Colette Browne: Do more children have to die in Lebanon before help for that country is forthcoming?
Every Syrian refugee in Lebanon knows the date their lives changed forever: the day they left Syria is burned into their memory. For Mohammed Kher El Zhoury it was January 6 2013.
Bombs in Homs were “falling like rain”. Neighbourhoods were not just destroyed - they were obliterated, eviscerated so that no trace remained of the people who once lived there. His family fled the carnage with just the clothes on their back. A teacher who once enjoyed a middle-class lifestyle suddenly found himself penniless in northern Lebanon, unable to even afford to rent an unfinished building or an animal shelter on agricultural ground.
Mohammed is not alone. Lebanon, which is half the size of Munster, is home to 1.2m Syrian refugees, 25pc of its total population. Because the Lebanese government has forbidden the creation of sprawling refugee camps, this mass influx of people is not immediately discernible. But, turn off any main road and you will see the camps and the squalor within a couple of meters.
Abdullah al-Hamad is also from Homs. He left on February 4 2013, when his wife was killed by one of the cluster bombs that President Bashar al-Assad used to carpet bomb the city. Now, he and his four young daughters are living in a tent in a field in Akkar in northern Lebanon.
Last winter, heavy rains led to prolonged flooding and the family was forced to sleep on jerry cans to try to raise themselves above the dank water. Abdullah worried every day that one of his daughters would drown or become seriously ill. Each member of the family had been entitled to a $30 voucher from the World Food Programme every month, but its budget was recently cut because of a shortfall in donations. Now, they get $13 per month.
The camp on which he lives is one of 138 temporary settlements in the region in which Concern has installed clean water and sanitation facilities. Abdullah is grateful for the assistance, but no longer wants “to live to like an animal”. He says he is envious of the thousands of refugees who have perished in the Mediterranean en route to Europe because “they died quickly, we are dying slowly”.
Fawaz Mahmoud al Mahamid is from Daraa in southwestern Syria, where protests against al-Assad’s rule began in March 2011. In response, al-Assad laid siege to the city over 11 days starting on April 25. Fawaz escaped to Lebanon and has been living in a single-room in the ground floor of an apartment building with his wife and four children ever since.
His home is what Concern optimistically calls a “substandard small shelter unit”. You or I would probably describe it as a hellhole, not fit for animal habitation. There are four decaying concrete walls, a low roof that seems to be subsiding and a window that boasts bars instead of glass. Everything is caked in dirt. Outside, raw sewage spews from an exposed broken pipe into a large open pit a couple of feet from the door.
As part of its shelter programme, Concern intends to do remedial work to the structure to try to give Fawaz and his family some semblance of dignity and security. It will supply a window, partition the living area from the hole in the ground that serves as the toilet and try to ensure the building is no longer a death trap for the young family.
Concern has upgraded the living conditions for thousands of Syrian families eking out an existence in Lebanon but even the positive stories can seem fleeting. Just outside another town, Halba, is a large building, which Concern has converted into collective accommodation for 20 families, who each live in a single room.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which has responsibility for registering Syrian refugees in the country, identifies particularly vulnerable families, which it directs to Concern for housing. Nawal al Ghoori, her husband Mojed and their three children are one such family. Having lived in a tent since their arrival in Lebanon from Homs in 2012, they were relieved to be given a room in the shared accommodation last year.
However, they are now facing eviction. UNHCR had been paying their $89 per month rent but its budget has run out because only 37pc of the pledges made by international donors this year have materialised.
Concern has managed to convince UNHCR to continue paying most of the rent for the next four months but the family will have to pay $15 per month for services like electricity. They don’t have the money and, because Mojed is seriously ill with a heart condition and unable to pick up casual work, no way to get it.
Now, they are terrified they will soon be out on the street – all because the UNHCR can’t afford to give them $15 a month.
If EU leaders are wondering why so many Syrian refugees are fleeing camps in places like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey and travelling to Europe they need look no further than these families - their deplorable living conditions and their abandonment by the international community - for answers.
In Homs, Mojed was a civil servant and the family lived in a big house in a nice neighbourhood. Now, they are begging and pleading with NGOs for $15 a month so they can remain in a cramped room in a shared building because it at least has four walls and a roof.
Lebanon has acted generously by opening its border and allowing so many refugees enter the country, but it cannot be expected to bear such a huge burden alone. Of the 400,000 refugee children who are now in Lebanon, 50pc are not being educated. Concern has started an education programme in some of the refugee settlements but they cannot reach everyone. The international community is responsible for this lost generation.
Charities like Concern, WFP and UNHCR, who are among the only NGOS working in northern Lebanon, the poorest region in the country with the second highest concentration of refugees, are doing their best to alleviate suffering and provide long-term security for these families but unless funding commitments are honoured they will be unable to do their jobs.
The EU was shamed into action when the body of a three-year-old toddler washed up on a beach in Turkey last month. Do more children have to die in Lebanon before help for that country is forthcoming?