelief rather than joy or happiness. Helen was four months pregnant when she and her husband, Wassim, fled their home and the fighting in Damascus.
She tells me that she surprised her husband by bringing their photo albums with her when they fled. And as I sit looking through photographs that tell me the story of their lives together, I’m struck by the enormity of the change they have experienced.
Photographs depict a happy, comfortable, playful life. ‘It is humiliating for us. This is the end that was waiting for us; living in a shop.’ Becoming a refugee has turned Helen into somebody that she no longer likes or recognises, she tells me.
Ismael: physical and emotional loss
It is this sense of loss – both physical and emotional – that refugees describe to me in each of the places that I visit. In Ein el Helweh, a Palestinian refugee camp south of Beirut, more than 3,500 Palestinian Syrian refugees are estimated to have arrived here in search of sanctuary since the conflict in Syria began almost three years ago. For these individuals, their lives are marked by a history of displacement.
Ismael is a Palestinian refugee from Syria. He and his family were displaced within Syria three times before they were finally forced to cross the border into Lebanon. ‘Can you imagine the state that we are in?’ Ismael asks me as I sit with him in the small two-room apartment that he shares with fifteen members of his family. ‘Can you imagine after all this time how I feel? I should be able to feel alive again.’
It is the emotional needs, as much of the physical needs, of the people whom I met that strike me. Families spoke of having lost everything. They described horrific scenes of violence they had witnessed and lamented years of hard work to build lives that have now been destroyed by war.
Making life more bearable
Christian Aid's local partner, Association Najdeh, supported by funding from our Syria crisis appeal, is working to make life more bearable for the families left with nothing.
Distributing cash vouchers for food and health kits, and providing access to psychosocial activities for women and children deeply traumatised by the violence, they help to provide a bulwark against the unbearable.
So far, Christian Aid has reached almost 40,000 people within Syria and the neighbouring countries of Lebanon and Iraq with a combination of shelter, food and essential items, as well as education and psychosocial support.
How you can help
Donate nowChristian Aid's Syria and Middle East crisis appeal will help those most in need, working through partners, local organisations such as Association Najdeh in Lebanon, and other organisations in Iraq and within Syria to provide food, medical assistance and other essential services.
Find out more
Donate to the Syria Crisis Appeal
Voices from Syria - find out what Christian Aid partners are doing to help those who have escaped the conflict in Syria
Amy's blog was also published on New Internationalist