For Syrian refugees in Lebanon, a drive to build community amid pressing challenges

Communities spring up in the buildings and spaces where families manage to find a spot. Many refugees say their hope is in giving their children a better future.

By Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, published in The Christian Science Monitor, February 27, 2017

Beirut, Lebanon—I remember Syrian children living by a garbage dump near a cement factory where their parents did menial labor when I visited Lebanon three years ago. I remember those living in an unfinished shopping mall with open storefronts, several families camped in a space supposed to be a shop, except that the developer had run out of money and never finished the building. Now he could collect rent from the refugees.

Syrian refugees were pouring into Lebanon in 2014, fleeing the civil war. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) and nongovernmental organizations were scrambling to register and provide services for these families, most of whom hoped to return to Syria when the war was over. Because Lebanon has a history dating back to the Palestinian diaspora of not providing camps for refugees, the displaced were finding shelter wherever they could. The effort to get children into schools was beginning. One aid worker described the situation as trying to give cups of water to people from a blasting firehose.

I recently returned to Lebanon to visit the Syrian refugees. I was in Beirut when President Trump’s edict on immigration and his ban on all Syrian refugees to the United States was announced. The ban included Syrian families in Lebanon who had been going through the long vetting process to resettle in the US.  Lebanon has the largest percentage of refugees given its population – more than 1 million registered in a country of 4.5 million citizens.

The situation in Lebanon remains deeply challenging, with pressing needs. But it has stabilized. The flow of people across the border is now a trickle, not a flood, and the systems to assist are more firmly in place. When the refugee population hit the 1 million mark, Lebanon changed its open border policy. But the Syrian refugees remain more than 20 percent of Lebanon’s population, the equivalent of 64 million in the US. Last year the United States accepted 10,000 Syrian refugees out of an estimated 4.8 million worldwide.

Three years ago, Lebanon had only 150 schools that had split shifts, teaching the Syrian children in the afternoon. Today half of the Syrian children are in government schools – more than 200,000 children, according to UNHCR officials. UNHCR pays the Lebanese Ministry of Education $600 per child to assist in the cost.  Some children may be enrolled in private schools, according to officials, though the remaining are still not in school, including those who work to bring in income for their families, and, in the case of girls, those who are married off as young as 14 or 15.

Writing plays and tutoring in French

A difficulty for Syrian school children is language; Lebanese schools teach in French or English in addition to Arabic. One 12-year-old girl dressed in black headscarf practiced French with a local volunteer in a homework support group. The girl has been living in Lebanon for 3-1/2 years.  She was in fifth grade when she left Syria, but she’s lost years of schooling, and because she doesn’t know French, she is now placed in third grade. She is friends with some of the Syrian children in her school, but with few Lebanese children. “They don’t like to talk about the same things,” she said. “What do you like to talk about?” I asked. “I want to talk about the war.”

Hasan, 13 years old, remembers going to school in Aleppo, and has been in Lebanon three years. He’s glad to be in school again, but he too has lost several years of education and is in an early elementary class.

For elementary school children, the transition is not as difficult since they can learn French or English, but older Syrian students are struggling. Homework support groups have grown up and are sustained by UNHCR and Save the Children.  In Batroun, a town in the North, a Lebanese teacher volunteers twice a week to tutor French. Other outreach volunteers assist in other subjects. One young man, Joseph, helps the children by writing plays and doing small theater productions with them. A Syrian, he receives his work expenses and training. But, he said, “I volunteered to help my people. At the beginning I wanted to volunteer in any sector, but I believe education is very important. I started a small theatrical team, selected the children, wrote small plays with a message, and we perform in a small garden Saturday or Sunday for the community.”

Building communities has been essential for the children and their families, especially since return to Syria remains problematic. These communities grow up in the buildings and spaces where the families live. Approximately 60 percent of the refugees rent apartments, often crowding several families into one or two rooms, carpets and pillows on the floor, a single television in the corner, a light bulb on the ceiling.  UNHCR has helped in reconstruction of buildings with an agreement from the landlords that they will rent at reduced rates to the Syrian refugees for a period.  Other refugees have built temporary shelters on the roadside. Simple wood frames with tarps and plastic sheeting dot the landscape in the north, perched on farmers’ land where refugee men and women work in fields of orange groves, olives, cucumbers, and potatoes.

