A Syrian tragedy of many dimensions

The stories of Syrian refugees in Lebanon form the narrative of the number of catastrophic ways in which the Syrian civil war is affecting its people

June 20, 2014 01:13 am | Updated June 07, 2016 04:54 am IST

“One family flees Syria every 60 seconds,” is a line in the United Nations press release sent to my email earlier this month; a simple fact overlooked because of the violence and rhetoric of one of the bloodiest civil wars in this generation. No matter which city was getting bombed and which side was winning, one family was fleeing Syria every 60 seconds.

Living and working in Dubai, I have had a ringside view of the Syrian conflict for the past three years, more so because of colleagues who were directly affected. Like the makeup artist at my TV station whose house in Homs had been reduced to rubble, or the editor who had been desperately trying to get his family out of Damascus.

Despite that, the enormity of the Syrian war most often did not register. Shelling, rockets, bombing, even a chemical attack; each violent event just seemed to merge into the other.

Magnitude of refugee flow It is the summer following the epochal Arab Spring, and most people are too weary of conflict to really process the magnitude of events.

Even then, how did the world not notice that Lebanon, a country no bigger than the State of Tripura, is today home to a million Syrian refugees? From just 5,000 refugees in 2011, today, one in every four people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. And the number keeps growing.

Every day, the UNHCR (The United Nations Refugee Agency) registers about 3,000 new refugees across Lebanon. By its estimate, there will be two million Syrian refugees in Lebanon alone by the end of this year — a number so staggering that foreign aid just can’t keep up.

Despite launching one of its biggest funding appeals in recent years, the UNHCR, which is coordinating aid on the ground, has just received a quarter of what it requires. Simply put, this means that there’s just not enough money to even feed everyone.

“Do you notice the number of pregnant women here?” a doctor with the International Medical Corps asked me. Ever since I had arrived in Lebanon, I noticed pregnant women or very young children everywhere I went. Given that birth control is not just freely available but advocated at the primary health centres, things just didn’t add up. Until, of course, it was explained to me thus — “As aid dries up, only women who are pregnant or breastfeeding are receiving food aid. This has made it extremely difficult for us to promote birth control.”

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

A day before I reached Tripoli, the northern Lebanese city that shares a border with Homs, the Syrian city, a woman had tried to immolate herself outside the gates of the local U.N. office. Hers was the most desperate form of protest, as she knew of no other way to feed her three children. Since then, aid workers are worried about the occurrence of copycat incidents.

No formal camps The situation in Lebanon is starkly different from other refugee crises elsewhere, in that there are no formal refugee camps there. More than 80 per cent of the refugees live in some form or other of rented accommodation, paying on an average the equivalent of $200 a month.

Where does this money come from?

Although Syrian refugees are not allowed legal employment in Lebanon yet, it is hard to keep checks on the unorganised, informal sectors. Which is why, for example, 16-year-old Omar, who lives with his mother and four siblings, has managed to find a job at a plastic factory. Just three years ago, he was a bright student back in Syria who dreamt of becoming an engineer. Today, the meagre salary that he earns is just enough to pay for the room his family stays in. For food and other essentials, they still depend on aid.

Theirs may be the story of just one family, but through them alone, one sees the number of catastrophic ways in which the war is affecting its people. When Omar’s father died in a blast just outside their house in Homs, and when it seemed like the shelling would never stop, his mother took the family of five children and fled from Syria. Her first, most immediate concern was the survival of the children, but with time other concerns took over. The eldest son, who never even got the time to grieve his father’s death, was forced to grow up and became the family’s sole breadwinner.

Another son has a urinary tract infection that needs urgent attention but the family must wait since the free medical aid they are eligible for does not cover this treatment. Going by aid guidelines, this is not an emergency.

Then there’s the daughter who still gets nightmares of incessant shelling and exhibits classic signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

When the mother was asked whether she had taken her to clinics that offer free counselling, she smiled wistfully. “I barely have the money to take care of their physical illnesses. Where would I find the time to start thinking of their mental traumas?”

Psychologists on the ground are warning of an unspoken mental health epidemic. Almost everyone is suffering from some form or other of PTSD, which is manifesting itself in violent ways. Every day there are reports of domestic violence, child abuse and hostilities between people and communities. It is almost a tinderbox where everyone is just trying to survive.

Fortunately, mental health has been a very important component of the rehabilitation programme, with trained psychologists counselling people at the primary health centres. Equally important are the specially designed vocational training and community centres that are proving to be the most effective way of defusing tensions and giving refugees some sense of purpose in daily life.

It was at one such community centre that I met Adnan. Even from a distance you could tell that he was the life of the group, greeting everyone with a charming smile. It was only when I got close enough though, that I realised that he had no legs. They had to be amputated after he was injured by a stray shell. But the shell couldn’t touch his never-say-die attitude.

Today, he is a community volunteer, one among a group of selected Syrian refugees who act as the voice of their people to the aid agencies.

“I may be disabled physically but my spirit is not disabled,” he said proudly.

It’s easier to report on casualties of war where the losses are so apparent to see. But this conflict has seen tragedy play out at so many intangible levels. It’s only now that stories are emerging of patients of diseases like cancer being left untreated. As Ms. Ninette Kelly, the UNHCR chief in Lebanon explains, some cancer treatments can cost up to $10,000, a price at which 10,000 children can be given primary health access. It’s a catch-22 situation.

Hope, with schooling But not all stories coming out of Lebanon are so grim.

Visit any of the schools and you’ll witness the Second Shift Schools, one of the most heartening projects in the country at the moment.

According to the latest statistics there are more than 4,00,000 refugee children in Lebanon today, a number too vast and overwhelming for Lebanese schools to accommodate. The only other prospect, of so many children outside school, spending year after year with no formal education, was too scary a scenario to contemplate. Finally, after brainstorming, the UNHCR and Lebanon’s Education Ministry came up with a solution.

Once the regular shift at a school was done, a second shift was operated where classrooms were opened to refugee children. There are still hiccups like the different curriculum and the language barrier; in Syria, students studied only in Arabic. The Lebanese curriculum is in French and English. You just have to see the look of accomplishment and pride on the children’s faces as they recite the alphabet, and you know that these classrooms offer much more than just a formal education. Now, only one in four refugee children has access to these schools, but it’s still a start.

Across the country, initiatives like these are being developed to help empower not just the refugees, but even the overwhelmed hosts. But every official we meet reiterates that these can, at best, be temporary solutions. The emphasis needs to be on ending the war in Syria so that the millions of displaced Syrians can go back and begin the long, arduous process of rebuilding their lives.

For now, despite the recent presidential elections which saw Bashar al-Assad win with 88.7 per cent of the votes, the outlook for the refugees in Lebanon looks bleak. It is their third summer outside home and they still don’t know when they will return. Or what they will return to.

(Priyanka Bhattacharya Dutt is a television journalist based in Dubai.)

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