Syria's refugees and the kindness of strangers
Ben Phillips Campaigns Director
11th Dec 2013
Last week Ben Phillips, Campaigns and Policy Director, visited Syrian refugee families living in Lebanon. Here, he shares their stories of survival and kindness experienced in hostile conditions.
When Aziz fled from the Syrian conflict to Lebanon, he heard about a farmer who allowed Syrian refugees to camp on his land. "How much is the rent to be on his land?", I ask Aziz. "It's nothing," he tells me, "the farmer charges nothing." The tent, made by Aziz himself from recovered tarpaulin posters
from old billboard adverts for the film 'the Hunger Games', is lit by an electric light. "How do you get electricity?" "From the farmer. He let's us use his electricity supply for free."
Aziz cannot find work except for occasional daily labour in the nearby town. "What kind of work do you do?" "Anything. I will do anything. I will dig the earth with my bare hands if it will help me take care of my daughters." Aziz wants desperately to return - "if it was just me, I would have tried to stay and work there.".But for the safety of his daughters he cannot. And so he stays, reliant on the generosity of a farmer who cannot turn away one who comes in need.
"I will dig the earth with my bare hands if it will help me take care of my daughters" Aziz is one of the lucky ones. In another settlement I meet Hadoud. Since his arrival in Lebanon from Syria he has lived in a building that was originally constructed as a chicken coop. His whole family - from his one year old daughter to his 70 year old mother - live in one room. They have to pay $100 a month rent to the owners, an amount they cannot afford. They have used up all their savings and now, they say,
"we buy food with debt." It's getting cold in the Bekaa Valley, but they cannot afford a heater and have only blankets to keep them warm.
"Do the kids go to school?", I ask. "No," Hadoud tells me," we took them out. The teachers hit the kids and made them empty the trash instead of doing lessons..." - at this point the aid worker translating for me, who is Lebanese, pauses; his eyes are wet; he regains his composure; he swallows; he continues - "They selected only the Syrian kids to be sent out of lessons to take out the trash. We could not keep them in that school."
There are over one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The international aid response is chronically underfunded across the region. There is a clear need to do more to help Lebanon cope. The challenges are challenges for the international community as a whole. We might wonder how anyone could reject Hadoud's kids from
school lessons. But it is all of us, collectively, who have done so.
"Hadoud's mother wants to give you coffee," says my translator colleague, "but I told them no, that you have to go. They cannot afford to host you. I do not want to embarrass them." But then coffee comes. "They have made it anyway. They insist on welcoming us."
We sit and drink coffee and the conversation turns to "home". "We will go home, inshallah," says Hadoud, "we shall go home soon. And then you must visit us there, in Syria, in Syria." "They selected only the Syrian kids to be sent out of lessons to take out the trash."
But for now they must remain. And more arrive each day. How to manage such large scale movements of people in a volatile situation is complex, very complex. And it is one that the international community cannot expect Syria's neighbours to handle unsupported, but must manage together. It is the humanitarian crisis of our time, a collective responsibility, and requires a collective response to match it.
But as the international community looks at how to upscale its humanitarian response, what seems less complex is the guiding principle of the family with almost nothing who offer coffee, of the farmer who leases his land for free, of the translator who cannot bring himself to say what has been said.
It is the kindness of strangers.
Top - Ahmed, 19, Mohammed, 5 and Sami, 7, sit in the small room in which they live, with their mother and 5 more relatives. Credit: Luca Sola/Oxfam.
Middle - A tent made out of posters for the film the Hunger Games. Home for a family of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Credit: Ben Phillips/Oxfam.
Bottom - A former chicken coop in Lebanon now home to a large family of Syrian refugees. Credit: Ben Phillips/Oxfam.
First published by Oxfam International on 5 December 2013