As Australia receives the first intake of 12,000 Syrian refugees, SBS Radio shares the stories of hope, despite the fear and uncertainty, experienced by Syrians living in a refugee camp in Lebanon.
By
Iman Riman

17 Nov 2015 - 11:58 PM  UPDATED 2 Sep 2016 - 8:49 AM

Many Europeans still question why so many Syrians make the dangerous journey when safe countries lie just across the border in Jordan or Lebanon. But those border countries are stretched to breaking point in coping with people who have fled the bloody civil conflict. 

SBS Radio visited a refugee camp in Lebanon and heard the stories of Syrian women and children living in limbo.

Lebanon now has more refugees per capita than any other country in the world. About 1 in 5 people living in Lebanon are refugees from Syria's civil war – with desperately poor living conditions.

Listen to the report in Arabic

 

"My concern is that we want to go back to our place, but everything’s gone".

Anout refugee camp lies in bushland southeast of Beirut, with tents built to host about 20 Syrian refugee families.

The camp is a collection of classic blue tents, plastic chairs, a portable toilet, an outdoor fire for cooking and a couple of bicycles.

Listen to the report in English (PART 1)

Listen to the report in English (PART 2)

 

 

Amina, Afaf, Khaldiya and Mary are some of the mothers in the camp who talked with SBS.

Amina is from Jisr Ashughour in north-western Syria and has been living in the camp for three years.

“May god help us out of this situation," said Amina, crying.

"I still have family in Syria: my brothers, and sister...I had nephews killed. [Other family members are] with the army, with the rebels...some are in Turkey.

"One of my nephews is getting engaged today there. His mum cannot be with him on this happy day."

"Not many people looked after us, we suffered a lot. My husband is sick, he had three heart operations, and he can’t work."

She said many in the camps experience resentment from some locals whose jobs have gone to people so desperate for work that they accept very low wages.

“First, the situation was very bad having come from your own house where everything was available to bare ground and a tent," she said.

"There is no incentive for life, no water, no electricity, nothing. Not many people looked after us, we suffered a lot. We started to work in the land, picking olives, my daughters and I.

"My husband is sick, he had three heart operations, and he can’t work.”

Afaf lives with her husband and seven children in the camp. She fled from Idlib in northwest Syria two years ago and gave birth to a baby boy in the camp.

He has not been registered because the family cannot afford the $200 registration fee.

Managing her family’s health is a major concern.

“Conditions are bad. Everything is poor," Afaf said.

"I have a sick child with kidney problems, we treat him, we buy him medication.

"Some welfare organisations help, but there’s lack of water. The situation is very poor.”

Khaldiya is a mother with two sick children.

“My daughter is sick: diarrhoea, vomiting, she can’t keep the food in her stomach," she said.

"We got her medication. My older daughter is sick too. Her dad took her to the health centre. She hasn’t been eating or drinking for 3 days."

Fears of violence

"There’s no safety. Anyone can come and abuse us, no safety."

Afaf is also concerned for her girls’ safety as they hear stories about abuse and rape of refugees.

“I have two girls, under the age of 8. Of course I’m more worried about them. There is no safety. Anyone can come and abuse us, no safety.”

Living in the tent in the middle of the bush has its own challenges.

Amina said winter was particularly hard. 

“Nothing protects in the camp. During winter, we were covered by snow.

"They had to shovel the snow away. We bought a small wood heater from the market. We used to pick some dry branches and debris from the bush and burn them.”

'The Syrian kids hit each other'

Children in the refugee camps must travel to attend nearby schools.

But Amina said the children have been subjected to violence, verbal abuse and humiliation by local kids.

“The kids get rejected 'you’re no good', 'you’re crying'.

"They haven’t learned anything new for 3 years, only very little. There is no basic education, no care.

"Even the Syrian kids hit each other, and no one prevents that at all. There is no one to tell them: 'this is allowed, and this isn’t allowed'.

"We became wary of sending our kids. Everyday, we have seen violence in school between the kids."

