First published by Jadaliyya
Spring has just landed in Lebanon. Its warmth and colors soothing the dried winter skin of the vast majority of Syrian refugees who resisted icy temperatures and freezing to death underneath thin canvas tents. Lebanon is now home to approximately one million Syrians, displaced from their war-ravaged cities and towns in Syria. Amid unfettered exploitations, Syrian families, forced to seek refuge in Lebanon, have fought a hostile season in a hostile environment that they mistook as neighborly.
During the reign of Alexa, a polar storm that hit Lebanon at the start of December 2013, while walking between a maze of tents in Arsal, Amira grabbed my arm and said, “Sir, I need to have a word with you. You have to see my daughter. Please follow me to our tent.” Inside a two-by-two beige tent, bearing the blue sponsorship logo of disaster management specialist UNHCR, sitting on her heels, was Khadija. It was the day after the polar storm had receded, the sun was shining again over Arsal, home to over seventy thousand Syrian refugees. Inside sat Khadija wearing a black wool head cap; restless and shy as she huddled around the stove. “My daughter is suffering in here, her mental health rapidly deteriorating. She is starting to lose her hearing.” Amira then spoke in a lower tone, “My daughter Khadija is an autistic child.” Amira’s pointy mouse-face features, the sunburned, dry skin cracking on her cheeks and forehead, the long, sleepless nights visible in black rings under her eyes failed to hide how her pre-war beautiful features shone when smiled in embarrassment. Hesitantly, Amira explained, “I know it is not the most important case, as I was told before by journalists and the nations (UNHCR), but she is a special case and needs special attention beyond the Panadol pills she was given by the clinic.” Amira explained that Khadija was doing well at a convent back in Qusir. Before the Migg fighterjets shelled their neighborhood and shattered her peaceful world, “she used to walk to every day and spend her day there with other mentally challenged children.” Routine was essential to Khadija, as it is for many autistic children, and when the thunderous explosions shattered this they destabilized her already fragile world. Her mother feels helpless and lamented, “In Arsal no one wants to pay attention to Khadija, children make fun of her, and it has been one week since she stepped outside our tent.” Khadija, thirteen, finally warmed up and spoke, making evident her unstable memory and her increasing deafness. When asked about her age several times, she insisted, “I am seven.” Her failure to make eye contact and unwillingness to speak to me testified to her fear and uncertainty.
According to Arsal’s municipality, over 74,000 Syrian refugees have fled Syria in the last three years and settled in the village. It was only at the end of last summer that the Lebanese government allowed Syrians to establish camp sites. The one in Arsal, where Khadija and her mother have taken refuge, held up to seventy tents back in December. The number of Syrians packed in each tent varies. Some house up to twelve people, but in reality the two-by-two canvas tent, on a normal camping trip, is best for three people. “We sleep like sardines in a tin,” joked Khadija’s father Mohammad, fifty-four.
The increasing numbers of Syrian refugees in Arsal has created tensions with local Lebanese residents of the border village. On 12 January 2014 Syrians sheltering in Arsal woke up to read a statement calling for their eviction. The eviction notice said Syrians have forty-eight hours to return to where they came from. The municipality of Arsal dismissed the eviction threat and called it the work of agents provocateurs. Following the last wave of Syrian refugees fleeing Yabrud to Arsal the municipality issued a curfew for Syrians. They are now not allowed on the streets from seven in the evening until nine nine in the morning and again from one until three in the afternoon.
