By Noelle Fitzpatrick, Trócaire’s Syria Response Officer, reports on her recent experiences meeting Syrian refugees in Lebanon
Winter is coming but it is still 28 degrees in Beirut. The prolonged summer weather is putting huge pressure on water reserves. Daily electricity cuts across the city have been the norm for years and when the water supply is reduced, power is even more restricted.
In the north of the country, I visited a farming area where 12 Syrian families live together in polytunnels. Even in mid-October they were stiflingly hot – I cannot imagine what they would have been like in the height of summer.
The families pay up to $200 per month to the land owner but earn only $1 per hour for the work they do. The internal walls of the homes were made out of washing powder bags glued together. Mattresses on the floor were the only furniture apart from a few pots for cooking.
Outside, we practiced kicking points with some boys and girls across the top of the polytunnels, using a small plastic tub.
Pre-conflict, only a four-hour drive separated Beirut in Lebanon from Damascus in Syria. Depending on the security situation it can take much longer these days.
Buildings in Aleppo, Syria, before and after bomb damage (Photo: Caritas)
I spoke to a woman who had made the journey from the Syrian capital. She told me about the crowds of people at the border who had been refused entry into Lebanon. This was the first time she had witnessed people being turned back like that. There was one woman who was in floods of tears because her daughter was giving birth to her first baby in Lebanon and she wanted to be with her, but she was refused entry.
I met a young boy selling lottery tickets on the street in Beirut. I knew he was Syrian, and he asked for something to eat. I bought him a KFC and though he knew no other English, but he must have said ‘thank you’ to me a dozen times.
The girl at the cash register told me he was from Hama in Syria and was here with his family. Many children like him are exposed to dangers on the streets of Lebanon. With no resources and little possibility to work or earn enough to cover increasing rental costs, many families see no choice other than to encourage their children to find ways of earning some income in this way.
On Saturday I visited a ‘retention centre’ for migrant workers in Lebanon. It is where migrant workers who have irregular status in Lebanon go until their status is regularised. The retention centre is under a bridge in a busy city centre thoroughfare. There is no natural light and bad air quality from the traffic fumes.
Up to 600 people – 400 women and 200 men – are kept in a handful of cells. Water rationing and limited space and services means they are lucky to have a short shower every few days. One hot meal per day is provided by Trócaire’s partner Caritas and nearby religious sisters – the detainees must eat, wash and defecate in their cells. Caritas provides medical, psycho-social and legal support, as well as group activity for some of the women’s groups in the afternoon.
Caritas staff helping Syrians who have arrived in Lebanon (Photo: Caritas)
One of the workers there has spent 8 years working in this underground project – for up to twelve hours a day, sometimes seven days a week. She says it has taken its toll on her health, but the conditions had improved over time as a result of Caritas support for air filtration, medical, legal and other supports.
She told me about being in Damascus before the conflict in Syria erupted. She took a taxi and when she arrived at her destination the taxi driver refused to charge her. She asked why and the driver told her he could never forget the face of the person who had helped him with some simple medications when he had been locked in that detention centre under the bridge in Beirut a few years previously. This, she said, is one of the reasons she stayed with that project so long.
I was at an afternoon meeting on the outskirts of Beirut when a burst of gunfire erupted. One of our Caritas colleagues from Damascus jumped and look around terrified. It turned out there was a training ground for Lebanese Armed Forces nearby.
You can step out of a war zone for a few days, but it doesn’t step out of you so easily.