Stories from Lebanon: Peering Over the Edge

During the month of June, Hilton Prize Coalition Storytelling Program Director, Steve Connors, is traveling through Lebanon and the surrounding region to connect with several Coalition member organizations and document their work with refugees to mitigate some of the devastation. In this first blog post of a new series, Steve sets the stage of the Coalition’s next collaborative Storytelling project, which will feature SOS Children’s Villages, the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT), HelpAge International and Handicap International.

Peering Over the Edge 
by Steve Connors

Amid the towering reconstruction of today’s Beirut stand the war-ravaged buildings of the Lebanese civil war. Once beautiful homes such as this one on Damascus Street – the front line during the fighting of 1975 to 88 – serve as an almost sculptural testimony of the price, the folly, and the pity of war.

Since the middle of the last century Lebanon has seen more than its fair share of violence, tragedy and misery. Bookended by mass influxes of people fleeing from regional conflicts have been years of devastating civil war followed by invasion and occupation by foreign powers. The 1990’s through to 2007 saw a brief period of stability, during which the country was able to invest in reconstruction, filling the skyline with modern apartment blocks and business towers. But as protest led to unrest and violence in 2011, neighbouring Syria descended into civil war, triggering a regional conflict for domination and turning the country into a cockpit of regional and geo-political tensions.

As tens or hundreds of thousands died, millions of Syrians fled into neighbouring countries seeking refuge from the escalating violence, desperate to secure an increasingly tenuous grip on their survival. At the time of writing, the United Nations estimates that one and a half million Syrian refugees live in tiny Lebanon. The Lebanese government claims there are more than two million, a figure lent credibility by the author’s visits to camps, in which some thirty percent of refugees remain unregistered with the UN. Confirmation of that number would mean an increase of fifty percent in the population of Lebanon.

In 2015 with the country’s infrastructure and patience stretched well beyond the government’s capacity to cope, and with international assistance cut to levels below those necessary to sustain life, the official border crossings from Syria were closed to refugees. But they still come, desperately crossing the dangerous – often mined – mountain paths to reach safety.

Some of the people, if they have the resources, rent apartments in Beirut, Tripoli or other towns. Some settle in the already teeming Palestinian camps established after 1948 – the Badaawi camp in Tripoli is now stretched beyond capacity by an estimated 70,000 Syrians living in tiny rented rooms. This, in a one square kilometer area occupied by eighteen thousand Palestinians. But the overwhelming majority of refugees are eking out an existence in the Bekaa valley, at the foot of the mountains that form the frontier between Lebanon and Syria.

Syrian women from a nearby refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley planting seeds in a local farmer’s field.

Tens of thousands of families living in the squalid conditions of temporary shelter are scattered up and down the valley floor, the only services provided by UN agencies and NGOs with scant resources and funding.

With wholly inadequate daily allowances, many of the refugees there are forced to cope with food insecurity on top of the misery and indignity of their everyday lives. Unable to afford the cost of registration with the Lebanese authorities, most refugees are unable to pass through the many checkpoints on the roads leading out of the valley so cannot move around the country. In an effort to feed their families the only solution for them is to seek casual labour in the valley’s fields, where local landlords – some of whom have smuggled the refugees into the country in the first place, and put them to work as repayment of their debt – are only too eager to exploit the opportunity for cheap labour. The going rate for five hours of planting under a baking sun is four US dollars.

With the labour market flooded by desperate workers – the cheapest and most employable of whom are women and children – wages for Lebanese workers have plummeted, and tensions between local people and the refugees have risen to dangerous levels. Increasingly, whole camps are forced to move to other parts of the valley because of violence or the threat of violence as the war next door drags on, and the tolerance of the hosts wears progressively thin.

The Syrian war has no end in sight, and whomever one asks in Lebanon, whether they are Lebanese, Syrian or the foreign nationals working with the overstretched humanitarian organisations, the belief is that the refugee problem in the country is of such a chronic nature that it will severely test the peace that the country has only so recently been able to enjoy.

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