Syrian refugees in Lebanon eight years on

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As Lebanon airs the offer of free one-way tickets out, refugees say they are not even receiving basic medicine and food, while their homes can- not stand another harsh winter storm

A young refugee plays in the informal settlement at Saadnayel, Lebanon. Photo by NICK WINCHESTER

Beqaa Valley, Lebanon – When Myriam Mohammad found out that her home in Hamas, Syria, had been completely destroyed, the family’s farm, olive trees and livelihood included, she fainted.

Once the dust had settled from the destruction caused by the regime rocket, Myriam fled with her family of sons, their wives and her many grandchildren, across the border with Lebanon to an informal settlement in the town of Saadnayel.

There are a reported 570 such camps across Lebanon, built since the civil war broke out in 2011. Lebanon has received the highest number of Syrian refugees per capita in the last eight years of the country’s civil war.

As of April, there are 934,531 registered, according to UNHCR statistics. Over a third of these, 341,234, are located in the Beqaa Val- ley, Lebanon’s fertile but impoverished agricultural region. The Beqaa stretches across two-thirds of the country, flanked on either side by mountain ranges and butts up to the once porous border with neighbouring Syria.

Saadnayel, established in 2015, is home to 670 refugees. It is the largest camp in the region and comprises wooden huts, the roofs and walls of which are covered in recycled nylon sheeting, a patchwork of fading advertising for sushi bars and tyres provided by NGOs.

The camp’s leader, Mohammad Ahmad, says, “The majority need medication, adequate shelter, food and water. We are doing our best to make people comfortable. This is all we are asking for, no more, no less.”

The camp’s leader, Mohammad Ahmad, says, “The majority need medication, adequate shelter, food and water. This is all we are asking for, no more, no less.” Photo by NICK WINCHESTER

In January two storms, dubbed Norma and Miriam brought snowfall and many of the informal structures in camps across the Beqaa were damaged. The refugees are not permitted to reinforce their tents beyond the wooden frames covered in sheeting so as not to establish permanent residences.

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‘The war is over now, they can go back,’ a taxi driver later exclaimed back in Beirut. His opinion is one shared among many in Lebanon, including the government, who announced a repatriation programme last summer, offering free one-way bus tickets across the border from the outskirts of Beirut, an attempt to release some of the pressure they claim is exacerbating many of Lebanon’s economic woes. Hezbollah, whose military was key to Assad reclaiming Syria, along with Russia and Iran, is said to be assisting many thousands of refugees with return- ing to their homeland.

But for refugees living in the Saadnayel settlement, they are not ready and nor is Syria. “Our country is destroyed. There is no infrastructure. No one is living there. The whole town is destroyed,” says Hassan Mohammad, Myriam’s son, “there is no house for us left.” Before the war they were agriculturalists, they worked the land, planting crops and selling them to make money.

Their home sat in an area right between clashing sides, the Free Syrian Army and Assad’s regime. Later, the Islamic State came. “We had to bear every single bomb that hit,” the family says.

The Mohammad family outside their tent. The family fled their home in Hama following a regime rocket attack. Photo by NICK WINCHESTER

Along with Myriam, Hassan and his son Abdelrahman, live in the structure consisting of five rooms alongside their wives and children. A total of 15 people. During the winter the water was a metre off the ground in the camp following storms. They slept for a week in the school. “Our furniture was destroyed.” They now have only 12 beds for the 15 of them.

With worsening health problems, both men can no longer work. Abdelrahman has kidney disease. The family must pay for medication, $10 every day and the UN does not help them with it, nor does the state. Along with an Uncle, they pay to go to Beirut for dialysis. He has to rent a car and they pay 60,000 LBP ($40, £30) for transport alone.

One Myriam’s great-grandson inside his tent in the Saadnayel camp, which he shares with 14 other family members. Photo by NICK WINCHESTER

Hassan has high blood pressure and diabetes. He also has a problem in his leg, walking on a stick. The UN is not giving them help, they say, having stopped the food delivery two years ago. Hassan looks down, saying, “We don’t deserve help. If we don’t deserve help, who does?”

Myriam looks to Hassan, explaining that though he is only 51-years-old, he looks 80 because of all the problems he has encountered during the war. Hassan fell recently and could not get up, nor could his son help him up due to his own sickness. They had to wait until others from the camp came to their aid.

To cover the cost of medication, the family are always having to borrow money. On top of this, they have been unable to pay rent for the last year, which is 800,000 LBP ($530; £406) per year. They also have to pay for electricity, which is based on a vault metre, so it depends on how much they use. Around $20-25 a month, they approximate. As the conversation continues, the costs rise. Just yesterday they explain, they took Hassan to the doctor and that cost the family 60,000 LBP ($40, £30). He no longer cares about his health; he says he will die here.

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Zarifa al Hamid lives in a tent a few metres from the Mohammad family with her nine young children. She comes from Raqqa. Her home is also destroyed, and, she says, the circumstances remain dangerous back there. But she would like to return. “If it is safe, why not?” If they go back, they would not have a place to stay and would have to rent a place. “There are no doctors for the children over there because it’s ruined. It’s still a war zone,” she says.

Another great-grandchild in the living quarters of the Mohammad family’s tent. Photo by NICK WINCHESTER

Education for her children is at the top of Zarifa’s list. Her children are mostly too young to attend the two schools in the camp. The two who are old enough, attend the one which opened just two months ago, its signs adorned with the logos of UNESCO, the Kayanay Foundation, the American University of Beirut (AUB), the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre and Ai Weiwei.

The winter was also tough for Zarifa and her family. They spent a lot of time outside the tent because it was covered in water. She is unable to work because she looks after her young children alone. Because she has a big family, she says it is hard to live here. The Lebanese haven’t been bad to them, but they are no longer helping them.

Zarifa al Hamid’s family eat ice-creams and watch television during a day of holiday in a room they live and sleep in. Photo by NICK WINCHESTER

Back with the Mohammad family in the semi-open seating area outside their tent, Myriam and Hassan say that even though they are being told to return, it would be like living in the woods. There are no schools nor hospitals for the children; if the health of Hassan or Abdelrahman deteriorated further, there would be nowhere to take them either.

Much of the farmland they once worked on is now riddled with mines and unexploded ordinance. Myriam tells a story of their relatives who were driving to pick up fruit when they ran over a mine, killing 18 people from a single family.

A group of young boys from the camp work together to fill bottles from a pipe that provides clean drinking water. Photo by NICK WINCHESTER
A resident stands close to the camp’s sewage runoff. Photo by NICK WINCHESTER
A resident of the Saadnayel informal settlement looks towards the tents, Mount Lebanon rises in the background. Photo by NICK WINCHESTER
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