Guests, with work restrictions

The Lebanese government has said it is treating the Syrians as “guests” and does not deport them, but the government restricts where the Syrians can work. To get a residency permit, they have to agree not to work except in agriculture, construction, or environment (cleaning) – all low-wage areas. The government also requires that refugees re-register every six months, paying $200 per person over 15 years of age. The cost is prohibitive for many families, so the men in particular live in fear that they will be arrested for not having proper registration, and this limits their mobility in finding employment, according to aid workers.

While refugee services from the UN, nongovernmental organizations, and the Lebanese government have increased in recent years, so have the poverty rates, as families have spent the money they brought with them. According to UNHCR statistics, 70.5 percent of the refugee population live in “extreme poverty,” meaning they live on less than $3.80 per day. UNHCR provides cash assistance, but to only 22 percent of these families. With the cash cards they can buy food, supplies, and pay rent. As winter arrived, additional small payments were provided to help buy blankets, warm clothes, and fuel.

Many of the refugees say their hope is in giving their children a better future, but in Lebanon that future has a ceiling. “At least we have a real school now and one close. It is much easier for our children,” says one mother. But with livelihood possibilities tightly controlled and the possibility of affordable residency curtailed, many parents don’t see an expanding future in Lebanon. UNHCR tries to assist those who want to resettle elsewhere, but even before the recent US ban on Syrian resettlement, the possible openings were diminishing.

“UNHCR’s top recommendation in Lebanon is a waiver of the residency fee so that the refugees are all legally registered and can work. This will help provide employment for them and a work force in needed areas of Lebanon, and income that can then be spent in the local economy,” says Karolina Lindholm Billing, UNHCR deputy representative.

“When you used to look out over Beirut at night, you would see black on top of the buildings,” she notes. “Now you see the lights of refugee settlements there – tents and cooking fires. The refugees have found whatever space is available and gotten permission from the landlords and pay rent.”

Joanne Leedom-Ackerman is a novelist and journalist who has traveled in the Middle East and visited the refugee settlements in all the countries bordering Syria and has recently returned from Lebanon.  Ms. Leedom-Ackerman is a former reporter for the Monitor.

(Click here to read the article at The Christian Science Monitor.)

 

Refugees: The Great Walk Now or Never

The black rubber dinghy had just landed on Mytileni’s rocky beach on the Isle of Lesvos, Greece. The 41 people crammed precariously on the raft quickly dropped their orange life jackets and looked around to make sure their friends and relatives had also made it to land.

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A father knelt before his curly headed son, around 3 years old, took off his life jacket, checked his clothing—damp, but not too wet—and tried to explain where they were. The boy smiled, looked about and then spent his time trying to get his heel back into one of his wet sneakers. I was able to help him as his father looked for his wife, who’d made it to land further down the beach. The family had left Aleppo a week ago, waited three days on the Turkish coast near Izmir for transport and now, finally had safely reached the shores of Europe.

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From here they would continue their long journey to a new life, which they hoped would be in Germany. Before them lay at least half a dozen train and bus rides and walks with their two backpacks containing all their belongings. Also ahead were multiple registration centers in each country they would pass through.

Along with the 760,000 people who have come through Greece since April, they were embarking on “The Great Walk,” or some call the trek “The Great Wait.” With winter coming and borders closing, it is a “now-or-never” journey as Europe absorbs the largest migration since World War II. Almost half—45%—come through Lesvos, 58% men, 16% women, 26% children, according to statistics from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR).

As Syrians, they are lucky, if having to flee one’s home destroyed in war can be considered luck. Most Syrian refugees—96-98%—will eventually find new residencies. Syrians comprise 45% of this great exodus. Another third are Afghan, a tenth are Iraqi. The rest are Eritrean, Central African Republic, Iranian, Somalians, Moroccan, Algerians and others, according to figures from UNHCR. The latter four nationalities have slim chances to resettle in Europe.