Beneath Arsal the plains of Beq‘a Valley, just ten minutes away from the Masna‘ border crossing, tents sprout from the snow-covered red earth in the town known as the gate of western Beq‘a, Marj. Shabby, flimsy tents, forty of them housing over one hundred families, sit behind a trash dump hidden from the eyes of motorists driving towards Damascus. On the arrival of visitors, Syrians crawl out from their tents. They smile and gather. Mothers’ desperate eyes instantly spot a notebook, and yell for other mothers “he is registering, go grab the kids”. Their shouts of “we need milk, diapers … we need …” points to an absence of adequate relief work. At Marj’s municipality, its chief, Nazim Yousif, was evacuating refugees out of the municipal building. Syrians, young and old, sought the warmth of the building’s indoors, sheltering from the four-degree temperature, while they awaited the distribution of tents. Yousif’s fury was evident as he barked in an authoritarian voice, “We are overwhelmed by all those Syrians; the Lebanese government is absent, not helping.” Inside the suffocating warmth of his office, grim faces of men sipped on coffee as Fairouz’s morning music played in the background. Outside, Syrian elders continued to plea extensively about conditions they were suffering from, again interrupted by the arrival of one municipal guard snarling, “Journalists are not allowed to go to any of the camps and must stop talking to refugees, orders of the chief.” The testosterone-hyped guard then turned to the Syrians and dismissed them in a shout, “Go away, leave, no tents today.”
Umm Ahmad Awad, forty-eight, fled Ghouta near Damascus at the start of December, that day she shuttled between the camp and Marj municipality in a quest for a tent. Umm Ahmad, followed by her youngest son, Ahmad, a young boy with Downs Syndrome who hid behind his mother’s black ‘abaya in front of Marj municipality, presently shares a tent with another Syrian family also from Ghouta. Her three daughters are staying across the street from the camp in an apartment with a Lebanese family. Umm Ahmad was not happy about this arrangement, “One of my daughters is feeling uncomfortable in the presence of the father of their host family.” Umm Ahmad refused to elaborate and said, “We are grateful that they offered to host my daughters, teenagers might be misunderstood by their host.” Umm Ahmad, a single mother, has been in a two-week-long struggle to find a tent to unite her family in. Her husband was unable to flee Ghouta with his family. “The regime checkpoint only let women and children pass,” she explained.
Umm Ahmad’s plight in Marj and Khadija’s bewilderment in Arsal resembles a pattern of the hard life that stretches with the Syrian refugees across the Beq‘a Valley. It is a cloud of injustice that overshadows Syrians, a specter cast upon them as they turn from citizens, fleeing barrel-bombs, to numbers in relief organizations’ books and finally to refugees as they cross into Lebanon.
In central Beq‘a sits the city of Zahle. Syrian refugees have setup a few camps down in its agricultural lands. Below the road al-Jura (pit) camp is located, next to the site of a previously torched refugee camp. Syrian refugees of al-Jura camp witnessed the arson with terror and worried they might be next. The camp is named after its landmark, a wide pit (jura) that sits in the middle of the camp where sewers directed in makeshift dug-up pathways drain from outdoors toilets and trickle down into the pit. Displaced from Idlib, Abu Said, fifty-five, manages the camp and tends to the needs of its three hundred Syrian refugees. To prevent unexpected brutal evictions in the absence of any legal or communal protection, Abu Said struck a deal with the Lebanese landowner: they provide the labor-force (from the camp) for a nearby agricultural plot and pay a rental fee of one hundred dollars per month per tent-area and they can keep their tents on the land. Al-Jura camp demonstrates the sheer negligence displaced Syrians suffer from. The corruption of NGOs as well as aid cuts by UNHCR was the main story that Syrians inhabiting al-Jura complained of. “Come look inside our tents and see how we live,” one mother shouted. The smell of damp in the tent mixed with plastic fumes emanating from the heating stove that burnt blue plastic bags and red nylon child-size flip-flops was noxious. “The nations [UNHCR] came and inspected our tent. After the inspection they said we are not a priority for aid. They told me we should look for jobs, that my husband and I are still young.” Tents in al-Jura mushroom side-by-side and form a narrow maze filled with running sewers and toddlers. Fatima, thirteen, sat on a limestone rock giving a reading lesson to children from the camp. Ten-, eight-, and seven-year-old boys and girls encircled Fatima, their attention fixated onto her lap where a shabby notebook sat. Fatima ran her feeble pointer-finger through Arabic alphabets followed by her students who shouted them in unison and then took turns writing the alphabet on the back of Fatima’s ragged notebook.
