HERMEL, Lebanon: Talal Eskandar sits in front of a Hermel municipality building, doing his best to match faces and names to identification documents. A local mukhtar and Red Cross volunteer, Iskandar has the unenviable task of deciding who among the dozens clustered in front of him are truly Syrian refugees and can register for aid with the United Nations.
In Hermel, where some 1,250 families have taken refuge from the violence in Syria, there is a heady mix of residents. According to Iskandar, 750 Syrian families – 400 of which are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – have taken shelter in Hermel. Another 500 Lebanese families who lived in Syria have fled to the area. There are also a number of Syrians, in Lebanon before the crisis, who are now having a harder time getting along.
Each group has their own set of troubles and complaints, but there is a notable lack of tension, perhaps because both the displaced and the locals are majority Shiite. The Lebanese who fled from Syria tend to come from Homs, Qusayr, or a string of Shiite border villages.
Iskandar is meant to notice men such as Abu Mohammad al-Oqla, a Syrian agricultural worker who has lived in Lebanon for three years but is nonetheless in line to register as a refugee.
Oqla says he lost his job to new Syrian refugees and can no longer provide for his family. He shares a tent with several refugees, and says he is attempting to register out of desperation. “What can I do when a refugee took my place at work and I can’t go back to Syria?”
The economic situation of many Syrians in the area was dire before the violence in Syria began, but now the harsh weather, shortage of fuel and food and competition from newcomers is making life harder.
Mohammad Assaf is also not entitled to assistance from most international organizations, including UNHCR, because he is a Lebanese citizen. He lived in Syria for decades but retained his Lebanese nationality, and says the Lebanese government has taken no interest in his plight.
He now lives in a one-room apartment with a kitchen and a bathroom along with his wife and two children, paid for by a charitable organization run by Hezbollah.
In addition to the issues facing a population of various refugee statuses, Iskandar says the parts of the Lebanese government which are supposed to be working with the displaced are absent in the region.
He cites a lack of coordination among the charities that are active, and an almost complete absence of help for some of the Lebanese from Syria.
A hundred of these families are receiving help from Hezbollah’s Imdad charity, he says.
This lack of assistance for Lebanese displaced has led some to open shops selling fruits, vegetables, sweets, and clothing. Dozens of these shops have popped up in Hermel.
Faisal Kheirdeddine is a Lebanese citizen who fled the Bayyada neighborhood of Homs three months after the uprising in Syria began. He has since established a shop where he builds woodstoves, and has been able to provide a decent living for his family.
Also among the dozens waiting outside the municipality is Mohammad al-Youssef, a Syrian national who fled his home in rural Idlib two months ago with his wife and five kids.
He should be entitled to aid, but Youssef says he attempted to register at UNHCR headquarters before and left only with a phone number that gives him a busy signal.
Another Syrian refugee, staying in Hermel with 13 family members, says that so far he has received a total of three pairs of shoes and a heater in aid.
Like him, many of the newest refugees were displaced from Deir al-Zor around a month and a half ago. Most are bunking with relatives who were already living and working in Lebanon.
The man, who wished to remain anonymous, adds that the heater he received is useless, because he has no money for fuel. He and other refugees are burning nylon bags, recycled oil and old shoes, emitting gases he fears are dangerous.
“They drive us away like hungry dogs, from one place to another, without giving us one loaf of bread.”
He claims there is corruption among the officials who are meant to help, saying one man is known to be hoarding heaters that are meant for refugees. Other refugees in line have similar complaints.
“Our life is a living hell and we don’t know what to do.”