TRIPOLI, Lebanon: In a crumbling housing project in the port city of Mina, Syrian refugees Umm Jaafar Homsi and Umm Ammar wait for the men to come home.
They mind the children, who don’t have access to education; they clean the apartment – built to house four people but which is now sleeping 18 – and continue to hope that their husbands bring money to buy the food and medicine that they currently can’t afford.
Umm Jaafar, 23, Umm Ammar, 35 won’t give their real names because of fear of the Syrian regime, having fled Homs with their families in December. Bombs were falling, the children were terrified. Nothing felt safe, they say.
They lived in poverty in Lebanon for two months before trying to return home. But the bombings increased, as did the shootings: Homs was in a state of siege.
So they returned to Lebanon, to live in a state of exile and squalor, where refugee aid is difficult to access.
Since the uprising against President Bashar Assad’s regime began one year ago this week, thousands of people have been forced to flee Syria as the country slides into chaos and unrest.
A large number of displaced people have easily adapted to Lebanese society, moving into cities in which they have established personal and working relationships over the years.
But things aren’t as easy for the less affluent. Most refugees are now living outside the reach of the nation’s official aid provider, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
The organization’s abilities in the country is limited by its agreement with the Lebanese government and the scattered refugee population, spread out over hundreds of kilometers.
“We are asking after one year, who cares for us?” Umm Jaafar asks.
The answer to that question is hard to come by.
Visits to refugee areas around the country reveal a large number of families that are not registered and not receiving consistent aid from the U.N.
The latest UNHCR report says there are around 7,000 registered refugees living in north Lebanon and around 5,000 living in the Bekaa and south of Beirut, putting refugee numbers at around 12,000 in the country. The UNHCR is distributing aid to several thousand refugees on a weekly basis, but thousands more remain beyond their reach.
Activists estimate there are actually around 16,000 refugees in the north alone, over twice the official number. There is also an undetermined number of more affluent Syrian nationals who have chosen to reside in Lebanon temporarily, until the unrest in their country is resolved.
Jordanian officials recently reported that their Syrian refugee population totals over 80,000. Activists say it is possible Lebanon’s refugee numbers are many times larger than are reported.
The Lebanese government has declined to set up official camps for the refugees, leaving people to seek out areas around the country willing to take them.
There are now refugee populations of over 1,000 scattered across towns like Arsal in the Bekaa, and various sites in the north, as well as the main refugee operation area of Wadi Khaled in Akkar.
UNHCR has limited access to the refugees in the north; they are hemmed in by strict agreements over aid with the government. The organization lacks a permanent office in the biggest refugee areas, namely Tripoli or Wadi Khaled.
A group of around 20 aid workers is responsible for patrolling the entire north of the country and registering new refugees. It’s a small group of people in a massive area and UNHCR officials recognize their teams are stretched thin.
The government has also shut down refugee registration for weeks at a time in certain areas with no explanation, according to a recent UNHCR report.
UNHCR spokeswoman Dana Sleiman says big cities like Tripoli can be difficult to operate in and attain accurate headcounts of refugees.
“Maybe people do not know that we are there and willing to register them should they need assistance,” she adds.
But the refugees living in public housing in Mina simply disagree.
They say the hundreds of people who live in the camp have seen very little aid, even the ones who registered with the U.N.
“We need help,” said Umm Ahmad, from Hama. And she says the UNHCR is not providing it.
Her daughter has asthma and must visit a doctor every two weeks but her family can’t afford the LL2,000 taxi fare. She says U.N. officials have come to see her and photographed her dark, musky one-bedroom house with windows that are covered with old banners instead of glass. Ten people from two families live there.
“They talk, without [giving us] any help,” Umm Ahmad says. “They take pictures to put on their [report] covers, but we don’t see anything.”
The refugees are relying on the help of Local Coordinating Committees of Syrians who have banded together to help the displaced, but their resources are simply not enough to help the thousands of refugees that are pouring across the border.
For the refugees in Mina, their hope lies in receiving further assistance, such as medication, diapers and food, from local activists on a haphazard basis.
Umm Ahmad says they are waiting for an improvement in the situation in Syria, as well as the level of aid they receive. “We are crying a lot.”