Down the road from al-Jura camp four more camps appear in the distance. In these four camps, Syrians from Aleppo, Idlib, Raqa, Homs, and Damascus coexist all the while defying the harsh circumstances imposed on them by their host. One early February morning at seven o’clock, while a thin crust of frozen dew melted on green shrubs and a lazy winter sun crawled out from behind the eastern mountain range of the Beq‘a Valley, the blue truck hummed as it awaited the arrival of women. Syrian women: mothers, sisters, and daughters left the warmth of their tents, their babies in their cribs, and trailed to the blue truck, snatched away to labor in the fields for a pitiful four dollars per day. “We have no choice. To keep our tent we have to work the land.” Displaced from Aleppo, Haytham, seventeen, remarked as he watched his mother and two sisters climb the blue truck, “He [the landlord] leaves us no choice. We cannot even bargain our wage. It is a fixed six thousand Lebanese liras [four dollars] per day. Take it or leave the campsite.” Behind Haytham in the distance a banner that reads the curfew hours for migrant workers (read Syrian refugees) waves. “Men are designated for construction sites and women plough the land,” Haytham lamented as he complained, “there are too many men for construction jobs, only few of us get a job opportunity.”
In those early hours, children hugged their books and energetically rolled into a tent that operates as a makeshift school as their mothers and sisters disappeared in the distance in the back of the blue truck. Inside one of these tents sat former Idlib resident Amina Hamzeh, fifty-seven. Amina’s tent is a built up structure, made from wood and plastic billboard sheets recycled from Zahle’s dumpsters. The makeshift tent supports two separate rooms: one functions as a living room in the day, at night it is the men’s bedroom, the second is a bedroom for women and their children. Amina’s tent hosts up to eighteen family members; they range between infants and elders. Amina suffers from numerous joints’ pain but her backache and an unpredictable menopause are her worst enemies united with all the refugees’ worst enemy: the ice-cold, bone stinging wind. Squatting down washing dishes in a blue plastic bucket, Amina was dressed in at least four layers topped by a purple Abaya, “I was forced to bend all day in the fields in spite of my protests that my back and legs cannot support me.” Amina’s second day of work was her last after she collapsed. “The landlord let us stay on his land as long we supply him with women to labor his crops.” Amina’s weary eyes water but refuse to surrender her tears, “I told my two boys that I will look after their infant children while their wives went to the field to cover for me, otherwise the landowner would not have let us keep our tent on his land. Where else can we go?” Whispering outside her tent to make sure no one is listening, Amina confides “we are forced to work for the landowner, we cannot say no. We are paid six thousand Lebanese liras [four dollars] per day to pluck potatoes from seven in the morning until four in the afternoon, and the ones who do not comply have their tents uprooted.” Amina’s family chose to flee to Lebanon instead of Turkey thinking Lebanon is “our second home” only to arrive in such an unwelcoming habitat. “We do not dare leave our camp site at night.” She frowned and continued, “I plead with my boys ‘do not even think about stepping out of this tent once it is dark.’ One night last month two of my boys were beaten up and verbally assaulted while walking back from Zahle.” The Syrians in these camps fear any police or military patrol that happen to be passing by “if they see us [Syrians] they stop to search us, we are guilty for being Syrian.” Amina’s predicament is an example visible throughout the experience of Syrians while they shelter in Lebanon. The lack of basic life necessities is only one aspect of the hardship, dignity and self-esteem are the most lacking; their subjugation by their host is tantamount to modern day slavery. If for one moment these refugees could forget their status a banner at the entrance to the camp reminds them brutally of their place “Foreign workers are not allowed movement and assembly in public places from seven in the evening until give in the morning. The municipality of Zahle also emphasizes adherence to the time of the curfew for the sake of public safety.”
