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Thousands of Syrian refugees face dire living conditions

The Daily Star 14/11/2011

WADI KHALED, Lebanon: Thousands of Syrian refugees who fled the unrest in Syria are now facing dire conditions at refugee centers in north Lebanon, with little access to medical care, schooling or even blankets in some cases.

The most difficult living conditions are found perhaps at schools that have been transformed into refugee centers, housing between 150 and 200 refugees, in the towns of Wadi Khaled and Mashta Hammoud.

Mahmoud Hisyan, a Syrian refugee at one of the schools, compares living in the centers to being in a prison.

“We are not allowed to move around except in the center’s surrounding area and our living situation has deteriorated to a level that can longer be tolerated,” he says.

“We need food for our children who have not eaten meat for two and a half months and we also don’t have a cooking stove,” Hisyan continues, adding that the refugees use space heaters to cook meals of lentils and hummus.

According to Hisyan, the refugees need mattresses and blankets, especially with the coming of winter, and many of the children are not registered in schools.

“Most of them refused to go to school because they didn’t have schoolbooks or decent clothes,” he says.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has registered over 3,500 Syrian refugees in Lebanon, while local civil society organizations working with the refugees say the number is closer to 5,000.

On top of those, hundreds of Syrian families have sought shelter in homes in border towns and villages from Rashaya in Western Bekaa to the villages of Arsal and Qaa in northern Bekaa and the Akkar town of Wadi Khaled.

Refugees living in centers run by the Higher Relief Committee in coordination with the UNHCR in the villages of Rama, Haysha, and Amayer in Wadi Khaled and the village of Abra in Mashta Hammoud say they are having difficulty obtaining basic necessities.

Merhi al-Ahmad, a refugee staying at the center in Rama, says that many refugees are running out of money and have started borrowing from residents living near the center.

“We are in dire need of medical assistance, and my son is sick but I can’t afford to treat him,” he says, calling on the Lebanese state to treat their case in humanitarian, rather than political, terms.

“The officials need to know that we are living a real tragedy and they need to help us,” he says.

Mohammad al-Naqshi, a refugee living in a home that was provided to him by residents of Arsal, left the city of Homs with his wife and children following the arrest of 15 of his relatives.

“I finished my work in Saudi Arabia months before the uprising began and I came back because I wanted to live near my family,” Naqshi said. “Now, I am running short of money. I am now facing great difficulty securing basic needs such as food, clothing and warmth for my five sons.”

The coordinator of the follow-up committee for Syrian refugees in the north, Sheikh Abdel-Rahman al-Akkari, describes the refugees’ living situation in similarly dismal terms.

The Lebanese state continues to treat them with caution and hesitation and shows no willingness to help by recognizing them as refugees – rather than displaced people who require assistance – an act that would ensure the refugees’ protection and care by the UNHCR, according to Akkari.

He calls on the state to provide the refugees with papers to allow them to move around inside the country, as it would give some the opportunity to work to provide for the basic needs of their families.

Ali Badawi, the mayor of village of Al-Rama, home to the largest refugee center, says that there are around 2,256 Syrian refugees in Wadi Khaled alone. According to Badawi, the UNHCR and Higher Relief Committee provide the refugees with food and fuel while the Qatar Red Crescent supplies them with clothing.

Another local organization distributes blankets and heaters among the refugees as well as toiletries, he says, adding that UNICEF supplied the refugee children with schoolbooks and paid their tuition at the area’s schools.

The organizations provide assistance based on field visits to areas where refugees are living, according to Badawi, who maintains that around 80 percent of the refugees’ basic needs are being provided.

But mobility remains an issue. The mayor says that the refugees are prohibited from traveling inside Lebanon as they lack documents required for legal entry into the country.

He suggests that if camp was built in the area for the refugees, their needs could be addressed more effectively.

He adds that a decision to do so has so far not been made, as according to him the Lebanese state is unable to provide and maintain security for the camp’s residents.


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