Winter is closing in on the 1.4 million Syrian refugees living in camps in Lebanon after fleeing their country’s devastating civil war. Grazia’s Anna Silverman joins actor Tamsin Greig as she meets the women and children with nothing left to lose – and launches our Christmas campaign with Tearfund
There’s a small TV in the corner of Hayat’s tent, which she uses to keep track of the news. Every day, she shivers under a blanket, choking back tears, as she watches bombs fall relentlessly on her home city of Aleppo in Syria. When her husband was killed by an air strike, she fled across the border with her nine children, assuming they’d only be gone a few months. Five years later, they’re still living in a Lebanese refugee camp with no idea if they’ll ever be able to return.
‘I spent every night terrified until the violence became too much to bear. My house is probably rubble now,’ she tells us, after welcoming Tamsin Greig and myself into her tent with tea. ‘We fled so quickly I couldn’t bring anything with me; we walked for days and had to sleep under a plastic sheet in the mountains for a month on our way here. What kind of a life is that for my children?’
Reem fled Syria with her sons after her husband was killed in an air strike. Photographs: Kieran Dodds
Hayat*, 35, is one of 1.4 million Syrian refugees who have journeyed to Lebanon to escape their war-ravaged country. Since fighting broke out between President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and rebel fighters in 2011, nearly 500,000 people have been killed. The camps have become waiting rooms for the refugees, whose lives are on hold indefinitely. Nearly all fled without belongings. More than 80% are women and children; the men usually stay behind to fight or protect the home. Few survive.
When Tamsin and I visit a camp in Bekaa Valley, a couple of miles from the Syrian border, toddlers with dirty faces jump in puddles, supervised by older children who’ve had to grow up unnaturally fast. Tamsin jiggles the little ones on her hip, many of whom were born in the camp and appear blissfully oblivious to the dire conditions they live in. Deprived of a real childhood and a formal education, they are condemned to become a lost generation.
In an echo of a familiar Christmas image, some arrived with their few possessions laden on donkeys, many on foot. We’re visiting with Tearfund, for whom Tamsin is an ambassador. The charity has partnered with Heart for Lebanon, a local organisation that provides food parcels, schooling and psycho-social support for those living in the camp.
‘I don’t feel safe here,’ says another mother, Maya*, as she hands us little cups of cardamom coffee from a supply that must last her and her seven children a month. Tamsin plays clapping games with her daughters as Maya tells us, ‘The tent is flimsy and some nights the Lebanese army burst in at 4am demanding legal papers. When the war started I lost all sense of joy.’ The 30-year-old, from Homs, arrived at the camp three years ago, after Assad’s army gave women and children an hour to leave.
‘They started executing people,’ she says, running a finger slowly across her throat. ‘The army were coming from one side and killing people so I grabbed my children and ran the other way.’
Her husband managed to leave with them, only to die in an accident later. As she sits breastfeeding her youngest son, she tells us, ‘I have to choose between food and nappies because I can’t afford both. My only hope is that my children get a good education.’
I fear I would be broken in this situation - but these women aren't.
The hard ground we’re sitting on is freezing and yet each night through winter her children must sleep here, with nothing but thin blankets for warmth.
Some 25 percent of Lebanon’s population of six million is now made up of Syrian refugees, scattered across 5,000 refugee camps around the country. Some camps, which are rented on farmland, are run by the UN, others by the refugees themselves. Work is scarce, but there is occasional agricultural labour in the surrounding fields, earning at best $4 (£3.18) a day. Otherwise, refugees must survive on $37 (£29) worth of vouchers a month, distributed by the UN.
Photographs: Kieran Dodds
We drive to another camp 10 minutes away, trudging through the muddy fields to meet Reem* and her two sons, Amin, eight, and Habib, seven, who greet us with kisses on the cheek. Having visited what was the ‘Jungle’ refugee camp in Calais before it was demolished earlier this year, it’s clear to see Lebanon’s camps have benefited from a UN presence – there are tents for families, while in Calais some children lived in utter squalor. But both camps are unquestionably a place no person should ever have to live.
When Reem, 28, fled Homs, her husband had already been killed in an air strike five months earlier, which meant she had to wait before running away. In Syria, a widow isn’t allowed to be seen in public for several months after their husband’s death. ‘I don’t care about the belongings I left behind; it’s my husband I miss every day,’ she says, looking at the framed picture of him hanging in the tent. Through tears, she tells us she wants her sons to forget the last few years.
‘When did you last experience kindness?’ Tamsin asks her. ‘When I first came to Lebanon,’ she replies, citing the help she’s received from aid workers on the ground. ‘The fact they care gives me hope. My true wish is for peace in Syria so we can return and my children can get a proper education.’
As we say goodbye to those who have welcomed us into their tents, the Syrian mountains on the horizon glow red in the evening sun. They serve as a reminder to those who have been uprooted of the place they still call home – and to which, one day, they hope to return.
Actor Tamsin Greig, ambassador for Tearfund, shares her thoughts on our visit to Lebanon’s refugee camps
Tamsin is greeted by the children in the camp. Photographs: Kieran Dodds
Not only did the women we met welcome us into their living space, which is now their only protected area, they had the courage to put their story into words. I feel humbled by this. My fear is that I would be broken if this were happening to me. I wouldn’t have the fortitude and perseverance to come through it. I don’t know how you lose everything and still find the hope to continue. But they do.
Because their pasts have been swept away, they channel hope by focusing on their children’s futures. I’m very fortunate to be a mother and my children are having to deal with the difficulty of being teenagers in the West. Meeting these children has made me feel deeply hopeful that my kids would have the ability to find joy, stay alive and enjoy one another if they were in a similar situation.
I think we will never cease to be surprised by the human spirit and the resilience that’s in us regardless of our circumstances. In the West, we’re so distracted by technology, it’s easy to forget how essential it is to just sit with somebody and allow them to weep. Overnight solutions don’t happen. I can’t change everything. What I can do is pick something and commit properly. If we all do that, then watch how surprised you’ll be by the long-term nature of what humankind can do.
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