Lebanon News

New U.N. coordinator surveys refugee challenge

Ross Mountain visits a tented settlement of Syrian refugees in Zahle, Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014. (Photos courtesy of UNDP)

ZAHLE, Lebanon: An informal refugee camp where Syrian arrivals began setting up tents around two years ago has begun seeing signs of life beyond day-to-day survival.

Children attend classes, a clinic tends to the ill and local leaders speak on behalf of the community in an effort to improve their living conditions. This past Saturday afternoon, the newly appointed United Nations Development Program Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Lebanon Ross Mountain visited the tent settlement of Fayda in the Bekaa Valley town of Zahle. The stop in Fayda, one of around hundreds of such camps that have sprung up throughout Lebanon over the past couple of years, was part of an all-day trip to visit various Syrian refugee communities. There, accompanied by NGO workers and journalists, he saw the life of the camp in full swing.

Illiterate girls who had been out of school since the nearly 3-year-old conflict began were learning the alphabet from Rawaa Aloush, a former law-school student from Homs whose own studies and dreams of earning a doctorate degree had been cut short by the war.

The class, one of around 10 that was set up two months ago, was a longtime request of the young students themselves. It is estimated that over 80 percent of Syrian school-aged children in Lebanon have dropped out of school, something that both aid agencies and the refugees themselves are trying to reverse.

The eager girls in their colorful long robes sat on the edge of their seats, competing to be called to the front to show off their new skill: connecting letters to make words in Arabic. School. Class. Light. Knowledge. And then connecting words: “Knowledge is light.”

As the U.N. guest entered the classroom, the students quickly stood at attention, a sign of respect for their visitor as well as a testament to their creation of a disciplined classroom in otherwise hectic and squalid conditions.

“This is much better than what we had before,” Aloush said as she walked from the small humid classroom to another nearby tent where she lives with her family.

Walking over a narrow gravel pathway that separates the tents, she recalled, “It used to all be muddy water where we’re walking.”

Near the cluster of classrooms, the new U.N. appointee was shown the camp’s clinic, a small room where a full-time nurse from Homs provides residents with basic medical care with the help of a doctor from Beirut who visits at least twice a week. Breaking the simplicity of the room are the words written on the blackboard in elaborate Arabic calligraphy: “I have the right to health care.”

Down the hall the delegation visited more classrooms, where young students were catching up on studies that many had left behind in Syria, along with their homes and most of the possessions.

Toward the end of Mountain’s tour, the U.N. official stopped to say a few words to praise the people of the camp for their fortitude under difficult circumstances, as well as commend the host community for their generosity.

Mountain, a career humanitarian worker who has who has worked at posts throughout the world, including Iraq, praised the Lebanese people’s “extraordinary generosity” in hosting the Syrian refugees who are staying in the country until they can return to their own homes.

“I’m well aware of the extraordinary influx, and I’m impressed to see the response,” he told The Daily Star.

Taking the opportunity to get a word in while they had the ear of their U.N. guest, several refugees asked if the Lebanese government could halt the $200 residency registration fee that they are required to pay every six months if they stay in the country. Many refugees say they don’t feel safe crossing the border to renew their visa. The issue, which has been raised many times over the past couple of years, will likely not be considered for change until Lebanon forms a new government.

Mountain’s visit comes at a time when the effect of Syria’s civil war in Lebanon is about to hit several milestones. Next month will mark the third anniversary of what started as a peaceful civilian-led uprising. And with over 900,000 Syrian refugees now registered in Lebanon, the number will soon reach 1 million.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 11, 2014, on page 4.




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