In the town of Aaqbiye near Sidon in southern Lebanon, 1300 Syrian refugees have taken refuge in an underground garage. The place crumbles, bearing the marks of age and neglect. The refugees come from southern Syria, whose villages and towns were dignified by productive farms and close family ties. All that is lost as the refugees turned destitute. In the camp, there used to be only one latrine for months, before several others were built.
Rabih Shibli and his team from the Center for Civic Engagement and Community Service at the American University of Beirut heard about the garage through their close contact with various relief organisations. Mr. Shibli is an energetic man, impatient with posturing. He sees a problem and seeks results. Mr. Shibli’s team, including a young architect Ali Adnan Basma, raised funds from individuals and from charities such as Secours Islamique and Medrar Foundation in order to refurbish the garage. The point was to “make the inside livable”, he said. In a matter of months, their team was able to upgrade the garage so that the refugees could live a less precarious life.
Almost seven hundred thousand Syrian refugees are now in Lebanon, a state weakened by a long civil war, an Israeli occupation and constant threats of the return of both. “There is always that shadow,” says the writer Sahar Mandour, whose novels shine a light onto contemporary Lebanese society. The Lebanese state, like that of Iraq and Jordan, is not able to manage the crisis by itself. It has come to rely on the U.N. and its specialised agencies to coordinate and even manage refugee relief.
Even the U.N. is overwhelmed. One problem is funds. Much is promised, says the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR), but little makes it to the ground. The Regional Refugee Response Plan calls for $3 billion toward relief, but only 37 per cent of it has been funded. For humanitarian assistance inside Syria, the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has asked for $1.4 billion but has only been promised 43 per cent of that amount. The funding pledges made at the Kuwait conference in January have yet to materialise. The humanitarian effort is “hampered by lack of funding”, said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Because of this, the World Food Program has had to “reduce the size of its food parcels to keep pace with the growing numbers in need. If additional aid is not urgently received, there will be a break in the food pipeline in October”.
To help stem the unfolding crisis, the U.N. has designated Nigel Fisher to be the Regional Humanitarian Coordinator. As of now, five countries in the region have been the recipients of the nearly two million Syrians who have fled their country (an additional five million are internally displaced). Of these, the largest number is in Lebanon (nearing 700,000) with Jordan not far behind (just over 500,000). Parenthetically, the U.S. has only taken in 33 Syrian refugees. Egypt, which was very generous with Syrian refugees from 2011, placed restrictive entry procedures from July 8. Syrians who arrived on aircraft from Latakia and Damascus were sent home if they did not have a visa and prior security approval, according to UNHCR. Most refugees end up in Lebanon and Jordan where the weak states rely upon municipal leaders and ordinary citizens to bear the cost of relief. Over 4150 children have crossed into Syria’s neighbours without an adult, according to Unicef.
In Sarafand, not far from Aaqbiye, Mr. Shibli and his team found Syrian refugees living in substandard tents. Using locally fabricated materials including marine plywood and corrugated sheets, he was able to design a house whose prototype cost $1500 per unit. If he made more of them, he said, the cost would come down by nearly half. The UNHCR has gone into partnership with the IKEA Foundation to make pre-fabricated homes that cost $10,000 per house. The IKEA homes are made in Europe, they are harder to repair and they will not endure high velocity winds, says Mr. Shibli, a believer in local construction for refugee homes. Locally built homes would save the U.N. money, he says, and it would employ local people into economies wracked by the refugee influx.