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One mother's tale of suffering as Lebanon creaks under the weight of Syria's crisis

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Syrian refugees in informal settlement camps on the Syrian-Lebanese border. Photography: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

Syrian refugees in informal settlement camps on the Syrian-Lebanese border. Photography: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

Syrian refugees in informal settlement camps on the Syrian-Lebanese border. Photography: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

Syrian refugees in informal settlement camps on the Syrian-Lebanese border. Photography: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

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Syrian refugees in informal settlement camps on the Syrian-Lebanese border. Photography: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

It is now four years since the Syrian crisis began. In the rural Lebanese village of Bekaa, just miles from the Syrian border, resides a woman whose has paid a heavier price than many since the bloody conflict began.

Five years ago, Lebanon contained 5,000 Syrian refugees in a country where only two-thirds of the population lived above the poverty line. Today, 1.2 million Syrians call the country just one-eighth the size of Ireland their home - a term which is rather generous in many cases.

The scale of the problem is nothing short of staggering. When war began in 2011, there were 3,200 Syrian children living in Lebanon as refugees. Latest figures from Unicef put that figure at 636,000 and rising. The country is being overwhelmed.

Mother-of-two Farrah (not her real name) currently resides in one of three mid-way houses spread strategically across Lebanon. The 25-year-old is living here as part of the programme designed to protect women and children from the increasing problem of gender-based violence. Even from a culture where arranged marriage is the norm and sexual exploitation almost accepted, her tale is particularly distressing.

As early as the age of 10, she was sexually abused and harassed by her father and uncles. Her mother, who refused to acknowledge the wrong-doings, forced an arranged marriage upon her to a man she had never met. A childhood cruelly robbed by those closest to her.

Her husband lost his job as the crisis unfolded in Syria and a struggling marriage soon turned into a violent one. Farrah fled to Lebanon with her two daughters and a new life was quickly forged, full of the happiness absent from the home they left behind.

Things, however, changed dramatically when her family followed, including an abusive husband. Fearing for her daughters' welfare, she found a job to set about creating a future for the two girls. Again she was sexually abused, this time by her boss.

The reaction of her husband was to use his fists; her mother's to yet again turn a blind eye.

Farrah spoke to various non-government agencies at the informal settlements nearby and arrived at the protection centre in Bekaa with her girls, aged five and seven. She will stay here until she is ready to return to her community - the time frame likely to be determined by her divorce proceedings. "What Farrah needs to continue after the shelter is support," says Rojew, the senior social worker in the programme. "She wants to move on and settle and will need a job to do so. Otherwise she will have to go back to her husband."

The three centres can hold a total of 60 women and children at a time and are currently full - a success or a failure depending on your viewpoint.

With 636,000 registered refugees under the age of 18 now in Lebanon, it means there are more Syrian children not receiving an education than there are Lebanese in school. Education is one major issue here, sanitation is another.

Lebanese doctor Ali Hayek works in the mobile medical units that go to the various informal settlements. Speaking in Anjar, where 600 displaced Syrians call home, he says that poor sanitation is one of the biggest problems he encounters, resulting in diarrhoea, abdominal pains and infections.

"Children are playing in pools of water where there is urine and faeces," he says. "If they have rash on their bottom or diarrhoea, they will scratch and probably not have the opportunity to wash their hands. They play with other children and it spreads."

Almost inevitably, tensions have risen between Syrians and Lebanese communities as refugees continue to pour in over the border. LOST (Lebanese Organisation for Studies and Training) concentrates on peace education and social cohesion and has taken valuable lessons from Ireland.

In 2010, the group had a 10-day visit to Northern Ireland, where they observed how two communities can improve relations through acceptance of differences, particularly among the youth. That visit was pre-Syrian crisis, so has taken on even more subsequent importance.

"Everything we learned in Belfast can be easily projected here," says co-founder Assem Sharif. He hopes that the bloodshed during the Troubles will be not repeated in his country, but like Northern Ireland, is expecting a long road to recovery.

Irish Independent