Problems of deprivation and crowding all too stark for Syrian ‘non-refugees’ in Lebanese ‘non-camp’
Lebanese government ruling leaves many in limbo of makeshift camps and facilities
Ayas Ibrahim in the unofficial refugee camp at Eb Elias: “The UN does not register us. We get nothing.” Photograph: Hamzah Tahan
Abu Yasser boasts that his “non-camp” in Eb Elias is home to 3,000 refugees from every Syrian province.
Last spring there were about 500 people when the facility was just getting established. Lebanon has refused to create camps for refugees from Syria but permits them to set up unofficial “non-camps” where they are responsible for their own organisation and welfare.
Abu Yasser, named for the landlord, is one of many that have mushroomed across the wide Bekaa Valley that lies west of the border with Syria.
In April, residents were digging their first wells. Today there are wells for every three or four families and crude breeze block toilets for almost every household. Enterprising men have rigged stolen electricity from a nearby tower and run wires just beneath the surface of the sandy streets. Barefoot children risk shock and electrocution but there is light and television at night.
Chickens scurry between the “tents” – wooden frames covered by heavy plastic sheeting, some roofed in tin held in place by worn tyres. A goat peers yellow-eyed at the visitors from behind a pile of rubble.
Most of the men are out working or sitting on their heels at the roadside waiting for someone looking for a casual labourer. The women are washing clothes or hanging them, soggy and dripping, on lines strung between the tents. Water runs into the sandy roadway where children stand, stare and giggle.
Coupons and tent rent
Naif Abbas Abbas is a slender unshaven man who came nine months ago from the Salaheddin neighbourhood of Aleppo. “Three-quarters of the people here are registered with the UN, one-quarter not,” he says. “They give us coupons for 40,000 Lebanese liras [$23]. Only some supermarkets take them. We go to those where prices are low. The landowner asks us to pay 50,000 liras a month for each tent, 600,000 liras a year.” For homeless Syrians this is a huge sum. “If we don’t pay,” he says, Abu Yasser “will come with his sons and tell us to leave”.
Refugees who are fortunate enough to find work, “are treated like slaves and paid 10-15,000 liras [$7-10] a day”, Naif says.
Ahmed is small for 13. He comes from the Sheikh Maksoud district of Aleppo. He and his friends go out in the afternoons to the shops to pick out edible fruit and vegetables thrown into the garbage. “Do you go to school?” I ask Ahmed. He hangs his head. “I never went to school, not in Aleppo, not here.”
Fahd, a handsome boy with a wide smile, states, “I don’t go to school now but I did at home. I like school.”
“I do, too,” says Sireen, a girl with tangled, dusty hair and a striped top.
Down the road in the “non-camp” next to St Thomas Vineyard, Mohamed Ibrahim is lifting watermelons into his pick-up. He remembers me. “You came and took our numbers and promised to give them to someone who can help us. We got no help,” he asserts.