BEKAA, Lebanon: When one Syrian refugee first arrived to Lebanon from Syria he stayed with a host family, but after the Norwegian Refugee Council carried out renovations on their house, they threw him out. Unable to find anywhere else to stay, he returned to Qusair with his five daughters. His sister spoke to him on the phone a few days ago, she says, and she heard a shell fall in the background.
“Our whole neighborhood has been destroyed and 50 members of our family, and neighbors, have been killed,” she says, speaking from the Bekaa Valley town of Saadnayel, where she has been staying for just over a year, with another brother and 12 other members of their extended family.
The three families are living together on the top floor of a house belonging to a Lebanese man, who says that allowing the families to live there, rent free, is a “humanitarian act.”
The NRC has built a kitchen on the second floor of his home, installed a water tank and new windows and doors, part of renovation efforts designed to provide shelter for the growing number of refugees in Lebanon, in which, unlike Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, there are no refugee camps.
There are now nearly 158,000 registered refugees in Lebanon, or those who have expressed a desire to register, a total higher than that of any other of Syria’s neighbors.
On top of that, there is also an untold number of displaced Syrians in the country who have not yet registered, whether through fear, not being aware of the benefits of registration, or because they may not see a need.
The UNHCR has been overseeing aid efforts, an increasingly complex task which requires cooperation with nearly 30 partner aid organizations and over 35 donor countries.
In Lebanon over the weekend, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, and the EU commissioner for international cooperation, Kristalina Georgieva, together visited the Bekaa Valley to witness aid efforts first hand.
Until now, ECHO, the European Commission’s humanitarian branch, has donated 312 million euros ($410 million) to the Syrian crisis, which accounts for over 50 percent of the total international response so far.
The Lebanese government itself has recently launched its own $178 million Syrian refugee response plan, based on a figure of 130,000 people. However the total has already exceeded that, and the UNHCR continues to register around 1,500 refugees every day across Lebanon.
The biggest proportion of displaced Syrians is living in the north of Lebanon, and then the Bekaa Valley, the two areas of the country which experience the harshest weather conditions during the winter.
With the strong early morning sun warming the room, the family in Saadnayel has the windows open for now, but at night it gets cold.
Though they say they receive everything they need from the UNHCR, it is clear that gaps exist. They were promised a furnace they say, but it never arrived, so the one which sits in the center of the living quarters was borrowed from a neighbor.
So too have they borrowed gas burners, but they do receive fuel coupons from the aid agency.
Several months ago the UNHCR replaced its cash-based system with food coupons, but the family criticizes this step. “We have to go to certain supermarkets and are forced to buy spoiled products,” says the sister, at a cost higher than what the food is worth. “We get to halfway through the month and our food credits have run out.”
And after that, they just have to make do.
She also blames the corruption of local aid organizations, for their “arbitrary” distribution of aid.
Her 9-year-old daughter is in school, in a second afternoon shift, put on by many schools to accommodate the some 10,000 Syrian refugee children enrolled in Lebanese public schools. The older teenage boys are not in school though, and none of them, nor her brother have found any work.
“We have no work and no money. When I arrived, 13 months ago, I had some, but it has gone now,” he says.
For those Syrians who entered Lebanon at an official border crossing, they must, after one year, pay a $200 visa renewal fee. Though the government has promised to waive this fee, it has not yet happened.
Therefore, many members of the family are technically illegally in Lebanon, as the government does not formally recognize refugees. This makes it even harder for them to move around, and look for work, although the government has now stopped detaining those found to have overstayed their visa.
The family have little to do but follow the news on television, and phone their relatives who have stayed behind in Syria.
Despite the obvious dangers which exist across the border, a civil war which has thus far claimed over 43,000 lives, many members of Sahal’s family are keen to return. One young woman who entered Lebanon unofficially wants to go home, she tells UNHCR staff. A protection officer warns her against it.
“Our name is connected to the Free Syrian Army, we cannot return,” she explains. A journey back across the border, and the possibility of encountering regime forces, is likely not worth the risk. “We will all return when the regime falls.”
As the conflict enters its 22nd month, it seems increasingly unclear when that might be, but the family’s Lebanese host says he is happy for them to stay as long as they need to.
Despite the cramped and sparse living conditions, the family in Saadnayel has at least found what seems like a short-term solution.
At a nearby distribution center in Bar Elias, newly arrived refugees, who have not yet registered with the UNHCR, receive aid packages from the Danish Refugee Council containing food, a heating stove, fuel coupons, four blankets per family and one additional nonfood item which they can request, normally extra blankets or mattresses.
Speaking to The Daily Star at the Bar Elias distribution center over the weekend, Guterres thanked the Lebanese, “for opening their borders and hosting so many refugees.”
The need for international aid and awareness was, however, more vital than ever.
“The international community must understand that it is a very violent conflict in Syria, but that it is also having a huge impact on host countries’ economies and they need all the help they can get.”