TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Lying in a special wing of a private hospital in Tripoli, Abou Louai, dark haired with a closely cropped beard, explains how he got from Baba Amr in Homs, Syria, to north Lebanon.
Abou Louai was hit by shrapnel during fighting in Homs, and hot metal tore deep cuts into the side of his right leg. After two months in Syria the wounds weren’t closing and became seriously infected. Abou Louai needed proper medical care.
He flips back his hospital gown to reveal several clean sutures running up his leg. An Islamic charity paid for doctors to perform several surgeries to properly close his wounds after he was smuggled across the border in January. The charity might also pay to implant prosthetic bones to replace ones he lost in the explosion.
“Hopefully they will also be able to make my leg as long as it used to be with new treatments,” says Abou Louai.
The hallways here at Dar al-Chifaa hospital are lined with clean white rooms full of patients just like Abou Louai. One man is an opposition fighter who was shot in the back near the spine, and another is a farmer who stepped on a land mine. All of their treatments, amounting to thousands of dollars, are being paid for by Bashaer, which is part of a coalition of Islamic charities in the country.
As Syrians have poured across the border fleeing an escalating conflict in their country, a group of about 30 Islamic charities with millions of dollars from Gulf funding have banded together to become an indispensable provider for thousands of refugees as well as one of the most outspoken advocates to improve their situation.
The charities saw a significant gap that needed to be filled between the number of refugees in the country and the amount of aid being provided through official channels of the Higher Relief Council and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
“The level of the aid given does not correspond to the number of refugees and their situation,” says Ahmad Mustafa Mohammad, head of the Bashaer charity. “The burden of responsibility was placed on the Lebanese associations,” he says.
With the unrivaled levels of access to refugees and a budget of over $3 million from Gulf-based charities in Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the coalition has also become perhaps the only group with a firm grasp on the nature of the refugee situation in the country.
UNHCR, the official aid body in the country, has a larger budget and has helped thousands of people fleeing the violence, but it is also hampered by strict operating rules from the Lebanese government. The UNHCR has constantly been working to expand their access to refugees.
But while the UNHCR is looking to expand, the Islamic coalition is already there. They have offices in dozens of places around the country including the major refugee hubs of Wadi Khalid and Tripoli in the north.
The Islamic charities have been in place in the country for decades, and were particularly involved in aid work during the 2006 war with Israel. Responding to the latest crisis just meant reactivating those networks.
“From the beginning of the crisis there was aid given to the refugees, which back at that time was only 100 families, so local NGOs and families in the neighborhoods managed to help those refugees with ad hoc services,” says Lokman Khoder, one of the leaders in the coalition.
As fighting in Syria increased and families fled across the border by the hundreds, aid efforts were duplicated in some areas and were lacking in others.
“It was essential to coordinate the efforts of the NGOs,” Khoder says. That coordination gives the coalition a birds-eye view of the refugee population.
Official counts of refugees in the country have consistently lagged behind the number of refugees actually on the ground. Using teams of about 20 people, the UNHCR has been able to register just over 8,500 refugees in Lebanon. They acknowledge there are about 6,500 thousand more in the Bekaa and around Beirut.
The Islamic coalition went beyond registration teams and with their network of volunteers, the organization conducted a geographical mapping of their entire refugee area.
According to their survey there are actually around 16,400 refugees in the north of the country, around 7,000 in the Bekaa and several more thousand around Beirut and Sidon, where they are conducting operations – about 27,000 in total. “These are accurate statistics; we don’t exaggerate any of these figures. Our aim is to be good representatives for the people’s money we receive,” Khoder says.
The organization’s wide reach and extensive assets has also let the coalition become one of the most outspoken and effective advocates in lobbying the Lebanese government to do more for refugees.
Coalition members have issued lists of demands at news conferences for the government to take on more responsibility. And it seems the coalition’s outspoken style is yielding results.
Coalition leaders are meeting with HRC chief Ibrahim Bashir on a regular basis and in response to the Islamic charities’ demands Bashir announced he would have the HRC revise upward the official count of refugees in the country and purchase public housing for refugees.
Khoder acknowledges that the coalition can only provide part of the aid the refugees need. There are major roles to be carried out by the Lebanese government and the UNHCR.
“The role of the coalition is not to take the responsibility of the state. We appreciate that there is great work to be done on this, the role is complementary to these efforts,” Khoder says.
But for now there are many people in the country counting on the coalition.
Speaking in a well-furnished office in a rundown building in the Barbir neighborhood in Beirut, Amr Jalal al-Homsi explains his charity’s work as part of the Islamic coalition.
Homsi is the head of the Qatari-funded Taqwa Islamic charity organization, which is paying for hundreds of Syrians to have medical treatment in Lebanon as well as distributing thousands of food packages.
“We have well-established relationships with several public hospitals and medical groups as well as specialized doctors,” says Homsi.
Homsi pulls out his cellphone and opens his text messages folder from refugees entering the country from Syria and seeking help at hospitals from his organization. With a flick of his finger, dozens of texts scroll by, each one a separate call for help over the past few days.
“Things can get managed to some extent, but in the case of severe illnesses or chronic diseases things will get more complicated.”