Tide of Syrian refugees ebbs and flows across border with Lebanon

Mon, Mar 11, 2013, 09:22

Lebanon is awash with a cresting tide of Syrian refugees.

They are everywhere. Syrians sip lattes served by Syrians in fashionable cafes on Beirut’s Hamra Street. Syrians sell delicious meat pies in a tiny bakery across from my hotel, where Syrians sleep for a night or two while collecting or seeing off family at the airport. Damascus flights have been suspended by war. Syrians beg and Syrians in green uniforms sweep the streets.

On glitzy Verdun Street, Ziad hawks fruit and vegetables from a barrow, his job in Idlib in northern Syria. He commutes to the wholesale market by mini-bus from the mountain town of Aley on the Beirut-Damascus highway.

He lives with his wife, infant son and two older children in a three-room furnished flat where the rent is an unaffordable $400 (¤308) a month. “I can feed my children but must find a cheaper place,” he says.

Ziad came four months ago and has no news about his home in rebel-controlled territory. His children go to the free Syrian school, a half-hour’s climb up a steep flight of steps. The bus is too expensive.

Fifteen people are living in the flat upstairs in the poorly finished building. Ayman, an accountant with the Central Bank of Syria, his brother-in-law, wives, their mother, Khadija, and 10 children sleep on sofas and thin mattresses on the floor. Blankets are piled in a corner. The children play on the tiny balcony.

“I brought my family here and will go home to get my $200 salary,” Ayman says in English. “When I come back I’ll look for work.”

Khadija, a gaunt woman in headscarves and green velvet gown who came two months ago, complains: “We registered with the mukhtar , or local official, but only people with wasta , or influence, get help.”

Camps along road
They are well off compared to Syrians living in Ib Elias, a town in the western Bekaa Valley where the highway is flanked by camps the Lebanese authorities claim do not exist.

Next to St Thomas’s vineyard is a small settlement of Syrians from Aleppo’s countryside. Shelters are patchworks of plastic. Raw sewage pools in a hollow. A large dog roams among chickens and ducks. We sip sweet tea sitting on chairs set next to a pen housing sheep and goats: refugees all.

Two elderly women have tattoos on their chins, indicating they are of Bedouin stock.

Muhammad Shaaban, a thin unshaven man, says: “Sometimes we get work on a farm or building site. It’s winter, so even Lebanese don’t work.”

Muhammad Ismail, a portly man in a suit, says they grew cotton, wheat, beetroot and lentils on their farms until bombing began, damaging and destroying homes and crops and killing and maiming people.

Further along the highway 70 refugees live at an encampment, three or four families to each large canvas tent. Amr Askri turns his head to display the scars of wounds he received when his house near Aleppo was bombed.

“I have injuries in my leg and abdomen. The Hariri family clinic refuses to treat me because I’m single. We get our bread on credit, we borrow from friends and relatives for materials for our tents.”

Abdel Karim Hamadi arrives with a box of supplies donated by the municipality for his daughter’s baby, due at any moment. “Her husband was a [rebel] fighter and became shaheed [martyred].”

Across the road, another 500 refugees dwell in a better organised camp. Muhammad Hamdan, a grave man in dark kaftan, arrived on Friday from the rebel-held Tariq al-Bab district of Aleppo city. “We had no electricity, no water, no food. The Free Army gives people a few things.”

His daughter, her husband and four children were killed. He is caring for surviving grandchildren, his wife and other children, eight in all.

Canvas tents
The refugees have dug wells and erected breeze-block toilets as well as large tents of canvas stretched over wooden frames. “We have become carpenters,” remarks Ibrahim, a long-term resident.

Laundry flaps on lines strung between tents with small satellite dishes. “We pay $300 to $400 rent a year for each tent.”

They get drinking water from the car wash across the road.

The sprawling, chaotic border crossing at Masnaa is half an hour’s drive away. Cars with Syrian plates park haphazardly on the roadside while owners and passengers clear immigration before crossing into Syria.

Formalities are slow for Syrians entering Lebanon, some in cars piled high with luggage, others in taxis or buses.

A young couple with a baby wait for their vehicle to pass through customs. “We’re visiting relatives,” the youth says. “Anyone who leaves for good is not a patriot.”

Nearby, a taxi driver is waiting for clients. “Seven thousand come every day, 2,000 go back,” he says.

The tide ebbs and flows.

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