ZAHLE, Lebanon: Nidal Issa points to a barely legible scrawl on the wall next to his shelter. He reads it out: “Assad is the vilest in the world and foulest in the nation.”
“Even normal life was suffering,” Issa recalls of his time in Syria. “We stood for 12 hours in a bread line.”
Time appears to flow at a different rate for Issa, as days pass without the possibility of employment and his tailoring equipment goes unused. He is unsure if he arrived in Lebanon in February or March.
A mere few kilometers from the border, Issa, a father of seven from Idlib, has made a new home for himself. It is an unconventional home, a “box shelter” designed by the Danish Refugee Council to house small families fleeing the conflict now raging for a third year.
The structure itself is a 5x5-meter “box” made of simple, insulated sandwich panels, providing extra warmth in the winter months when snow descends on Zahle.
Now that he is here, Issa focuses on how his circumstances are better than that of many of his compatriots.
“Others are much worse,” he said. “We thank God.”
Indeed, there are precious signs of normalcy in the little home. A drawing of a heart with an arrow through it adorns the outer wooden wall of the hut, which is fronted by a makeshift bench made out of a wooden plank balanced on cement blocks.
Inside, the room is lined on one end with tough pillows that double as beds and the floor is partly covered with simple carpets.
Issa and his family are fortunate to be living on a piece of land owned by his in-laws. His sister married in Lebanon years ago, and her sons built an extra kitchen and toilet for the family.
The miniature kitchen is frugal like the rest of the home, which bears signs of a life being rebuilt.
Issa’s tailoring machine lies unused in the corner. Though he says he cannot gather enough capital to start a business, he has used it to build surprisingly tough inflatable water boats, which he shyly says are for the time when he can take his children to the beach.
Ziad Kmeid, the emergency response coordinator at DRC, says the box shelters are not the only options available to refugees. There are collective shelters, where abandoned buildings can be turned into a home for refugees after approval by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and local authorities.
The box shelters are usually placed near one of these communal homes because the basic design of the shelter does not include a bathroom or kitchen. Some, like Issa, are hosted in space owned by Lebanese families. The shelters are left to be used by the locals once their two-year lease expires.
DRC also provides direct cash assistance to some refugees to help them pay rent on a monthly basis.
But the box shelters project has run into some difficulties, and is currently on hold.
“We stopped the shelter box activity for funding purposes and because it’s a sensitive shelter activity because it gives the impression that we’re building sustainable shelter solutions for refugees,” explains Kmeid.
He says the idea for the box shelters was born one-and-a-half years ago as shelter opportunities became scarcer. The organization began building them in Akkar and Western Bekaa.
But construction stopped in June.
Part of the issue is gathering enough funding to battle a growing refugee crisis. But the other side of the issue is a desire to avoid the appearance that the housing being provided for refugees is long-term, and the impression that the government and non-governmental organizations are building refugee camps, a politically sensitive issue.
Once funding is secured, DRC will propose a list of locations to build more box shelters dispersed in several areas to address concerns.
“All shelter solutions should be temporary,” says Kmeid.
Kmeid says the continued influx of refugees poses broad challenges.
“At some point we should be realistic and we should know that if the number really increased, even if we have the money, we might not have shelter solutions other maybe than the camps, which nobody prefers,” he says.
“At the moment, I think that we can still find more abandoned structures, unfinished buildings and support more in ‘cash for rent,’ before getting into the camp solution.”
Between January and July, DRC installed 87 box shelters, gave rent assistance to 1,150 households and rehabilitated 27 unfinished buildings to house refugees.
There are currently over 1.2 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
But there is little question of permanence in their mind, because many would like to go back to Syria.
Osama, Issa’s son and an 11-year-old with an easy smile, recalls with fondness his childhood friends back home and how he rode down his street. “Now I don’t have a bicycle,” he adds.
Osama flips through his school notebooks, having spent some time reviewing material that he learned while back home in Syria. He says he would like to go back home and be a doctor.
“You can’t really find comfort except in your own country, right?”