TRIPOLI, Lebanon: In his downtown headquarters, Amin Mando spreads out the Tripoli Coordinating Committee’s monthly refugee ledgers. Two oversized sheets of paper are unfurled on the sitting-room floor, bearing the names of several hundred Syrian families in need of aid.
Families’ names are written down one column, their status recorded in another. Most are classified as “poor,” while others are “very poor” or “conditions difficult.” The number of people in each family is in a third column – many have five or seven members, some nine, and one family totals 20.
It’s a snapshot of the thousands of Syrian refugees who are going uncounted and unaided in Lebanon. They are seeking help but are receiving little to no assistance from the country’s very restricted official aid operations.
Their care has fallen to religious charities and organizations such as the Local Coordinating Committees, a loose but centralized network of about 100 Syrian activists taking refuge in the country.
Committees or small groups of activists are spread out across the country, from offices of a few people in Akkar villages to larger ones with dozens of activists in the cities of Tripoli and Sidon.
They try to fill the aid void by providing items like diapers, medicine, cooking gas and blankets for the thousands in need. The displaced activists are also working to keep their revolutionary hopes alive, organizing anti-Syrian regime rallies and spreading protest videos online.
“The U.N. doesn’t do anything,” Mando says in exasperation.
He’s referring to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ operations in the city of Tripoli.
UNHCR doesn’t have an office in the city, one of the biggest hubs of refugees in the country, and the operations they do have are limited by the government.
Coordinating Committee leaders estimate that there is a refugee population of 7,000 in Tripoli alone, while the UNHCR only acknowledges that many refugees in all of north Lebanon.
“The situation is so bad,” he says.
A second small document is also unfolded on the floor. This one is the Tripoli group’s monthly expenses.
There are only two rows for donations, several thousand dollars from a local man and a few thousand more from student groups in Tripoli. It totals just over $8,000 for the month, not even a full percentage of UNHCR’s monthly operating budget in the country.
But they’re making it stretch. The headquarters is actually a fabric shop and the sitting area turns into a bedroom at night that sleeps eight people.
The others who are active with Mando are refugees themselves from Homs and Hama, and they work to make ends meet.
They distributed bottles of milk and baby formula to 342 families with the money, while 416 families received diapers. A total of $2,150 in grants was given out to improve houses in the winter and $1,144 was given out as cash.
Their monthly expenses are just one element of a network spread out across the country. It’s a loosely knit web that’s controlled by a central administrative council of eight Syrian refugees.
Sheikh Yasser is that group’s general manager. Yasser, who hails from the Syrian coast and withholds his family name for safety concerns, is a rotund man with a wide beard, wearing a dark, untucked dress shirt.
Speaking on a couch in the headquarters of a partner Islamic aid organization called Bashaer, he explains how he oversees the network of Local Coordinating Committees in Lebanon.
It’s a group of volunteers who stay in contact by phone and online and are largely autonomous for day-to-day work. Sheikh Yasser’s administrative council provides extra funding to local councils and functions as a central hub for coordinating aid for new arrivals.
Refugee families are one room away, waiting to take blankets and food to their homes, where 10 to 15 people live under one roof. Sheikh Yasser says he has an unrivaled view of the actual situation for refugees around the country and his criticism of the current aid efforts in the north is caustic.
“There are no international organizations working seriously in this area,” he says.
Along with a number of Islamic charities, the Local Coordinating Committees provide basic staples such as medicine and food.
They have also established sophisticated medical care for wounded Syrians fleeing the conflict. The Coordinating Committees and Bashaer charity provide transportation from the border to hospitals in Akkar and Tripoli, where the wounded have access to specialized doctors.
He says the group’s official records show they provide aid to around 3,000 refugee families, or about 15,000 people – or about double the number taken care of by the UNHCR in the north.
“We cannot maintain direct communication with all the families because we don’t have the resources to do it. All our work is on a voluntary basis,” he says.
But he says their aid provision performance is tenuous at best, as there are no government benefactors and donations trickle in from personal donations on an irregular basis.
Sheikh Yasser evaluates the refugee situation based on security, economic conditions and housing, and finds no front particularly satisfactory. The refugees suffer from overcrowding and a lack of basic services where they reside, while the activists live in fear of being detained by the authorities or kidnapped by pro-Syrian groups.
Sheikh Yasser stays out of the spotlight by avoiding public gatherings and spending time only with people he can trust.
The core network under Sheikh Yasser’s supervision isn’t entirely made up of aid workers. They are also activists, dissidents trying to keep the hopes of regime change alive from inside Lebanon.
The activists say that the Lebanese authorities have asked the Coordination Committees to focus their efforts on humanitarian aid work, but the network is also working to bolster the opposition movement.
They organize rallies among the refugee community, busing people to downtown Tripoli and providing them with posters and flags supporting the Syrian opposition.
Many of the activists were leading protests in Syria before they fled across the border to Lebanon.
Ahmad Moussa is the group’s main media coordinator; he relays news from his network of opposition contacts inside Syria to the outside world – a contact of his in the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs was one of the main sources of information from the city when the Syrian army laid siege to it.
“The most important thing is following up on news of our people back in Syria,” he says.
In a suit and slicked hair, Moussa takes several phone calls a day from international media looking for the latest news, but he must also stay on the move to avoid groups loyal to the Assad regime.
He says he’s been warned that Syrian authorities want him to stop his work, and that unknown gangs have already tried to kidnap him twice.
“My job starts with the humanitarian issue and ends with the political one,” he says.