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WEDNESDAY, 16 APR 2014
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Bittersweet births for Syrian refugees in Lebanon
The UNHCR began keeping statistics of children born to Syrian refugees well after the conflict began.
The UNHCR began keeping statistics of children born to Syrian refugees well after the conflict began.
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MARJ, Lebanon: Mother and son seemed content next to each other; she was propped up against a scruffy wooden headboard and he nuzzled in soft light blue.

At 2 days old, the sleeping newborn was one of Lebanon’s newest Syrian refugees – and already in the middle of conflicts both familial and political.

As for the domestic realm, mother Dunya and father Mustafa differ on what to call the newest addition to their family. Dunya and their three other kids favor Taym. Mustafa wants to name his son after his brother Issam, a Syrian soldier imprisoned four months ago for defecting.

Dunya, who is economical with words but gets her point across, seems likely to win this one. But there is another divergence in the family that is more difficult to call: She wants to move back to Syria someday, and he thinks they can’t go home again.

As the Syrian conflict stretches into its second year, they find themselves part of the growing ranks of Syrian refugees in Lebanon – now more than 85,000 – who are an increasingly permanent fixture in Lebanon.

Among the luckier refugees, the family shares a rented house with two other families in the Bekaa village of Marj. The isolated and fairly spacious building is a far cry from the local school where many bunked until they were evicted for the academic year, and farther still from the tents where others are sleeping.

Dunya wanted to give birth in Syria, but clashes grew nearer and she was concerned about her children and how she would get to a hospital.

“I used to lie to my kids about jets bombing the area, to make them feel safe,” she said. “I would turn on the TV for them to watch; I’d put them beside me and convince them nothing was happening outside.”

But this strategy only lasted for so long. There are at least 35 martyrs from their town, Mustafa said, adding that among the dead was a woman who was eight months pregnant. Three months ago, they decamped to Lebanon.

The UNHCR began keeping statistics on children born to registered Syrian refugees well after the conflict began. From mid-March through August of this year it counted 250 newborns in the Bekaa, and 154 in the north from this January through August. It tallied an additional 29 newborns in the north before January. In total that’s 433 children – likely a vast underestimate.

Although there is abject poverty and fear among the refugees, there are also marriages and births, bittersweet moments of joy that are reminders that life is rumbling forward, albeit not in their preferred location.

Even if the Syrian conflict is resolved soon many refugees will have no homes or jobs to return to. This has led some to suggest more durable solutions, at least for housing.

Some politicians, including Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt and various members of the March 14 bloc’s ranks, have said that building camps is the only way forward. Both Turkey and Jordan have set up official refugee camps.

Camps are a delicate topic in Lebanon, where more than 400,000 Palestinian refugees live, most in or around 12 camps. When they moved into tents starting in 1948, few here expected such an extended stay.

In time, the tents became buildings and the camps became overcrowded and destitute neighborhoods of their own. The Palestinians were major players in Lebanon’s 15-year Civil War.

Hezbollah and its March 8 coalition have expressed strong opposition to camps, with Hezbollah’s No. 2 Sheikh Naim Qassem suggesting earlier this spring that “any camp for Syrians will turn into a military pocket that will be used as a launch pad against Syria, and then against Lebanon.”

The government is in the early stages of discussing an overarching plan for Syrian refugees, but Prime Minister Najib Mikati told the U.N. General Assembly last week that relief is beginning to exceed the country’s capacity.

Dunya still wants her new son to grow up in Syria. Out of her earshot, Mustafa insisted “there is no way my wife and kids are going back to Syria,” although he will continue to cross the border to look after his business interests and remaining relatives.

His 15-year-old son said he had been traumatized by the fighting back home. If they can’t stay in Lebanon, Mustafa is mulling over Saudi Arabia or Venezuela.

No sign of emotion crossed the teenager’s face for several hours, until he pulled back the covers to check on his newborn brother, who he’ll probably call Taym. He grinned for a moment.

Dunya, tired and calm, is worried about Syria’s future and that of her new son. But she has had some respite. “When I had the baby, I forgot all the bad things that happened in Syria.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 06, 2012, on page 3.
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