Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Class struggle: New school year leaves Syrian refugees stranded

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon, with Assem Bazzi]

As we sit in a dusty, spartan classroom at the eastern edge of the Beqaa Valley, waiting to speak to Muhammad, the man looking after the hundreds of Syrian refugees housed in the school, a young woman bursts through his door in floods of tears. She wants to go back to Syria, she tells him, and hand herself over to President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Her remaining brothers—the ones who haven’t already been killed—have been captured by the regime, and she’s come up with a plan to trade her freedom for their lives. Muhammad calmly refuses, reminding her that she has children here to look after.

It’s a sign of the despair taking over the refugees who have now been away from their homes in Damascus for over six weeks. Things have certainly changed since NOW Lebanon was last here in July. “Back then, there were between 200 and 300 families from Damascus in the area,” says Muhammad. “Now there are over 1,100, driven away by the ongoing killings and massacres. The numbers are increasing every five minutes.”

Though food and water are becoming scarce, the refugees have enough for now, says Muhammad. Sure enough, as we tour the hallways and classrooms, dodging the children running playfully around our knees, there do seem to be sufficient supplies of bread, water and ICRC cardboard boxes. No thanks to the Lebanese government, however: “We haven’t received any aid from the government, and are surviving solely on local donations and helpers,” says Muhammad.

Indeed, Fadi Yarak, director-general of the Ministry of Education, told NOW Lebanon that his department was no longer responsible for the refugees. “UNHCR takes care of them now,” he said.

In any case, the refugees’ most immediate concern is not aid but the impending start of the school year. This will force them to relocate once again—and they fear their next hosts may not be so benevolent.

“When school starts here on September 15, there will be no more room for the refugees,” says Muhammad. And it is here that sectarian considerations enter the picture. The refugees, being Sunni, have so far confined themselves to Sunni villages. “But there is no more room in Sunni schools anywhere. There are places in Shiite areas, such as Baalbek and Hermel, but the refugees don’t want to go. They’re afraid of being harmed or even kidnapped.”

Dana Sleiman, Public Information Associate for UNHCR in Lebanon, told NOW Lebanon that plans for supporting the refugees’ transition out of the schools were underway, but a request for further details was not answered at press time.

Accordingly, some refugees have already taken matters into their own hands. “I managed to find a home in Zahle,” says Omar, who has been in the school with his wife and children since July. A small dairy factory owner back in Damascus, he has also found part-time work as a blacksmith and mason in the Beqaa.

Others, however, are less fortunate. “I don’t have a clue what I’m going to do,” says Fatima, who breaks down in tears while telling us her story. “If I leave the school, I might lose contact with my relatives back in Syria.” She and her family are currently looking for a place to rent.

And accommodation isn’t the only worry for some. “My husband has a heart problem,” says Nour. “He’s currently being treated for free in a nearby hospital. I have to move out but I can’t leave him alone there.” Her children are still in Syria, apparently unable to cross the border.

Remarkably, despite their serious and mounting problems, the refugees constantly repeat how grateful they are to be in Lebanon. “We are so glad to be alive,” says Nour. “Every day we thank God for giving us another day of living.”

Some of the above names have been changed at the interviewees’ requests.

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