HERMEL, Lebanon: Ali Shemali, a Syrian national from a Shiite suburb of Homs, lobbies a Hezbollah official for help enrolling his kids in a Bekaa Valley public school.
“[Opposition] fighters attacked my family and we had to move to Lebanon,” Shemali, who has yet to register with the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, tries to explain. “The Social Affairs Ministry and other associations weren’t able to assist. Is there any way you could help me register the kids in a school here?”
The party official is clearly reluctant to give a final answer to the worried father of four from Al-Bayada. Giant Pictures of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah and Iran’s spiritual leader Sayyed Ali Khamenei hang in the vast reception hall of the party’s headquarters in Hermel, watching over the seemingly fruitless discussion.
There has been a sharp increase in Hermel’s population since the fighting in Syria started, and the region still endures the abject poverty that is likely to proliferate as dozens of Lebanese and Syrian families flee the bloodshed next door.
Scores of Syrians from the Qusayr and Homs regions, along with Lebanese Shiites who live in a string of border villages inside Syria, have found refuge in Hermel; the majority suffer from a complete lack of assistance.
Talal Iskandar, who has been tasked by Hermel’s municipalities to coordinate aid and relief for the hundreds of refugees in the district, protests the lack of aid and laxity in registering refugees.
He says the fact that he has memorized the aid his region has received since the unrest in Syria erupted some 19 months ago is proof of the meager assistance that Hermel has been provided.
“Unlike Arsal, for example, where aid to refugees is abundant, assistance to Hermel’s refugees is virtually nonexistent,” Iskandar says. “Maybe it has to do with the political affiliation of the Hermel people, but this is unfair treatment.”
With pro-Hezbollah posters and banners plastered on walls across the town, Hermel’s population supports the armed group, which continues to voice its backing of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad. Hermel’s mountains and valleys are believed to house military and training bases for the party.
Further south, the border town of Arsal is considered by many as a de-facto safe haven for Free Syrian Army fighters. The town also accommodates the largest number of Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley.
In addition to the usual suspects such as UNHCR, the Danish Refugee Council, Medecins sans Frontieres and the International Committee for the Red Cross – all of which operate in Hermel – Syrian refugees in Arsal benefit from aid provided by the Future Movement, Lebanon’s Highest Sunni authority Dar al-Fatwa, and the Qatari and Emirati Red Crescents.
“Out of the 900 families currently in Hermel, more than 80 percent are Sunni and the rest are Shiites and Christians,” Iskandar notes.
Fatmeh Rahmoun from Syria’s Qusayr says she is happy and feels safe in Hermel. “I wouldn’t think of moving to Arsal, although we have relatives who went there,” Rahmoun says. The old woman’s son is currently in one of Tripoli’s hospitals, having sustained serious wounds fighting alongside rebel forces in Syria.
Despite her ease, Rahmoun hopes that aid groups will be swift in delivering books and stationery so that her grandchildren can properly kick off the school year.
Enrollment in schools as well as major discrepancies between the curricula of Lebanon and Syria, where math and science are taught in Arabic, are among the major hurdles Syrian refugees in Lebanon have been facing.
“I am not worried about my kids in elementary school – they can learn languages fast,” says Ali Mohammad al-Jamal, a resident of Farouqieh, a Syrian border village inhabited by Shiite Lebanese. “But I’m seriously worried about my older son in seventh grade. I don’t think he’ll grasp Lebanese teaching methods, and I’m afraid he’s going to end up as a farmer just like me.”
Jamal, who sent his parents and family to live in Hermel after attacks by Syrian opposition fighters on the land he owns in Farouqieh, says Lebanese living in Syria have realized only recently that “living standards in Syria were much better” than those in its smaller neighbor.
“We bought two kilos of bread for 20 Syrian pounds ($0.30); now here in Lebanon we pay LL1,500 ($1) for less than a kilo,” Jamal explains.
The unrest in Syria has taken much of its toll on Lebanese who were living in Syria and have now returned to their country of origin. Treated like Syrian nationals, these Lebanese benefited from the free schooling and health care provided by the Syrian government, not to mention cheaper prices of heating oil, gas canisters, vegetables and detergent.
In comparison to the living conditions of Syrian nationals who can register with UNHCR and receive some aid, those of the Lebanese who fled Syria can be described as dire. Providing aid to displaced Lebanese is not a part of UNHCR’s mandate.
The fate of Lebanese refugees in Syria remains in limbo as the Social Affairs Ministry, the Higher Relief Committee and the International Organization for Migration mull over a plan for handling this population, and struggle to acquire funding to help them.
“So far no one from the Social Affairs Ministry or the HRC has set foot in Hermel,” Iskandar says. “I don’t know what they’re waiting for.”
According to Iskandar, the last time a UNHCR team visited Hermel to register Syrian refugees was in July.
“We are currently down to 230 unregistered families,” he says. “They are all eager to register to take advantage of distribution and services but no one is coming our way.”
UNHCR’s Beirut Public Information Associate, Dana Sleiman, says while will she understands the frustration of refugees, the Bekaa Valley is a vast area, meaning that officials must travel from village to village to register refugees. This contrasts with north Lebanon, where registration has been centralized.
Sleiman says a UNHCR team will soon visit the area of Qaa near Hermel to register refugees.
Iskandar explains that schooling, registration and heating oil need immediate attention. “Many kids are still out of schools and winter is drawing near and not one heater has been delivered to us,” the activist says.
“If the flow of aid remains the same, I strongly suspect a fully fledged humanitarian crisis to explode during the winter season,” Iskandar continues. “These people will definitely die of cold or hunger.”