Lebanon News

Displaced Syrians wait in south Beirut

FILE - A pro-reform activist, left, argues with pro-Syrian President Bashar Assad protesters in front of the Syrian embassy, in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, April 12, 2011. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

BEIRUT: Last year after clashes in Syria, Jamal Abdel-Rahman decided to move his family from Damascus to Beirut for two weeks until things settled down.Just over a year later, Abdel-Rahman, along with his wife and small children, continues to live in the former Palestinian refugee camp area of Sabra, still hoping to return to Syria soon, once the security situation improves.

“I never thought I’d be here a year later,” he says, as he sits with his wife, a Palestinian, whose family has taken them into their small, cramped apartment in a building with other Syrian refugees in similar predicaments. “I’m not with the revolution or with the government. I just want to keep my children safe. That’s why I left Syria.”

Abdel-Rahman is one of at least hundreds of Syrians who have taken refuge in areas south of the capital.

There are 413 Syrians living south of the city, outside the main hubs of Syrian refugees in the north and the Bekaa, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, although this figure only covers those registered with the U.N. body.

Most refugees are concentrated in the north, particularly in the city of Tripoli and Wadi Khaled in Akkar, where there is more sympathy with the Syrian opposition.

Some refugee activists say that taking refuge in parts of the country where pro-Damascus groups hold sway, as in Beirut’s southern suburbs, is not an option. But that’s exactly what hundreds of refugees have chosen to do, as they maintain a low profile and try to ride out the conflict.

They have registered at the UNHCR’s main office in the Beirut suburb of Jnah, as opposed to the majority of the around 8,000 Syrians in the north of the country, who became official refugees through registration visits from aid workers.

Finding and aiding refugees has become a complicated task. Because there is not one central location for displaced to gather, aid groups must seek out and register the refugees.

“For people in the north it’s a completely different setting because it’s a rural setting for one, especially when we talk about villages in the Bekaa and Wadi Khaled,” said UNHCR spokeswoman Dana Sleiman. “Things differ – all the variables are different in cities.”

Sleiman said there are already established aid networks around the city, so the UNHCR works through those channels to reach the refugees. Aid workers are not actively going around Greater Beirut to register refugees.

Despite the UNHCR’s proximity to the Syrians displaced in the southern suburbs, they have limited daily contact with the refugees.

The aid most often comes in the form of cash grants, as opposed to food and humanitarian material goods, Sleiman said.

“We have a more centralized way of working here [in Jnah],” she said.

Aid may be coming for many people, but the on-the-ground reality differs for every family involved.

Watching the daily news reports of Syria on TV, Abdel-Rahman admits he doesn’t know what to believe without the resources to find out for himself what’s happening back home. He says he can’t call his family because the phone lines are usually down.

Acknowledging that his stay in Lebanon might last for much longer than expected, he went to General Security to register, and was told he would need to go to the Syrian border to renew his visa, which he’s scared to do.

One floor above him, his neighbor Noura Banout is a relatively recent arrival from Syria. The young mother of three left Hama in January, six months after the army entered the city with tanks to quell massive anti-government protests.

She had wanted to leave earlier, but she says the checkpoints around Hama as well as a lack of money, prevented her from leaving Syria. Then, when her husband found work in Lebanon, she managed to join him.

“I never thought I’d be here,” she said. “I never thought it would last this long. If someone told me this would happen, I wouldn’t have believed them.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 17, 2012, on page 4.

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