BEIRUT: Empty potato sacks were among the most important items Nousoum and her husband packed as they prepared to leave Syria.
Now, stitched together they cover the timber frame of the couple’s new home in a windswept field outside Jub Jennin in Western Bekaa. This field, rented from its owner by fellow refugee Ahmad Yassem Mohammad, has grown over the past few months to become a tented village, housing between 60 and 70 Syrian families. Most are from Homs and its surrounding areas. Each pays rent to Mohammad and can opt in or out of electricity and water schemes.
Similar settlements have popped up across the Western Bekaa and in north Lebanon, although the specific operational arrangements differ from each to the next.
UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, estimates that some 17,000 refugees, 5 percent of Lebanon’s total Syrian refugee population, live in such makeshift communities.
The Daily Star met Nousoum just two days after she arrived. The previous day she and her husband had toiled to level the dirt floor of their tent, and in the afternoon when rain fell they had taken shelter with a neighbor – they had yet to find a waterproof covering for their abode.
Other tents in the settlement are protected from the elements by disused advertising tarps touting everything from cellphones to diamond-encrusted timepieces.
Nousoum had yet to receive any formal aid, but her neighbors said they would all pitch in to help her get started.
This is how the settlement works – some rice from this person, lentils from that, timber on deferred payment from a kind local – they explained.
Yet when asked whether it would have been preferable to arrive and report directly to a formalized government- or UN-supported refugee camp replete with supplies and services, the response was an almost universal “no.”
“This is better. We prefer living here because we can come and go whenever we want,” said one father, who arrived three months ago with his wife and children.
“Here we have freedom. If they put us in a camp we might not be able to leave,” Aasra, who says she is in her 90s, told The Daily Star, her voice cracking. She is one of the few elderly people in the settlement. Seated on the floor next to an NGO-donated stove, tears ran down her tattooed face. “I have children in Homs,” she said. “All my kids are there, they could die any minute.”
In another five-person household, the father, while admitting the LL230,000 he gets from UNHCR barely sees him through the month, said: “Here’s better than a formal camp because here we all know each other and we’re all from the same areas. We are like a big family ... We’re comfortable here.”
He says this despite alleging that Mohammad, the settlement’s self-appointed foreman, “makes a profit out of us at our expense.”
As Lebanon struggles to cope with the almost 350,000 officially recognized Syrian refugees who have crossed its border since the beginning of the now 2-year-old uprising in its neighbor, and with additional numbers arriving daily, the establishment of formalized refugee camps has become increasingly likely. UNHCR has contingency plans in place for them, and several Lebanese officials, including President Michel Sleiman, have accepted they might become a reality.
Commenting on progress in this direction, UNHCR resident coordinator Ninette Kelley said Wednesday that, in consultation with the Social Affairs Ministry, a technical review of possible lands for transit sites to provide temporary safe shelter for newly arrived refugees had been completed. However, she added, “a political decision is needed before any work on these can begin.”
But, even if such go-ahead comes from the government, UNHCR may face difficulties drawing refugees to these camps.
At a settlement in Barr Elias, not far from Jub Jennin, one tent houses 16 people.
The group of 11 children and five adults arrived three days ago. They had to borrow from “here and there” to build their tent, but even if there was a formal camp in Lebanon they wouldn’t have gone there.
One of the women in the settlement explains why: “We’ve seen the camps in Turkey and Jordan on the news. There is no freedom, and there are problems with the harassment of women.”
The group told The Daily Star they had agreed to pay the landowner LL100,000 per month to pitch their tent, but they had yet to organize a water or electricity supply.
In the town of Aley, refugee families living in completely different circumstances also spurn the idea of moving into a camp.
Randa, a 28-year-old mother of two from Homs, lives in a rented apartment in the pretty town. However, with her husband out of work, the family’s members remain in their home at the landlord’s grace.
“We’re a bit late with it [the rent], but the owner doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t harass us,” Randa explained.
Likewise, a local store has been selling her and other refugees groceries on credit.
Would a refugee camp be desirable if these lines of credit ran out?
Randa says no: “I have relatives living in a camp in Jordan. They told me, ‘I advise you never to stay in a camp.’”
Yet, back in Jub Jennin, one family sang a different tune.
Waiting his turn to register with UNHCR and claiming that families who arrived after him had received aid ahead of him, the head of this six-member household said: “If we lived in a camp we would all be equal and we would be given aid.”
“Here some people work [but] we don’t, so it is not equal. Of course if there was a formal camp, we would be living better than now.”
Similarly in Barr Elias, two women from Idlib pointed out the benefits of a formal refugee camp: services, perhaps education for their children, and that “no one would bother us.”
But, they also added, “of course our freedom would be a concern.”