By Guest Author Dana Visalli
With a Lebanese population of four million, Lebanon is currently hosting over one million Syrian refugees from the violence in Syria that has torn that country apart. I wanted to touch in with the human stories of these people, and so I traveled to Lebanon in hopes of visiting one or more of the refugee camps that have sprung up all over the country.
Most of the camps are humble affairs, taking in from one hundred to one thousand people. The dwellings are typically tent-like structures with large tarps thrown over a wooden frame. Despite the fact that these camps now dot the Lebanese landscape, entry into them is both tightly controlled by the U.N. and not particular safe once you are allowed in, so it was my good fortune to visit two camps and be able to walk around and talk with some of the inhabitants (with the help of a translator).
Both camps that I visited were in the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon. The Al Jaraheya camp was a collection of about 30 wood-framed structures housing about 200 people. A dominant theme of the camp that comes to mind is emptiness. This small, lost world is not lacking in people, but it is empty of any social or cultural context or content. For example we took a tour inside one of the “homes”; there was almost nothing in it. There was a rug on the floor, a small stove (but no fuel) in the middle of an approximately 15 by 15 foot room, and a television; other than that it was just open space. An attached side lean-to had a simple sink, drainboard and a single-burner propane stove.
In a “community center” social area, there was just a small plastic table and four plastic chairs; nothing else. Four pepsis—which of course are devoid of any nutritional content—were brought and placed on the plastic table in this environment that was devoid of any cultural content. The devastation and the deprivation of any form of meaningful existence visited upon them in their home communities in Syria had followed them across the border to Lebanon. There is no work for these people, no books to read, no activities, just overwhelming emptiness in a sterile environment.
Abu Razak, young man of 25, has been in the camp for one and a half years. His village near Homs was razed to the ground by the Syrian government. People in his area were known to be critical of the Assad government; one of their major issues was the mass killing of perhaps 25,000 people in an uprising staged by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982.
People in the area where this violence took place were deeply traumatized by the event, but they had never been allowed to talk about it; if they did speak publicly, they would likely be arrested by government agents. Abu Razak said his people “were not even allowed to think” for fear of reprisals by the government. (On the other hand, education was free in Syria and Razak dropped out of school after the 8th grade, to his regret now). How was life in the camp? His answer was similar to others I asked, “We are alive thank God, but life in camp is hard.”
Young Selwa (she did not want to give me her name so I told her to just make one up; she laughed and said, ok, call me Selwa) has been in the camp for two and a half years; her home and entire village are also completely destroyed. Who destroyed it, the government or the rebels? She said the responsibility for the destruction was shared between the Assad government and the rebels. Both sides are constantly fighting, and the people are caught in the middle. She is 29 years old with two young children; her husband is stuck in Syria because currently no more Syrians are allowed to cross the border to Lebanon.
Surviving the economics of the camp is challenging. Most camps are on private land, and most landlords charge a month rent for each tent; at Al Jaraheya the rent is $50 a month per tent; multiply that by 30 tents and it seems the landlord is making a tidy sum off of the refugee’s misfortune. There are also charges for electricity and water. There is little work to be had for the refugees, but if the rent isn’t paid in a timely manner, tents and the people in them are removed from the camp. Each person in the camp gets a card for $27 worth of food a month; sometimes people sell this sparse supply of food in order to raise money to pay the rent.
My guide Tarek tells me afterwards that everyone in the camp is against the Syrian government. They are mostly from the poorer strata of Syrian society, who are the ones who often seemed to have felt most neglected by the government, while the more well-to-do people tend to support Assad (certainly not categorically true however).
Dana Visalli is a biologist living in Washington State; he has visited Iraq and Afghanistan often and attempted to visit Damascus in Syria in March of this year. He has essays on Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam at www.methownaturalist.com