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Syrian refugees receive warm border welcome

The Daily Star, May 18 2011

WADI KHALED, Lebanon: Rocking gently to and fro with her 2-year-old daughter in her lap and her 8-year-old son clinging to her side, Nibal, a Syrian mother of four, who fled to Lebanon from the besieged Syrian town of Tal Kalakh over the weekend, considers herself one of the lucky ones.

Taken in by a Wadi Khaled host family on the Lebanese side of the border, Nibal, who, did not want to give her last name out of fear of possible retribution, has found food, shelter and moral support in the darkest of times.

“We decided to flee the shootings and cross to Lebanon. I only brought some clothes for the children in plastic bags and nothing for myself,” said Nibal. “The crossing usually takes just a few minutes but it took us over an hour and a half. Our car was shot at by soldiers and we had to flee on foot.

“My children saw it all, the shooting, the blood, and the dead people. They are traumatized. They don’t want to play anymore and like all the children who have come [from Syria] they just want to be with their parents and cling to them all day long.”

The 300 families estimated to be receiving haven in the small border town of Bani Sakhr are among some 5,000 refugees who have flooded into northern Lebanon since late April, fleeing an intensifying government crackdown on anti-regime protests, which broke out a little more than two months ago.

Most have been settled temporarily with local residents or families, who have thus far been happy to accommodate them, sharing out food provisions and handing out basic supplies like clean clothes and toothbrushes.

“I came with nothing but the people are really accepting. The local women have given me everything that I could need,” said Iman, a pregnant refugee who also fled Syria with her elder brother and his family over the weekend.

But the warm welcome hasn’t been able to compensate for the sleepless nights and Iman – who also did not want to give her last name – complains of being woken regularly by the cries of her nephews, nieces and other refugee children now living under the same roof.

“We are safe, but the children are still scared. They cry a lot and they cannot sleep,” said Iman. “I also have trouble, I think about the relatives that are still in [Tal Kalakh]. I miss my mother, father and my other brothers.

“There is no news and the little news we are hearing is bad,” she added.

The sporadic gunfire, which has rung out over the last few days from Tal Kalakh, a mere 5-kilometers from the border, and previously home to about 60,000 residents, has acted as a constant reminder of the troubles.

Ahmad, a 12-year-old boy – who fled Syria on Friday with his family – still flinches every time shots echo in the background.

As with other children living in the areas worst affected by the pro-regime crackdown, Ahmad had already stopped going to school and has now not attended classes for almost a month, after tuition was suspended following a deterioration in the security situation.

Too shy to speak about what happened, he nonetheless found the courage to say, “Thank you very much” in English, apparently picked up in school.

No educational provisions have as yet been set up for the refugees in Wadi Khaled and schooling seems to be at the back of most people’s minds, as they grapple with the severity of their situation and wonder when they will go back, and if they will have anything to go back to.

“It’s not so bad for the little children, they don’t really seem to understand what is going on, but it is the older children I am worried about,” said Mohammad, who fled with his wife and two sisters over the weekend. “They have seen so much, no child should have to go through this.”

End of year exams were scheduled for younger children on May 25 and for high school students early next month but it now extremely unlikely the children will be able to complete the academic year.

“I didn’t have time to bring schoolbooks,” said Nibal. “I’m very worried how this is going to affect the education of my children.

“But, I have to have hope, I have to think that we will be able to return soon and nothing more will happen to us,” she added.

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