[Banner reads, among other things: "Gatherings of foreign workers are forbidden in public spaces. Image by author.]
In the past three months of winter an increasing number of Syrians have fled to Lebanon to escape escalating violence in Syria. Coinciding with this growing number of refugees are harsh aid cuts by the UNHCR which left many baffled as to why they were denied aid all of a sudden as they continued to live in the same dire conditions. UNHCR provides the funds for many NGOs working in Lebanon. I spoke with many Lebanese, Syrian, and international NGO workers who confirmed “unjust arbitrary” cuts made by the UNHCR. None of the NGO workers I spoke to were willing to provide their names for this story for fear of losing their jobs. One NGO employee, a field officer in charge of distributing aid vouchers, said “seven months ago UNHCR made arbitrary aid cuts effecting over forty percent of beneficiaries”. The aid cuts struck the most basic form of aid: the food voucher program that provided twenty-seven dollars per month worth of food for an adult in each family. The NGO employee continued saying “we were told by the UNHCR that cuts were measures in order to shake off unwanted beneficiaries that did not fit the criteria. Many donor countries, mainly in the gulf, have not fulfilled their promises of financial aid.” Refugees denied aid protested at UNHCR’s conduct and as a result a form for appeal was granted with a forty-five day deadline. Those who were not able to organize their appeals within the forty-five day deadline were thrown out of the aid-system; only ten percent who managed to appeal were back to receiving aid. “The brutal aid cuts made many Syrian refugees victims of impoverished conditions and circumstances that made a target for exploitation; prostitution and organized beggary reaped their bodies” the NGO employee lamented. Recognizing the repercussions of their move, the UNHCR implemented an evaluation program. The program cost millions of dollars and employed an army of short contracted staff (for fifty dollars per-day plus three dollars for phone calls) and fleets of rental cars to conduct the survey. Inspection units surveyed and inspected the living conditions of Syrian refugees cut from aid in order for UNHCR to re-determine who would be included again in the aid system. The field officer, who is in direct contact with the distressed Syrians stressed that, “when UNHCR decided to cut aid they did it randomly and ended up harming the most vulnerable beneficiaries. The sudden cuts prompted refugees to think it is a conspiracy meant to drive them back to their war torn country. People complained to us that it was systematic conduct to make them leave Lebanon.” Two weeks ago, I was speaking with a UNHCR employee who confided, off the record, that Lebanon is going to start taking “harsh” measures to close its borders in the face of incoming refugees from Syria and start the expulsion of those in the country. A week later Lebanon shut down eighteen “unofficial crossings” along the Lebanese Syrian borders.
Shortly after their curfew ends Syrian refugees start to assemble at 6:30 a.m. beneath the UNHCR’s building in the town of Zahle. Defying the cold temperature of the early morning hours, Syrian families wait to register, file a complaint for arbitrary aid cuts, and the sick seek medication, beyond the all-in-one Panadol pills handouts. At the registry center of UNHCR Syrian families are treated, or “managed,” like cattle. In Zahle, UNHCR’s building is fortified by at least forteen security guards; their job, obvious to any observer, is to bark through a megaphone at Syrian men, women, and children. To “control those Syrians” who came in the early hours seeking aid and registration, seeking mercy and recognition of their plight, begging for what is theirs. The security guards sport navy-blue combat uniforms bearing badges on their chest that read “Protection Security Company” (a company owned by Sa‘ad al-Hariri). The security men hound refugees from the streets to the enclosure of iron fence, a similar scene to the one Palestinians endure under Israeli occupation’s checkpoints. When the security guards were asked about their harsh practices one replied, “It is for the neighbors’ sake.” Another security guard chimed in, “It is a calm neighborhood, the residents are not happy with this sight [pointing at the group of Syrian refugees across the street]. Every day, we receive many complaints.”
