TAALABAYA, Lebanon: Two small children, hair neatly combed, helped Huda take the family’s clothes out of the portable electric washing machine before running down a tree-lined path in the Al-Rahman collective shelter in Taalabaya.
“This is our new home. I’m planning to stay here until I can go back to Syria, or until I die,” said Huda who moved to Al-Rahman last year.
While members of the Lebanese government and the international community continue to voice support for the establishment of formal refugee camps, many Syrians say they would rather stay where they are.
Many refugees voiced concerns about being rehoused in large, formal settlements like the Zaatari camp in Jordan.
Housing more than 100,000 Syrian refugees, Zaatari camp is technically the fourth largest city in Jordan. Managed jointly by the UNHCR and the Jordanian authorities, the Zaatari camp seems nearly perfect on paper.
Humanitarian workers circulate the camp, which opened in 2012, vaccinating children, hosting gender-based-violence workshops and promoting hygiene.
But the residents have constantly complained about poor services in the massive camp. Desperate women without work have turned to prostitution to support their families, and a thriving drug trade is said to exist within the Zaatari camp.
Reports emerged last fall that opposition fighters were recruiting young men from the camp to join their ranks despite the presence of security personnel.
Hamida, who resides in a small settlement in the eastern Bekaa Valley town of Deir Zanoun, said almost all of the 120 families in the camp were from Aleppo, and many knew each other before fleeing to Lebanon. Moving to a large, formal settlement would threaten this familiarity, she said.
“If we moved to a bigger camp, people from outside [Aleppo] will come, and it could create problems,” she said.
Hamida, like many refugees, has worked hard to make her tent a home. Colorful synthetic flowers have been carefully strung across the walls, and real flowers are growing in crates outside her paneled front door.
Moreover, she relishes the responsibilities she has taken on in her small refugee community. “In Syria, I was a teacher, and here I’m teaching young women to read. I’m very proud, and I fear that if I left this camp I would lose my role.”
Residents in a crude encampment on the side of the road near Ablah, however, were more amenable to the idea of a formal settlement. “I would go to a formal settlement, said Mariam, a young refugee living in the encampment.
“Most of us pay rent here even though we hardly have any money. The tents are very small,” she said.
“If there are more benefits and services there, I would go,” said Zeynab, standing in front of her ramshackle shelter, patched in some places with chicken wire.
“But in a bigger camp, we will be restricted,” she said.
Abu Zahra, a grizzled grandfather from Ghouta near Damascus, lives in Al-Rahman but has children in Zaatari camp. “My son says the situation there is not good. There are strict curfews, and it’s like a desert. But here, we have fresh air,” he said with a smile.
“Here, if someone offers me a job I can go and come freely. But if the same thing happened in a formal camp, like Zaatari, they would question me, ask for all the details and it would be difficult,” agreed Ibrahim, another resident of Al-Rahman which was erected last year by the humanitarian organization Al-Ighathiya.
Residents at various camps in east Bekaa Valley categorically rejected the Lebanese government’s assertion that there are safe areas of Syria where the refugees could be resettled. “There is no safe place in Syria,” said Adnan, who arrived at the Deir Zanoun camp two days ago.
“All of Syria is dangerous right now,” agreed Zeynab.
For now, many refugees say that remaining in the Bekaa Valley is their best option. “We’re comfortable enough here,” Abu Mohammad said. “It looks like Ghouta. I just miss my grape vines.”