In the past month access for “direct arrivals” has closed. Only refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are allowed the onward journey into Europe. These nationalities comprise 85% of those on the move. The rest are turned back. The European Union has also agreed to accept 160,000 in a formal resettlement process, which takes one to two months and requires refugees to accept whatever country they are assigned. Again, only certain nationalities are included in this relocation process—Syrians, Iraqis, Eritreans, those from the Central African Republic and perhaps soon Afghans, according to Alessandra Morelli, UNHCR Senior Operations Coordinator in Greece.

“History is passing in front of our eyes,” Ms. Morelli says at the UNHCR office in Athens. “I feel responsible that we build a Europe that is open and not one of walls.”

In the Lesvos registration site Kara Tepe I met with a group of 21 family and friends who’d arrived earlier in the day. They had come through Lebanon from their village and were part of a small Shia sect of the Alawites. The Assad forces had insisted the men must join the Army at the same time ISIS had come to the village and kidnapped three girls and killed many people and threatened that if the men didn’t join them and convert, they would be killed.

They fled the village, leaving behind a 65-year old father, a lawyer who’d been imprisoned and tortured and didn’t want to leave. Another woman through tears said her 19-year old son was still in Turkey trying to raise money to cross. She would stay on Lesvos until he joined her. Among their group were infants and toddlers, who were now running in and out of the small Ikea houses assigned to the families until they moved on later in the day or the next day.

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“I fled not as a deserter, but because I didn’t want to fight,” said one of the fathers. “It was impossible to live in Syria any longer with our family. We needed $12/day to live and could only make $2. I was working in a restaurant; my wife studied French in university and couldn’t find a job. For the last three years there have been no jobs. There was constant shelling. Our children were afraid. There was no future for them, and we are watched on all sides. Planes are constantly flying over; the children aren’t sleeping; shooting is everywhere. When it’s dark, no one goes out.

“But despite all the difficulties we still face, we feel safe now,” he added. “We’ve received good treatment here, enough to feel like human beings again. I want my children to be raised in Europe out of all the bad complexities in my part of the world.”

Harsh stories abound for each refugee, but there are also stories of hope and of an outpouring of good will along the way. Volunteers from Greece and all over Europe have come to assist. There are Doctors Without Borders treating the sick, Clowns Without Borders entertaining the children; there are Families Like Ours from Portugal providing tons of clothes, Green Helmets from Germany putting in wooden floors in the tents, Samaritans are winterizing the shelters with tarps. There is a local Greek mother who donated a stroller and wrote a letter to the mother who would receive it. There are Spanish Life Guards who wait on the beaches in wet suits, ready to go out into the ocean to help those trying to get to shore.

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There are local and international nongovernmental organizations—Save the Children, Action Aid, Habitat for Humanity, International Rescue Committee, Red Cross, etc., all taking up specific roles in this migration. There are agencies of the European Union, providing security and registration.

Since early fall the United Nations High Commission on Refugees has been on the ground helping coordinate all these processes. The priorities for the refugees are employment and education for their children.

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Their journeys, with variations, look like this: They arrive from Syria into one of the bordering countries—Iraq, Jordon, Lebanon or Turkey. There they likely find a smuggler, pay the fee, wait on the border for their turn, sometimes a wait of several days. From Turkey, they climb on a raft, often at night so they are less likely to be seen, and they take the 4-6 mile trip of 2-4 hours, depending on conditions. Shipwrecks and drowning are real dangers and have taken the lives of hundreds, six Afghans just in the time I was there.

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On the beach they are met by volunteers and usually by representatives of the EU or UNHCR and the Greek municipality, who take them to a first staging area, where they are given food, water, the opportunity to shower, charge their phones, and change into dry clothes if needed. They are then put on a bus and taken to the registration centers, where their papers are checked; they are finger printed; their nationalities are sorted out; they are given official registration documents and advised on possible next steps. This process can take 2-8 hours. They have the option of staying the night in a tent or small Ikea house for families.

