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Monday 23 April 2018

Cold and hunger are only guarantees for Syrian refugees

Over 1.2 million will shelter in Lebanon this Christmas

Children at the 'University' refugee camp in Lebanon.
Children at the 'University' refugee camp in Lebanon.
Imani (5) who lives in the Bourj el-Barajneh refugee camp in Beirut.

Sam Griffin

BOURJ EL-BARAJNEH is a refugee camp like no other. When it first began to take shape nearly 70 years ago, it was a one-kilometre square Palestinian enclave in the suburbs of Beirut city in Lebanon, intended to accommodate only 10,000 people.

On Christmas Day in 2015, the population has swelled uncontrollably and it is now 'home' to some 55,000 people.

Conditions are deplorable in this overcrowded, built-up slum, the scene of deadly suicide bombings last month.

It is a mass of cold concrete buildings with tiny winding and dirt-strewn streets. Overhead, thousands of electric wires criss-cross and zigzag from building to building.

Already struggling to cope from day to day, the camp faces new pressures as 15,000 Syrian refugees have found their way here since the fighting broke out in 2011.

"Electricity is a big problem here. These wires are not safe and blackouts and power cuts happen all the time," explains Belkacem Belfedhal, an Algerian-Irish national who is heading up a team from Human Appeal Ireland. This Christmas, the organisation delivered aid to refugees in camps across Lebanon and Syria, as well as carrying out needs assessments on those in the camps.

It also delivers bread to the residents in Bourj El-Barajneh, help with rent, and sponsors children to go to school through its office in the heart of the camp. But with temperatures set to plummet in the coming weeks, life will be very bleak for those who find their way to Bourj el-Barajneh this winter.

"In this place, you're not allowed to dream," Belkacem says.

Yet people dream anyway. Inside one home is nine-year-old Muhadeen who lives in a cramped two-room apartment with his sister Mutamana (6) and grandmother Eptisam. The children's mother has remained behind in Syria to care for another child who is disabled.

"He hopes to be a doctor," explains the children's grandmother through a translator, pointing towards Muhadeen, who attends a school in the camp. He clutches his school bag tightly and shows off his homework to the visitors.

In even more cramped living quarters, the team meets Aisha and her seven children.

"She applied for four of her children to be sponsored by Human Appeal to go to school. Two have been granted and another two are being processed," Belkacem explains.

On the floor sits five-year-old Imani and her older brother Mohamad (10). A bandage on his head covers the cut he got playing in the playground.

After Bourj el-Barajneh, the team visits the 'University' - a massive, towering, ugly mass of concrete slabs and metal in Saida, to the south of Beirut. Intended as a college but only half-finished, it is just a core of a building and is now occupied by over 170 Syrian families. There is no proper sanitation or access to fresh water. Stomach-turning odours hang in the air. Children play football beside pools of raw sewage. They smile heartily for the camera but their dirty, marked and sunken faces reveal the true misery of life in the university.

Those living here claim the UN had asked them to leave and were originally told it would pay for their rent elsewhere. The money never materialised. Now they refuse to leave.

Inside one room lives Kamel Mohammed and his wife Om Kosai and their eight children. The family fled the hellish fighting in Syria to end up in this place.

Om points towards her husband and speaks frantically in Arabic. The word "Daesh" stands out as she extends her thumb and draws it across her neck. "Papa, mama," she says. All his relatives have been killed at the hands of that so-called state.

Authorities says scenes like these are becoming more common as refugees take shelter in schools, gyms and other large public buildings across Lebanon. As the fighting in Syria continues and the situation becomes even more complex, the residents here - like the 1.2 million who have made the journey into Lebanon - can be assured of only cold, hunger and an uncertain future.

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