Rashaya District, Bekaa Valley (Refugees in Lebanon)

March 7, 2013

Rashaya District, Bekaa Valley (Refugees in Lebanon)

M is a 41 year-old father of four from Damascus.  A chef and restaurant owner back home, he fled in August, 2012 with his family amidst the bombs and gunfire engulfing them. The destruction of his house and restaurant in a bombing—“targeted,” he says—finally prompted their exodus to Lebanon.  He doesn’t want to use his full name or have his face photographed.  But he wants to show how he and his family are struggling as refugees.

“Everything I own has been destroyed,” he said. “It’s all gone.”  Two of his brothers were killed in the attack.  The rest of his family remains in Syria, including another brother recently released after 22 years in prison and now suffering alone from mental illness.

“I would like to go back to Syria but I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said M.  “I hope this regime will fall so that we can go back.  At the beginning [of the conflict] we were just going through peaceful demonstrations.  Suddenly they started slaughtering us.”

Their home is now a small converted classroom in an abandoned school in the picturesque Rashaya District in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.  Six people—the children range from two months to ten years—occupy the room, sleeping on thin foam mattresses lining three of its four walls.  Against the other wall sit their meager worldly possessions.

What they carried with them—essentially a few articles of clothing—today shares space with a collection of items typifying a refugee family’s existence: rough, gray woolen blankets, carefully folded children’s clothes, random cooking utensils.  Thanks to the kindness of Rashaya’s residents, and a local sheik who organized a support committee, M and his young family somehow survive. 

The former school sits in a village a thousand meters high, on a snow-swept ridge overlooking the valley floor.  Standing at the edge of a cliff, it’s buffeted by screeching winter winds. Cold air seeps through the warped window frames of the family’s makeshift home.

The unheated building houses roughly 80 people from 14 different Syrian families.  Children dash down the hallways, much like in any school.  But these halls feature drying laundry strung between the windows, a kerosene stove here, a plastic wash basin there.  Since most of the refugees are not yet registered with UNHCR, the children can’t go to an actual school.  And they aren’t eligible for the free healthcare that comes with registration.  So they suffer from the living conditions.

“Our first challenge here is medical care,” said M.  “Money is running out, making it harder to address medical issues.”  His baby is sick with the flu and he’s had no work since arriving in Lebanon.

The former classroom is damp, exacerbated by the previous week’s snow storm. “The humidity in the walls causes the children to become sick,” M explains.  “If you touch the carpets and the rug in the room, they are wet.  The mattresses are covered in fungus and mold.”

The sheik, a Syrian refugee himself who fled more than 16 months ago, does whatever he can for the families, knowing it’s not enough.  “What they suffer from is what I suffer from.”

M’s younger children scamper in and out of the room, escaping its dark confines to play.  Their father rummages under a mattress, revealing a large Syrian flag on a pole.  He waves it in the room, beaming.  His oldest daughter dances around the banner, then stops and stands before it, tall and proud.

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