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Syria & Lebanon

Refugees add to tensions in troubled land

By Najela Chahda director of the Caritas Lebanon Migrants Centre
I know what it’s like to lose everything. When Lebanon became engulfed in civil war, my family had to abandon our home and everything we owned. 
Overnight, our lives as we knew them disappeared. We went from living normal, middle-class lives to having nothing and waking every day not knowing what the future held. 
When I look at the fate of almost six million Syrians who have lost their homes to civil war, I understand their pain. I know what it is like to see your home disappear into the distance and not know whether you will ever see it again. 
The suffering of Syrians is enormous. About 1.8 million have fled into neighbouring countries, mostly to Lebanon, while a further four million are displaced within Syria. 
When I lost my home, a priest advised me to get involved in social work. I was offered a voluntary position in a Muslim area of Beirut. 
I saw that the people who had destroyed my home had also had their own houses destroyed. I saw their pain and I forgot my own. Today, this is also true in Syria. Everybody is suffering, regardless of politics or religion. 
Three months ago, a young mother came to one of our centres with her sick four-month- old baby. She could not afford the $200 medical bill needed to get him treatment. Our doctors tried to help the child but they could not save him. The baby died while his mother wept. It is difficult to accept that the life of a four-month- old could be lost for the sake of $200, but while politicians bicker, this is the reality of war. 
Children are suffering most. Millions have been out of school for over two years, with no idea of when they will ever return. Many never will. An entire generation of Syrians lack education. Even if peace was declared in the morning, this presents enormous long-term problems for the country. 
Many Syrian children are also deeply traumatised. They have witnessed horrific violence – family and friends blown to pieces by rockets or crushed under collapsing buildings. 
Every day we meet children who can’t sleep, can’t eat and who are haunted by nightmares. They have gone from living normal lives to living in tents or on the side of the road in a foreign land where they know nobody. They are experiencing hunger for the first time. 
Without counselling, they will live with this trauma for the rest of their lives. 
This is a political crisis and it needs a political solution. Proposals to arm opposition groups are dangerously misplaced. Putting more guns into an already brutal conflict will only prolong the suffering, resulting in more deaths, more misery and more lives being destroyed. 
The world needs to tackle this crisis on two fronts. First, we need to get all sides sitting down to discuss a solution that protects civilian life and brings this disastrous war to an end. It is not acceptable for the UN Security Council to squabble over politics while people are dying. 
Second, the world needs to support the people of Syria. The United Nations has launched its biggest ever appeal to respond to this crisis, but it remains underfunded. We are working with international partners, including Trócaire, to get help to those who need it, but as the scale of the crisis grows by the day so too does the need. 
Lebanon is the size of Leinster with the population of Ireland. At current rates, its population could almost double by the end of the year as a result of the Syrian crisis. Lebanon is simply overwhelmed. 
Could Ireland cope if one million refugees arrived into the country? 
Syrians living in Lebanon do not want to be a burden. It is not their fault that they are refugees. However, the crisis has caused social, political and religious tensions in Lebanon. There have been clashes between the army and militias and many people fear the return of open conflict on the streets. 
The desperation of Syrian refugees has led to an undercutting of local wages. Lebanese people are losing jobs to Syrian workers, which is beginning to lead to simmering resentment. The increase in prostitution, forced marriages and teenage pregnancies among refugee populations is also worrying. 
There is no end in sight for this crisis. Every day, refugees arrive in Lebanon in need of shelter, food, water and medicine. They are fleeing a country in ruins, where schools, hospitals and roads have been destroyed, into a country which is struggling to cope with their basic needs. 
Unless the international community responds appropriately to this crisis, future generations will suffer the long-term legacy of this brutal war. 
This article was originally published in The Irish Times on August 7th, 2013. 
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