Koura communities overwhelmed by growing influx of refugees

The Daily Star

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For the Syrian refugees, the tents went up as temporary housing in the olive-growing Koura district in north Lebanon. For the landowners, loaning out the plot of land was a natural humanitarian gesture they would come to regret. For the government, the idea of making them official camps might have meant admitting a long-term refugee problem. Nearly two years into a conflict that, according to the most recent U.N. figures, has cost around 70,000 lives and caused the displacement of more than 1 million people in neighboring countries, thousands of Syrian families are now living in makeshift tent communities throughout the countryside. Officially, they are not refugee camps and in these gatherings, the living conditions are far worse than the tent housing provided to the displaced Syrians in Jordan and Turkey. “I never thought I’d be here this long. I thought it would be a few weeks at the most,” Ishraq al-Mattar says, explaining why she and her family are living in such basic conditions. The single mother fled the violence in the Syrian city of Homs nearly a year and a half ago for what she thought was temporary shelter in Lebanon. The tents, some of which were erected nearly two years ago, are strewn together with ropes connecting large coffee and food bags, the foundations are made of plywood from produce crates and old tires are lined up along the edges to keep them from blowing away. Typically just 6 square meters, some of them house as many as 10 refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that there are approximately 7,000 Syrian refugees living in tent communities in Lebanon, with most settled in the Bekaa Valley and the northern districts. The UNHCR has been paying them regular visits and is working to find more durable solutions, such as locating temporary shelters. On a typical weekday, around midday, children and adults mull over their improvised settlement, gather wood for heating, wash their clothes by hand and, if needed, repair their tents. Taking care of their very basic living environment is nearly a full-time job. The adults say there is no work and many of their children have dropped out of school in order to find jobs. While the refugees continue to live in poverty, the local landowners regret their decision six months ago to open their fields to the displaced Syrians. Two weeks ago, the host community decided to close down the settlement after increasing refugee numbers and accompanying cramped living conditions wreaked havoc in the normally quiet community. Around 150 Syrian refugees, mainly agricultural workers, and their families who have a history of working in the area, still remain in tents in and around Btouratij. “We helped as much as possible, but we’re a small village. It became chaotic,” says Sana al-Hasan, wife of Wassaf al-Hasan, the mayor of Btouratij, who said that when the refugees first arrived she distributed crates of olive oil, lemons and apples. As their numbers swelled to nearly 1,000, she recalls, “The locals became fearful from the frequent road accidents and political arguments between Syrians who were for and against their government.” Referring to state-sanctioned Syrian camps elsewhere in the region, she says, “Lebanon should do what Jordan did,” and make them official. Her husband agrees. “Lebanon has abandoned them,” he says, blaming the crisis and not the refugees for causing a rise in anti-Syrian and anti-Muslim sentiment in the area. “They started cutting our olive trees [for firewood]. It’s a shame. They need to stay warm in the winter.” Even after the closure of the large unofficial camp in Btouratij, smaller tent communities of Syrian refugees remain in the area. Another gathering of Syrian refugees in the northern village of Hayy al-Tanak in Mina appears to be more developed, with slabs of cement serving as walls and electricity wires dangling overhead. But like its counterpart in Btouratij, the roofs are made of cloth, held down by old tires. There, refugees pay between $200 and $300 for a basic house with a bathroom, kitchen and sitting area. Looking toward the muddy walkways and the residents sitting on plastic chairs outdoors, Ali Moulia can’t seem to decide what is worse: his makeshift housing in Lebanon or the violence he left behind in Syria. “The biggest problem for us is the situation in Syria,” he says. He then quickly adds, “You can see right in front of you how bad it is here. The conditions here are so bad. I’m so tired. Sometimes I think I should go back to Syria.” Back at the tent settlement in Btouratij, the families try to make the most of their basic living conditions. They proudly show the living space they have made beneath a cloth ceiling: tidy rows of cushions and a gas furnace for a living room, a small cooking area and a hole in the floor for the toilet. In the early afternoon, Ishraq’s 12-year-old daughter Fatima returns from school. She says it’s hard to keep up with the different Lebanese curriculum and then go home and study in a tent. But she’s proud of what she has accomplished, having found a purpose that few other refugees have in the small village. Fatima says, “It’s hard, but I’m doing it.”

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