Before Syrian refugees head to the UNHCR center they need to call a hotline to book an appointment. Sometimes it takes three to four days to get an appointment but at other times it can also take up to two weeks to book an appointment. Many Syrian refugees who have just arrived from Syria or live in dire, disconnected conditions do not know the drill so they go directly to the UNHCR registry office to be registered. Such refugees fall victims to all sorts of manipulations; one of many, the most common, is when refugees are charged a fee by the security guards manning the registry center to “get them an appointment.” Many refugees have complained about this extortion; a UNHCR insider confirmed that it is not uncommon for security guards to cooperate and play intermediary between the Syrian refugees and the UNHCR registration desk. Himself, one of many short-contracted but highly paid UNHCR registration officers said, “Those security guards are hustlers and they have contacts inside the building; they usually have one partner sitting on a registry desk. This is how the bargain starts: security guards see a Syrian family who has come to register without an appointment so they offer a “favor.” The “favor” is either a quick entry to bypass the long line and register or simply they give the guard their family info and then he passes it to his partner on the desk in exchange for a fee which ranges between thirty three and one hundred dollars. Later, at the end of the day, the security guard splits the extortion money with the registration employee.” Many Syrian families fall victims to this scheme because of the urgency to register, to get recognition, a status and aid while in Lebanon. Although extortion money is the only motivation for the security guard, his partner in this crime, the UNHCR employee, is looking to keep their lucrative job by increasing the number of people they register daily. It seems that the nature of this “humanitarian organization” is corporate-based; the registry employees are forced to compete on who can register the most refugees every day. The UNHCR insider explains, “At the UNHCR registering desk section there are thirty employees and twenty-seven desks. Those who arrive first score a desk, those who are late do not get a desk and instead they do photo copies for the day. Employees start to arrive one hour before work hours. At the office, a chart is set showing which employee registered the most and who came in last. Not a nice, humanitarian work environment. We are pressured by these tricks that keep us in a never-ending competition.” UNHCR’s employees compete to register more refugees as a way to keep their jobs “so in that environment competing coworkers at my office will sometimes settle on all kinds of unethical methods to increase their performance; one of many methods is the coordination with the security guards outside the UNHCR office building to bring in additional Syrian families for registration.”
Three young sisters leaving the center in frustration are snarled at by the omnipresent security guards “put out your cigarettes, I do not want to see any one smoking. Stay in line. Stop talking. Keep your children in line, hold their hands, and do not let me see any of you on the street. Where you think you are going, come back to the line.” Their daily visits have not succeeded in getting their food vouchers renewed and they have had to borrow money to feed their children and pay rent.
Inside the centre, not far from where the girls are waiting, cake, croissants, aromatic tea, roasted coffee, juices and many other refreshments were made available to foreign correspondents, their drivers, and UNHCR employees. The UNHCR’s representative in Lebanon Ninette Kelley was touring, sightseeing, the registry center in Zahle. The second day of Geneva II peace talks made a perfect occasion for Kelley’s PR stunt. International journalists swarmed the scene, most trailing Kelley but scoring hefty quotes from Syrian refugees behind their iron fences. In the middle of the hustle and bustle, a white car drove into the crowd honking hysterically. The woman behind the wheel pushed through the throng in her oversized white Grand-Cherokee SUV. She stopped at the first security guard, rolling down her window, demanding in her superior tone, “they [Syrians] ruled us for thirty years, for thirty years! Why do we keep letting them into our country? Why they are ruining our street? Send them back to their country. I do not want to see any Syrians on the street and if I hear their voice from inside my house I am calling your company. Who is in charge here? Get me your manager; we need to clean this neighborhood from this daily nuisance.”
“Back in Ghouta we owned our homes; we made an honorable living working our jobs and although bombing and destruction were all around us our dignity was unscathed. Since we fled to Lebanon our dignity had ceased to exist.” One of the three displaced sisters shrugged and decried as they left the UNHCR centre dragging their children behind them. The hostility of winter is slowly fading away now making room for the warmth of the Mediterranean sun, however the inhospitable environment of their neighboring country, now their home, remains.