The Forgotten Syrians

Syrian Refugees in Lebanon: Bordering on Disaster

Lebanon has more than 100,000 refugees from Assad’s civil war. They subsist without camps, money, or hope. Jamie Dettmer reports.

Bilal Hussein / AP Photo

The only other objects in sight are two bare bulbs. They cast a ghoulish light on this roughly 8-by-10-foot room, where the family of eight struggles to survive. Fourteen other Syrian families live in equally squalid conditions, here on the top floor of an unfinished five-story apartment block near central Tripoli. They share two rudimentary bathrooms with their neighbors, down the pitted, bare-concrete corridor that runs alongside their cramped rooms.

War has stopped time here. It often does that in the Levant. Here in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, a refugee mother is nursing her 17-month-old son, the youngest of her six children. She sits cross-legged on a thin, stained mattress covering one of the three rickety, rusted single beds pushed against the breeze-block walls. This scene and this woman, with her black hijab and brown abaya, could be from any decade in the past half- century—from any of the wars that have repeatedly savaged this region. The knowledge is no comfort to Samr or her family.

Samr has a powerful face with a strong jaw-line. Her 34-year-old spirit isn’t broken, yet. She’s a fighter. In many of other Syrian refugees in north Lebanon, you can sense the defeat. It isn’t easy to stay resilient or optimistic in such circumstances. Samr and her family fled their home in Homs seven months ago. “I was scared of the bombing, of the killing,” she says. “We were surrounded by Shabiha [Assad regime thugs].” Now the family is subsisting on $240 a month from the UN, distributed in the form of vouchers that can only be used at certain stores in Tripoli. “We shop around and do our best to find the cheapest food to make it last,” says Samr.

Medicines and doctors’ fees are hopelessly out of reach. Samr’s dark-haired 4-year-old, running in and out of the concrete-floored room with only a blanket for a door, lost his right eye to cancer a few months ago. His ill-fitting artificial eye needs to be replaced. His parents daub it with anti-bacterial cream, hoping to prevent infection. They have no money for tests to make sure the boy’s cancer hasn’t recurred or spread. And what could they do, even if it has?

"The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has joined in the criticism of the Hizbullah-dominated Lebanese government, saying there has been a lack of cooperation with refugee officials. The number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon receiving aid from the U.N. jumped by 15,000 last week bringing the total of documented refugees in the country to 115,000, But U.N. officials and local relief workers believe there are thousands of others who are not registered. They blame Lebanese officials for making it increasingly difficult for refugees to secure refugee visas.

The fear is that the mounting refugee crisis will exacerbate sectarian frictions and trigger intercommunal fighting across the region. U.N. officials say there are now more than 400,000 Syrian refugees spread across the countries bordering Syria, including Jordan and Iraq, as well as Lebanon and Turkey. Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan lashed out at the international community last week for failing to intervene in a war that has killed an estimated 40,000 people so far. “It is very strange. There are currently atrocities being committed in Syria and these atrocities are being directed by a state leader,” he said. "How far will this go? When will the permanent members of the Security Council take responsibility?"

Leaders in America, Europe, and the Gulf States insist there’s not much they can do at present. They say the Syrian rebel opposition is too ill-coordinated and fractious to make any difference. Syrian refugees say much the same thing about Western relief efforts. Much aid from the U.N. and private donors never reaches refugees in Lebanon, according to Syrian and Lebanese aid workers. “The Lebanese government isn’t doing enough to make sure the aid moves from the port in Beirut,” says a local refugee coordinator in Tripoli, asking not to be named for fear of reprisals. He says the pro-Assad Lebanese political movement Hizbullah steals and delays supplies in transit. “We just want the aid to get to us. A number of countries, like the U.K. and Germany, have been sending aid, but it gets stopped at the port in Beirut. We lost two consignments of food in the last few months that went rotten because Hizbullah, which controls the seaport and the airport, wouldn’t release them.”

Speaking in his shabby two-room offices in downtown Tripoli, the coordinator points to cartons of baby food sent by the U.S.-based relief group Mercy Corps. “This consignment was held up for three months. I had to pay almost half its value in bribes to get it out. A Lebanese lawmaker provided the cash.”

Unlike Turkey and Jordan, the Lebanese government has no camps for Syrian refugees. A fair number of Palestinians were living in Syria, and they can go to any of a dozen overcrowded but long-established Palestinian camps in Lebanon. But Syrian nationals are out of luck. The Lebanese government says it can’t afford to build camps for them. The U.N. provides a stipend of $30 per person per month, and the Lebanese government has promised to foot the costs of one operation for any wounded Syrian. Otherwise the refugees are on their own.

Groups of families pool their resources to afford rentals. Houses run an average of $350 a month in Tripoli, and landlords demand six months in advance. “The families just don’t have that kind of money to give up front,” says the refugee coordinator. If three or four families pool their U.N. vouchers and share the cost of housing, they have a total of roughly $300 left for all other expenses —including food, water, electricity, clothing and medicines.

The families in Samr’s unfinished building are dreading the winter and the damp and cold it will bring. They try to find work. Ahmed, a 53-year-old father of two, tries to keep up appearances. He offers me tea and a bed to sit on. “I am trying to find work, but the Lebanese want to employ Lebanese,” he says. “We try to cope with the U.N. vouchers. But it is not enough.” His 47-year-old wife, Zanah, recently suffered a stroke and has lost the use of one arm. “The doctor offered to provide the medicines I need,” she says. “It is still too much for us. We know Lebanon is a poor country, so we don’t blame them. But maybe America and the Gulf States could help more.”