'Not until now did I realise our family are refugees'

Wed, Jul 18, 2012, 01:00

“I THOUGHT I would never see my family again,” says Abdul, standing beside his two brothers and his 60-year-old mother, who is still in tears.

He and his wife have travelled from Dublin to a half-built apartment on the outskirts of Tripoli, a Lebanese town close to the Syrian border, where his family are struggling to make a new home.

They asked that only their first names be used, afraid of being targeted by the Syrian regime.

“Not until now did I realise, our family are refugees,” says his wife Milah.

When they were living in Ireland, the couple watched from afar as their homes in the besieged city of Homs were bombarded by the Syrian Army and their families forced to flee. Abdul’s mother, his two brothers, their wives and his 17-month-old nephew now share four bare concrete rooms, stifling in the summer heat, which they rent from a local Lebanese family.

They took nothing but the clothes they were wearing when they left their neighbourhood of Baba Amr in February after Abdul’s brother was killed by the Syrian Army.

Abdul’s youngest brother Mohammed (26) can barely walk, having been shot in the leg by a sniper. He was the first to arrive in Tripoli, enduring a gruelling escape assisted by the Free Syrian Army, crawling for hours through an underground tunnel, his injury still fresh.

Aziz (35) lost the sight in one eye after he was hit by shrapnel from a mortar while in the street to buy kerosene so his family could cook dinner. Neither is able to work. It took three days for Mohammed’s wife Amal and their son Omar to cross the Syrian Army’s checkpoints and make it to the border, travelling with 19 relatives in an 11-seat minibus.

“They really humiliated us,” says Amal, describing how the Syrian army lined them up against a wall and joked about shooting them. Many of their family are still in Syria, unable to leave.

About 30,000 Syrian refugees have fled to Lebanon, according to UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

In the impoverished areas of Tripoli, many families are paying up to $200 (€162) in rent for only a few rooms in extremely poor conditions, some with no running water or electricity. The most desperate are sheltering in abandoned buildings and barns.

At a local Islamic centre in the Abou Samra district of Tripoli, families like Abdul’s gather to receive monthly food donations, with more than 500 families registered.

A man who arrived from Homs 10 days ago says his eight-year-old son still suffers from shock and the only shelter he and his three children could find was in the cramped garage of another family’s house.

The Abrar Centre, a post-op rehabilitation centre that opened just a few weeks ago on the edge of Abou Samra, is helping to relieve nearby hospitals overwhelmed by the influx of wounded. Set up by a group of Syrian doctors, also forced to flee their country, it already cares for 25 patients with the capacity for nearly 100.

Dr Nizar Khattab (32) from Damascus who helps run the centre says these local initiatives providing critical support to the thousands of displaced Syrians are in desperate need of funding.

The Lebanese government’s Higher Relief Committee ceased providing non-lifesaving medical support to Syrian refugees on June 30th.

The patients are civilians suffering the injuries of war, mainly from bullets and shrapnel: everybody from old shopkeepers to schoolboys. “We’re the terrorists Assad talks about,” says 14-year-old Ahmed, whose leg was crushed by a falling wall when a missile hit his home in Baba Amr.

Obeid, a photographer and activist, lost more than 5cm of bone from his lower leg when he was hit by shrapnel, leaving him in a coma for 10 days. The open fracture is surrounded by a cage-like device with 13 screws. “With this he could go to his family, but he has none here,” says Dr Nizar. “We’ll be his family for now.”

The patients at the centre are eager to return to Syria despite the danger and their experiences, rather than face life as refugees. “Even if they were in a paradise they wouldn’t stay,” says Abdul. “There is nothing like home.”