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From the registration center they continue to Athens on a ferry. This they must pay for. Their registration and documents are again checked, and they board buses to Idomeni in Northern Greece near the Macedonian border, where, if they are Syrian, Iraqi or Afghan, they are allowed to cross. They walk from the border to a registration site, enter a large tent with wooden benches and wait to be called to register again, this time for Macedonian papers. After registration, they are given food and water, clothes if they need. At all the centers there are safe places and play spaces for women and children, run by Save the Children and other organizations. Over the loud speaker the announcement of all the services available are repeated in English and Arabic, including: “You don’t need to pay for anything.” Everything at the site is free. They wait in tents or in small Ikea houses or outside if the sun is shining for the train to arrive. The train was late the day we were there, and it is not free. It will eventually take them to Serbia, where they must walk to the registration center and again register for new documents. From there they will get trains or buses to their next destinations with walking in between, making their journey northward to Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary, Austria and for many on to Germany or Sweden or other countries.

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War is at their back. Their future is focused on their children. Their destinations are partly places of imagination, where they imagine jobs and schools and safety. But the triage is intensifying. Winter is coming. The European Union is paying Turkey three billion Euros to secure its borders and service the three million refugees already in Turkey so that they stay. Quotas are filling rapidly in countries like Germany and Sweden, where refugees perceive opportunities. Through facebook and through families who have gone before them, and from the media, Germany and Sweden and Holland and a few other countries have become their mecca, and countries like Portugal, which is open to refugees, have so far received few.

“They are families like us. We want to help,” said Barbara Guevana at the Macedonian border camp. She is one of the founders of Familias Como as Nossas—Families Like Us—a group of women who didn’t know each other but connected through facebook to assist Syrians with housing, education and transportation to Portugal, which has allotted 4500 spaces for refugees. Seventeen women drove three days to Croatia to meet Syrian families, taking with them clothes and food and assuring them Portugal was waiting to welcome them.

“But people don’t know about Portugal,” said Ms. Guevana. “In Arabic the name means ‘Orange,’ and they question why they should go to ‘Orange.’ We assure them we want them to come. The Portuguese government is willing to fly them to Portugal if they get to Austria.”

This migration is changing the face of Europe and challenging the future of the European Union. “We need to manage borders, not close them,” insists Philippe Leclerc, the new UNHCR representative, who has just arrived to head the Greek operation.

While Germans, French and Austrians were at first welcoming, Eastern European nations like Poland, Hungary, Slovakia have been more resistant. And everyone agrees that the November terrorist attacks in Paris have changed attitudes.

“We need to realize these people are fleeing the terrorists; they are not the terrorists,” said Maureen White, board member of the International Rescue Committee and director of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies Center on Migration and a fellow traveler on this trip.

As the sun sets, we drive from Macedonia through the official checkpoint, showing our passports at each border as we return to Thessalonica. When we cross into Greece, we find our car behind a caravan of busses filled with refugees and migrants who are being returned to Athens. Today was a major police action that cleared the area called “the Green Field” where those not allowed to cross had started camping and piling up. These are not Syrians, Iraqis or Afghans, but all the other nationalities who hoped to pass into Europe. Nineteen hundred people in 49 buses will be put up for the night in the old Olympic facilities in Athens and in the morning told their options, including applying for asylum in Greece, an unlikely outcome, applying for resettlement, an option at the moment only for Syrian, Iraqi, Eritrean and Central Africans or returning to their countries of origin.

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Women’s Progress: The Power of a Bridge…and a Double Yellow Line

(Below is an abridged version of a talk I gave at Johns Hopkins University on Women’s Day, March 8 to an audience of vibrant students gathered for a day-long Summit for Emerging Women Leaders, sponsored by the Women’s Initiative for Social Equity.)

