HERMEL, Lebanon: It’s a difficult process for people displaced by conflict to acknowledge they are refugees and seek help.
For around 100 Lebanese families who were forced to flee from their homes in Syria, coming to terms with living like a refugee in their own country may be even harder.
Local officials in municipalities along the border report that dozens of Lebanese are living in their districts like refugees. Some fled hundreds of miles from major cities in Syria, while others came just a few hundred meters from towns across the poorly demarcated border.
At the northern edge of the Bekaa Valley, hemmed in by Mount Lebanon and the Anti-Lebanon mountains in the west and east, 20 Lebanese families in Qasr, a border town meters from Syria, live as refugees.
“Whole families came here and going back is a must; they have land there, they have houses there, they all left because of the fighting,” said Hassan Zeaiter, mayor of Qasr.
Fighting in Syria between forces loyal to President Bashar Assad and an armed opposition has simmered for around a year and a half. A recent intensification in the conflict has pulled nearly every aspect of Syrian society into the internecine war, from rich Damascus elite to poorer Palestinian refugees.
Thousands of people fled rich neighborhoods in Damascus after a pinpoint assassination in the capital and later thousands of Palestinians left the country after fighting reached their refugee camps.
Local activist and charity groups estimate there are around 90,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The United Nations is helping around 35,000 of them. The displaced also includes a small population of Lebanese.
Many aren’t wealthy and most are hoping to return to their lives in Syria. Aid workers estimate there may be around 500 Lebanese people displaced from Syria in such conditions.
Being sent into a strange flight into their own country has left refugees feeling particularly defensive, and vulnerable, according to mayors who are working on behalf of the Lebanese.
Zeaiter said the families are by and large staying with relatives, but he also knows they are in need of basic humanitarian care like medical assistanceand food. Despite their need, most don’t seek out external aid and they rarely register with aid bodies.
“None of the families went because of their pride,” he said. “It’s hard for the refugees to admit that they need help.”
At an aid distribution day recently held in Qasr, Zeaiter said none of the displaced Lebanese families showed up for help.
Zeaiter said the Lebanese were so skittish about their situation and fearful of reprisals in Syria or Lebanon that he has taken to signing documentation on their behalf.
A few kilometers to the east in the small border town of Al-Qaa, which is centered around its church, Mayor Milad Rizk explained that the difficulties of displaced Lebanese is compounded by long existing border delineation problems.
“The Lebanese-Syrian border is not very clear,” said Rizk, who has several displaced Lebanese families living in his town.
“There’s no official border line.”
The Lebanese-Syrian border has never been completely demarcated on the ground, leaving a number of frontier towns in uncertain territory. Lebanese have lived for generations in villages considered Syrian, but which they say should have been included on the Lebanese side of the border.
Many families living in those villages decided to flee to Lebanon before the bloody Syrian fighting reached them, Rizk said. Others decided to leave when fighting between the armed opposition and the Syrian forces intensified along the border.
Attacks against Syrian border posts have allegedly originated from rebel Free Syrian Army soldiers residing in Lebanon. Those attacks sparked retaliatory incursions by the Syrian army into Lebanese territory. The fighting has escalated recently, causing a number of casualties.
Rizk said currently most of the aid for Lebanese families in his town has come from local charities, but even those are hard to depend on.
Because of their unusual status, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has been assisting Lebanese on a case-by-case basis. UNHCR spokeswoman Dana Sleiman said Lebanese cannot legally register as displaced because they don’t fit the international definition of a refugee.
“Some people have been living in Syria for so long as Lebanese, and they are entitled to some aid,” Sleiman said. – With additional reporting by Ghinwa Obeid