TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Mohammad Khodr doesn’t like what he sees and he intends to do something about it. Since arriving to Lebanon from his native Qusair, he has found the delivery of humanitarian relief for Syrian refugees, from both international organizations and local charities, to be haphazard.
As he sees it, the problem underscores a yawning gap in terms of representation for Syrians in Lebanon. “We don’t have a voice,” he told The Daily Star, sitting inside an aid coordination office in Tripoli’s Abi Samra, where like other refugees he had journeyed from Wadi Khaled to pick up a monthly allotment of aid.
“Syrians need representatives who can speak for them and relay their concerns effectively to these aid organizations and to the government,” he said.
The Daily Star had met Khodr by chance in Wadi Khaled two months prior, when the notion of an association made up of Syrians to represent refugee communities was still nascent. At that point, it was an idea being deliberated between men over cups of coffee on a residential patio; the critical conversation marked with brief digressions about the weather and other mundane affairs.
Months later, Khodr was in Tripoli, rolling stapled sheets of paper in his hands as he spoke; the group’s manifesto, with their title typed in bold at the top: The League of Syrian Refugees in North Lebanon.
Trained as a lawyer, Khodr speaks judiciously, and his proposed solutions seem practical, with one central assumption underlying them: “Syrians know other Syrians better than international aid workers and the Lebanese.”
Syrians know their communities and have more access, Khodr argues. They are in a better position to document changes in household composition, to calculate the actual number of families in a given area and communicate their needs.
The manifesto’s opening paragraph lists those the league purports to represent and its primary aim. It reads: “On behalf of Syrian refugees in north Lebanon, the martyrs’ families, the missing, widows and orphans, the displaced and all those deprived of food and shelter and clothing, we call on aid, social and education institutions to sympathize with those who were forced to leave their homes and come to Lebanon with their children, who are left without proper education. “
There are some 35 members living in various communities across north Lebanon, such as Ber Qayel, Bireh, Abdeh, Shadra, Abdel Hakim Ghamnoun, Halba, Be Qariah, Akroum and Wadi Khaled. All were educated professionals in Syria, some were lawyers like Khodr, others doctors, pharmacists, scholars and teachers.
“The league was established for humanitarian reasons,” Khodr is quick to say. “We have nothing to do with politics, we aren’t aligned with any political party.”
Some members had known each other in Syria, and others had met through mutual friends. “We were united in our resolve to form this league,” Khodr said.
Perceived disorder in the delivery of aid was one reason why members felt there was a need for a representative association. Khodr said that while Syrians received aid, most in his area of Wadi Khaled and others residing in north Lebanon were not receiving adequate amounts, and that aid was often distributed unequally. Moreover, he alleged that some refugees were being maltreated by distribution workers.
“In other cases, there are Syrians who have received the same kind of aid, such as mattresses or heaters, several times, while others have no shelter or any form of aid,” he said.
With these grievances in mind, the league aims to supervise relief distribution, coordinate and cooperate with relevant organizations that provide help to refugees, care for the sick and work with health centers and organizations to provide necessary treatment, work to open special schools to teach Syrian refugee children, take adequate care of the families of those injured during the war, and work with the Lebanese government to solve the myriad of problems facing refugees.
Khodr provides documents outlining the league’s hierarchical management structure to demonstrate how these broad objectives can be realized: With Khodr at the helm, along with deputy head Jihad Saleh, the league would be organized with members managing key portfolios, such as medical care, legal affairs, education, issues facing children and women and transportation. The league also has secretaries, a treasurer and a media coordinator.
But the newly formed league has already faced setbacks. Apart from the suspicion of their Lebanese neighbors, who question the group’s stated purpose, they also face legal hurdles. Khodr learned two weeks ago the association could not qualify for a permit from the Interior Ministry without having Lebanese members. The permit is a stamp of legitimacy that Khodr says is important for the group to be considered credible.
A source from the ministry said that foreign organizations needed a Cabinet decree to be considered legal, but the government has been in caretaker status since March.
After contacting Lebanese charities in Tripoli to see if any would be willing to work with the league, they found a partner in Al-Mustaqbal, a charity based in north Lebanon. The league’s offices are now located along the Abdeh-Halba highway.
A fair distribution of relief may be the group’s main goal, but for Khodr the dignity of Syrians is also at stake. “Syrians at the end need someone to speak for them, if there is no one to speak for them, no one will hear them or hear what they need.”
He is chiefly concerned about the rising tensions between refugees and Lebanese host communities. “When there is someone to talk, problems can be resolved,” he said.
But Nadim Ghanoum, an official appointed by the opposition group the Union of Syrian Democrats, headed by Christian human rights activist Michel Kilo, to oversee the state of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, said finding people to listen would be the league’s greatest challenge.
“We’ve been sending the same message [to international organizations] for three years, but we haven’t gotten any responses. What’s more important than forming a new group is finding someone willing to listen.”