independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

As Syria's chaos spills over, Lebanon needs our help

Anne O'Mahony at Ibra collective centre for Syrian refugees in Akkar, Lebanon.
Anne O'Mahony at Ibra collective centre for Syrian refugees in Akkar, Lebanon, recently

For many years Lebanon featured on an almost daily basis in our news media, and generally for all the wrong reasons. The bloody civil war in the 1980s; the kidnapping of Brian Keenan, John McCarthy and many others; the ever-changing relationship with its neighbours.

Lebanon's recovery from civil war has been difficult and tenuous, but at the same time very real and very encouraging. The international spotlight eventually turned away from this tiny country.

Beirut, for so long a symbol of conflict and division, was rebuilt and has gone a long way to regaining its former stature as a vibrant, attractive Mediterranean city.

But news from Lebanon has slowly begun to seep back on to the front pages, and, once again, for reasons that are not good.

Last week's car bomb in the heart of the capital, which left eight people dead, and another one just a few days ago have highlighted the tensions that plague this country.

The conflict in neighbouring Syria has placed huge pressure on the fragile political system, but also on Lebanon's economy and general infrastructure.

A recent UN/World Bank report predicted that there will be over 1.5 million refugees from Syria in Lebanon by the end of 2014 and the cost to the country will reach $7.5bn (€5.5bn).

The Lebanese caretaker government has been extremely generous in keeping its borders open to those fleeing the conflict, but the effect on host communities cannot be underestimated.

Much of the attention has focused on the plight of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and rightly so. Concern and other agencies have been working hard to ensure that they have what they need to survive the bitter winter weather. Because formal refugee camps are not allowed, that job is much more difficult, as we try to reach families who are living in makeshift settlements, garages, gardens and outhouses.

This week I sat with Fahima and her family in a shelter made from timber and plastic sheeting. "My sons had jobs, businesses and homes," she told me. "Now we have nothing".

They huddle around a stove on a muddy hillside, with little to look forward to in 2014. Those who drove them out of their villages still occupy them. There is just nowhere to go.

When standing on a hillside in sub-zero conditions, I wanted them all to be in concrete houses, to have heaters, blankets and hot water bottles, to have warm clothes and good shoes.

Yet the practicalities of resource constraints force us to make choices of who we assist and with how much.

There is not enough to go around and many will remain cold. Fuel supplies and food rations are being cut and the pressure on a small country (one-seventh the size of Ireland) of having to host over a million refugees is enormous.

We must be aware of the effects of this huge human influx on the ordinary people of Lebanon. As an organisation, we are making a point of ensuring that our work here with refugees also benefits local communities, be it through the provision and improvement of local water and sanitation systems or support for the education system.

The people of Ireland have stood shoulder to shoulder with the Lebanese through difficult times before. Even my taxi driver from the airport wanted to tell me about the wonderful Irish. Lebanon, once again, needs our help, as its people bear the burden of conflict in a neighbouring country. They are facing the prospect of a return to violence and chaos.

From both a political and humanitarian standpoint, we cannot let their needs be forgotten.

ANNE O'MAHONY IS INTERNATIONAL DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMMES WITH CONCERN WORLDWIDE

Irish Independent

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