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Syria's double refugees in Lebanon

20 December 2013 | by Mairead Collins

Mairead Collins, Emergency Programme Officer, describes what life is like in Lebanon for five-year-old Hamed, now a refugee for the second time.

Hamed sat on the thin mattress beside his father in the dim light of the disused mosque that was home to his and four other families. A boy brimming with shy smiles, he was delighted to show off his copy book and writing abilities to the small party of people gathered in his family's very modest living area.

Palestinian Syrian refugees living in a disused mosque in Lebanon  

The bathroom in the mosque, shared by 30 people

Palestinian Syrians in Lebanon

As he whispered answers to my questions, his father nudged him to tell me his name and age and where he was from. Aged five, home for Hamed until recently was a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria.

Escalating violence there, however, persuaded his parents to abandon their home and livelihood, and put the education of Hamed and his four siblings on hold as they sought safety in neighbouring Lebanon.

There they joined more than 45,000 Palestinian Syrians, now refugees for the second time, who are among the 800,000 plus Syrian refugees who have arrived in the country to escape the fighting.

Living in a disused mosque

Half an hour from central Beirut, the disused mosque in a sea side town felt like a million miles from the Lebanese capital's upmarket shops and clubs and bars.

Hamed's family were one of four living in the building, their restricted living quarters cordoned off by walls of thin chipboard. The kitchen consisted of a two ring gas hob squeezed in the corner beside jerry cans for water. The sanitation, meanwhile, comprised just one small bathroom shared by 30.

In Syria, where Hamed's father owned a metalwork business, the family had a home, and the children had an education. At the mosque, none of his children, including his 15 year old daughter, were in school because he could not afford the $30 per month transport required to get them there.

No jobs and no privacy

A proud man, the father now worked once every couple of weeks alongside his 12-year-old son when jobs were available. Families at the mosque were afforded no privacy and, after neighbours complained, the children were no longer permitted to play outside in the street, nor the young men or the women to gather to chat there in the evenings.

Without school and regular work the family were forced to spend their days in a cramped twilight world, a situation intolerable and fraught with tension.

Clenching his fists, his frustration palpable, Hamed's father asked me how much longer they could stand it. What future would there be for his children? How could they sustain such a life?

Aside from everything else, they'd had to pay $200 for residence in Lebanon, a temporary permission which was expensive to renew, and which the income from irregular casual labour would not cover.

From zero to zero

Meanwhile, the family was ill prepared for the harsh Lebanese winter that was closing in. There was no heating in the building and they didn't have enough blankets. Everyway this family turned they were met with walls closing in on them with little hope for reprieve or improvement from what they are facing.

Hamed's aunt reflected on the life they had left behind and how long it had taken them, second generation Palestinian refugees, to build it from having nothing. It was like going "from zero to zero" she said.

I last saw the family some weeks ago. Since then they have had to move on again, no one at the former mosque could say where, the movements of one family unremarkable amid the dislocation of an entire population.

Making life more bearable

Christian Aid's local partner Association Najdeh, supported with funding from the Roddick Foundation and Christian Aid's Syria Crisis Appeal, are working to make life more bearable for the families left with nothing.

Distributing cash vouchers for food, 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.

All any of these families want is to go home, to return to what they knew, to resume normal lives. The only way this will happen is for the conflict to end, for peace talks to begin to allow a safe return to pick back up the lives left behind. No one is suggesting that is likely to be any time soon.

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. 



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About the author

Máiréad Collins is a Christian Aid Emergency Programme Officer for Asia and the Middle East.

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