I arrived at Johns Hopkins as a graduate student in the Writing Seminars straight from a small college in the Midwest with a combination of confidence and concern that Hopkins had made a mistake admitting me. I was sure the other students would be more widely read and experienced. I spent the whole spring and summer when I wasn’t working, reading. That fall at Hopkins I was assigned the very first seminar paper focused on a controversial novel at the time The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron. The controversy arose around whether a white novelist could or should take on the first person narrative voice of a slave. I’ll get to my answer later in this talk. I got an A on the paper and knew I was going to be all right. Hopkins let me know I could meet the challenge. That was my first lesson.

When I arrived on campus, there were no women undergraduates. At the time my social conscience was focused more on civil rights than women’s rights so while the role of women in the larger society concerned me, I think I viewed the ratio at Hopkins as a social advantage.  But here comes my next big lesson. When I had a disappointment on the romantic front and was feeling low, a voice in my head challenged: “If you have time to mope about, you have time to reach out and help someone!”  That voice was not echoing my parents; they would be kinder. It was my own voice taking me to task, and so I listened.

I went to the Hopkins Tutoring office and signed up to tutor in the community. I was assigned a family who lived in West Baltimore and later moved to the projects on Druid Hill Ave. One evening a week I drove over to their house and tutored the mother of five children, ages 4-12. She only had an eighth grade education and wanted to read better. I also helped the children with their homework.  The 10-year old daughter and I shared the same birthday. I tell you that because I’m still in touch with this family, and recently when the mother and I were talking on the phone after that birthday had passed, she asked me: “Do you know how old I am?”  And I answered, yes, you’re ten years older than me and your daughter is ten years younger, and none of us should be counting anymore.” We both laughed. Three of those children went on and graduated from college and the oldest son finished high school and is a grandfather himself now.  One of the treasures of my time at Hopkins was getting to know this family and having them part of my life over the years though we don’t see each other as much lately. My Hopkins education opened worlds to me of all kinds, showing me I would be okay in the larger intellectual world as well as in the inner city of Baltimore.

When I arrived at Hopkins, I thought I was entering a two-year program only to find out I would have a Master of Arts in nine months and had to get a job. No one hired aspiring novelists, but during college I’d been editor of the campus newspaper and each summer worked as a journalist so I applied to a leading international newspaper The Christian Science Monitor in Boston where I’d published a few articles.  When the editor-in-chief met with me, he opened the interview, “I hear you were a thorn in the side of your college.” After I explained the issues I’d written about—the need to recruit minority students, the rights of workers on campus, removal of restrictions on women, protests abroad against the Vietnam War—he said, “You’re hired!”

But I was not hired to start tracking down important news stories but to be a copy kid.  A copy kid in those days was the person who ran copy between departments—this is before the internet—and generally was at the beck and call of editors to do whatever they needed including getting them coffee and when work was slow filling the rubber cement jars because back then the pages of a news story were typed and then glued together in one long streamer and dropped in the copy editor’s box.  But I’m a writer, I wanted to protest. I have a masters from Johns Hopkins University! The editor saw the disappointment on my face and added, if you show us what you can do, you’ll get promoted to reporter. So I took the job.

Here is the third important lesson which includes advice from my father: Don’t worry where you start in a job, just get to the place you want to be with smart people around you, and you’ll learn and rise to your level of excellence.

I spent every minute when I wasn’t transporting copy or coffee working on my own stories…in the evenings, every weekend. After a month I handed in a four-part series on Cambridge housing, examining the causes, effects, and solutions to what I had identified as a problem. The New England news editor accepted the four long stories, put them on his pile of stories to read, and that was that. I don’t recall how long it took him to read them. They never ran in the newspaper. I now realize how unlikely it was the paper would give space to a four-part series on such a local issue.  But after seven long weeks, I was promoted to reporter.

Looking back, I can see that the editors were evaluating how hard I would work, how honed my skills were and perhaps whether I had the humility to do what was needed in a newsroom.  Actually I don’t know if they were evaluating humility, but that was another important lesson for me. The experience deepened my appreciation of everyone around me, including those who cleaned up the newsroom at night when I was still working, those who set the type, those who delivered supplies. I appreciated that not everyone had his dream job.