'I want a tent for myself'

Seventy five year-old Mary came to Lebanon during Ramadan 2014 to visit her family in the camp.

She could not go back to Syria because of the fighting.

She has been living with her son in a shared tent for more than a year.

Her highest hope now is to get her own tent.

“I’m living with my son and his family now, but I want a tent for myself. I’ll be more comfortable by myself. Looks like the situation is going to last [a] long [time].”

Mary used to live with her daughter in her own house in Syria before they had to separate.

“My daughter went to Syria but couldn’t return here because they closed the road," she said.

"She ended up with her sister in Turkey, yes I’m worried, she’s a girl.”

Longing for home

Mary would love to go back to her own house in Syria, but there is not one anymore.

"My concern is that we want to go back to our place, but everything’s gone".

Amina said she would also prefer to go back home when the situation settles. Despite the odds, she plans go back to Syria as soon as the airstrikes stop.

"A tent will suffice, but it’s much better than living in misery, and being humiliated and degraded like this.”

“Yes, we will live in a tent in place of our ruined house [in Syria].

"We [will] clean the ruins, we [will] put a tent and we [will] live there.

"I am hoping they implement a no-fly zone, so people can return to their homes. When they stop the airstrikes, we will go back, we have no problem at all.

"People can cultivate their land, can take care of their animals (cattle) for living.

"Syrians are resourceful, we can make do, we haven’t lived a luxury life before to refuse any other type of living.

"A tent will suffice, but it’s much better than living in misery, and being humiliated and degraded like this.”

While Lebanon provides temporary safety, the refugees face ongoing psychological and emotional pressure.

Amina is one of the many Syrians who complain that some Lebanese simply look down on them.

'We don't mix with anyone'

She said nowadays they prefer to stay in the camp.

“We are so isolated from the people, but we still get our living needs, we get that from the town, bread, food.

"We are not allowed to go and mingle. There’s a curfew on Syrians in the evening. And as women, we are all isolated here. The Lebanese treat the Syrians with disgust, they don’t respect the Syrians at all, therefore we are by ourselves, we don’t mix with anyone.”

Amina said "the Lebanese treat the Syrians with disgust, they don’t respect the Syrians at all, therefore we are by ourselves, we don’t mix with anyone".

Living in limbo

The immediate future for the families living in the camp looks uncertain.

Amina said the landowner is concerned the refugees may stay there endlessly, as happened with Palestinian refugees.

“We are about to be homeless because the land owner needs her land back. She has been told that we will be like the Palestinians; we won’t leave in 60 years. That’s her main reason to evacuate us from her land.

"We haven’t done anything wrong, we did what she asked us for. So far, [there are] about 6 to 7 families have left, see their old places, she forced them to undo their tents, one by one. We are hoping that someone will help us in a new camp, all of us together.”

Many in the camp worry about family members still in Syria and others who have fled to Turkey.

“We have relatives there, and we send them money, whatever we can save, $50, $60.

"We also send money to my sister in law in Syria whose husband was killed. She has small children. She can’t leave them to go and buy bread for them. When they have been attacked by airstrikes, she took them and left to Turkey. She’s living in a camp. We save money and collect donations from each other to send her so she can raise her children there.”

Refugees can leave their homes, but memories are more difficult to leave behind.

“My neighbour in Syria had 7 kids, she was killed. She was cooking for her children when she was hit by a barrel. Her children were injured and she got shrapnel in her head which killed her. We cried a lot.”

Hope for a better future

For Amina, complaining about the situation is just as humiliating as living in the camp.

She said she hopes for a better future, with the help of those who can offer a hand.

“What can I say? We are Muslims, we say: complaining to anyone but God is degrading," she said.

"You ask me to tell you about my conditions, but we don’t demand anything from anyone. Our conditions are now well known to everyone. Who wants to help us or minimize our sufferings, will be rewarded by God. We pray, we fast, and will pray for them to ease their problems too. That’s our belief. That’s what we live by. We don’t like to complain.”

"We pray, we fast, and will pray for them to ease their problems too. That’s our belief. That’s what we live by. We don’t like to complain.”