BEIRUT

Lebanon News

Refugee influx prompts solo relief work

  • Storage units in Beddawi, one of the many makeshift refugee destinations in recent days and months.

TRIPOLI/BEIRUT: When 16-year-old Farah fled to Lebanon from her hometown of Hama with her husband and 1-month-old daughter after five straight days of shelling, she had few possessions and nowhere to go. Heading for the town of Beddawi, outside Tripoli, she expected to find help there for shelter and provisions.

But that wasn’t immediately forthcoming. The family stayed for a couple of nights with a local woman (“May God protect her”), before Farah heard about an empty storage unit being rented out nearby.

“My husband took some money from someone and he’ll repay them once he finds a job,” she says of how they intended to pay for the 4x6-meter room, which is unfurnished save for a dingy toilet and shower room, and is being shared with another family of four.

Beyond that, Farah didn’t know how she would pay for what her family needed. The family spent the first two nights sleeping on the floor.

But Farah was fortunate in that her situation was brought to the attention of Diana (who requested that her last name not be used), a Syrian studying at a Lebanese university, who for the past six months has been working with around six others to raise private donations from friends and family to distribute aid to those Syrian refugees who have fallen through the cracks of local and international NGOs, or government relief.

“It started getting really bad in Homs ... I had cousins that were killed. I wanted to go there and help, but I couldn’t leave because of my studies,” she says of her decision to begin helping out. “I started asking who helps out, but I didn’t really get any kind of response, and it wasn’t at all clear. So it seemed that I would have to do something by myself.”

Every month Diana buys 100-200 mattresses, as well as diapers, baby milk and clothing, which she then distributes to new families arriving in north Lebanon. She also pays the rent on numerous other storage facilities, almost always occupied by more than one family.

Despite the presence of dozens of NGOs, as well as the government’s Higher Relief Committee, there are still many gaps in aid provisions for the thousands of refugees who have fled the violence in Syria.

These are the gaps that Diana seeks to help fill.

She also works in conjunction with the Syrian NGO Watan, distributing their aid, but the money she earns from private donations is not channeled to any other organization, and goes toward provisions that other charities do not or haven’t been able to provide.

Last week saw a huge spike in refugee numbers amid heavy fighting that reached Damascus, with up to 30,000 crossing the Masnaa border in 48 hours alone, doubling the official number of registered refugees. Activists and local NGOs suggested the real number could be three times that.

Many of the newest arrivals are by and large better off than the refugees who preceded them, and have moved on to Beirut or other cities and towns. Still, the latest influx will nonetheless strain already-stretched NGOs and charities, especially coming as it did just a week after the HRC announced it would no longer fund secondary medical care.

European Union officials warned Thursday that significantly more funds would be needed to keep up with the drastically increasing number of refugees across the region.

In Lebanon, one of the biggest problems that organizations face is the identification of refugees.

Lebanon has not ratified the 1950 U.N. Convention on Refugees, meaning displaced people, whether or not they were fleeing violence, are not defined as such.

Andras Beszterczey, Middle East program director for Mercy Corps., another NGO active in the Bekaa, says this factor makes the situation in Lebanon, as compared to other host nations Jordan and Turkey, “much more complex.”

Syrians fleeing the violence are also scattered across Lebanon, making it hard for organizations to know how to reach them. Plus, given Lebanon’s political ties to Syria, refugees are also often scared to make themselves known, and mistrustful of organizations, a fact Diana feels makes it easier for her to reach them as an individual.

“They usually show IDs to us because when we go to them we tell them ‘we’re Syrians, we’re not part of any organization, we’re working independently,’” she says.

Provision is patchy and disorganized, with many NGOs and activists reporting that they see little attention for refugees from other organizations.

But with the increased media attention that the latest influx has brought, there has also been a growth in grassroots campaigns to raise funds for refugees, attempting to offer an apolitical, secular alternative.

One such campaign, AidSyria, was established just last week. Coordinated through social media, the organizers hope to start distribution as early as Monday, and already have around 1,000 volunteers, from across Lebanon, signed up to help.

“The first thing we always focus on is the humanitarian element of this campaign only ... there is no politics,” says Rana Farhat, one of the organizers behind AidSyria. “Of course everyone has the right to have their own political opinions,” but there is no space for them in the campaign.

This latest refugee surge echoes, almost to the day, the passage of Lebanese fleeing the 2006 war, but in the opposite direction. The national experience of war puts the Lebanese in a position to understand the situation, says Rima Tanani, another organizer.

“The Lebanese have passed through these crises many times before,” she says. “I noticed that there are many Syrians here and they are not getting enough help, not from the government or from any other committees.”

As Farhat adds, “There are so many people who have come to us and said, ‘Hey, those people helped us when we were in need so we need to pay them back. And we can’t now turn our backs on them.’”

AidSyria is currently conducting field research and creating a database of volunteers, to see what aid gaps exist, and what can feasibly be delivered and where.

One key aim is to help families find shelter: If they can afford to rent, this will mean helping locate apartments, or if not, people are being asked to volunteer to become host families.

They are also gathering food, clothes and baby milk to distribute to displaced families, and hope to put on entertainment for children.

They are also looking to provide medicines, an area where other organizations have struggled, particularly with ongoing care. It’s a problem Diana, too, has seen. Though she is able to fund any medicines she needs in bulk via a family connection, she also aims to provide one-off treatments that other organizations cannot afford, which could strain her small budget.

Many doctors have come forward as volunteers, willing to help in AidSyria’s campaign. Farhat and Tanani, along with Imad Bazzi, an activist, are also communicating with aid experts, many of whom have experience in Lebanon in 2006, and in Somalia.

“I have personally heard a lot of stories about hospitals refusing to receive any refugees,” Farhat says. “Obviously this is unfair: We never heard stories about Lebanese being turned away in Syria in 2006.”

(Some names in this article have been changed.)

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 27, 2012, on page 4.
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