The journalist’s mantra is: who, what, when, where, why, and how. These are the questions all journalists try to answer in their stories. In one’s own life I think the most important of those questions is who.  What you do, where you do it, and when may be influenced, sometimes even dictated, by the actions of others, but no one can dictate who you are. You are responsible for the values and qualities of character you bring to the world. These will open doors for you.

I’ll end my career journey here, addressing the early years where most of you are. I broadened my work as a writer, expanding from journalism into fiction. Over the years I’ve also had many opportunities to go into the world to work on issues of human rights, education and refugees.

A number of years ago I attended an international conference on human rights in Katmandu, Nepal. On the flight there, the airplane suddenly lost altitude and then dropped again. The clouds were so thick that it looked as if we were flying through cotton wool as the rain and wind hit and shook the airplane. Around us, though we couldn’t see them anymore, rose the ranges of the Himalayas. The captain ordered all passengers and flight attendants to take their seats immediately and fasten their seat belts. I found myself hoping that the captain, whom I had never met or even seen — but in whose hands I’d put myself — had been trained well and had taken his training and his subsequent flying very seriously. I hoped that he had studied hard, hadn’t cut corners, and didn’t perform at 80 percent of capacity when the highest performance was now required of him. I also hoped those on the ground who maintained this plane had taken their tasks — even the smallest — just as seriously. The plane diverted to Delhi, and we waited out the storm on the runway, then finally landed in Katmandu. Himalayas

A similar, though less harrowing, journey occurred just a few weeks ago when I was driving over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in a fog so heavy that I could see only a few feet in front of me. I was surprised the bridge was open. All I could see was a foot or two of a double yellow line. I trusted that the architects and builders had constructed a sturdy bridge, but most of all I trusted that line, that it would keep me on the path, that whoever painted it—and that may not have been his or her dream job at the time—executed it accurately, and it would not veer off to the edge or into other lanes of traffic. Bay Bridge

Over the years I’ve been outspoken and advocated for women’s voices in all the venues where I’ve worked. But today I also want to emphasize that each task in our lives is important even when we don’t find ourselves at the pinnacle of where we would like to be. That doesn’t mean we don’t continue to work hard, strive, advocate, even protest, but our journeys are formed by the dedication we bring to each activity, even if, at the time, we may not see how the activity links to a greater plan and purpose.

As a writer I’ve worked with an organization called PEN International on behalf of writers who have found themselves threatened or imprisoned, or who have disappeared or even been killed because of their ideas and their writing. The work has involved some heart-breaking stories, but it has also involved stories of real courage. Many of the individuals survived because they refused to yield to the harsh realities they found themselves in. Instead they dwelled in their imaginations, and they held to their inner dignity.

I’ve also had the privilege over the years of being engaged with education projects in some of the more problematic regions of the world, visiting school rooms where the learning materials are hung from the ceilings of the huts which have no doors so the cattle who wander in and out don’t trample them, school rooms under trees. The mothers and fathers of the children in these schools sacrifice so their children can learn and have a fuller future.

Recently I visited refugee centers and camps in the four countries—Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey—bordering Syria where the refugee crisis is the largest in a generation.  As many as three to four million people are expected to have fled Syria by year’s end because of the violence of the three-year old civil war. The flood of people into countries which have their own problems seems overwhelming.

What can one person do in any of these challenges?  Individually, a limited amount—witness, tell the story—but collectively we are all citizens of the world, and that world is a function of how we behave and also how we think about it and act towards our fellow citizens.

–Are we up to the task? Hopkins taught me, yes, I am.

–Does the plight of the world depress—yes, it can, but I learned at Hopkins that if I have time to be depressed, then I also have time to get up and reach out.

–Is what we do important enough to make a difference? Maybe. It can be. But whatever path or avenue opens, we can act with vigor and integrity—whether flying the airplane or tightening the screw on the wheel, whether designing the bridge or painting the line on its road. Whatever the task, others will depend on how well we do it. The question is do we have the courage and also the humility to do it with a full heart?  I think the answer is yes.

My answer on that seminar paper years ago was also yes.  A novelist should/could take on a voice very different from his or her own. That is what artists do. But success depends upon how well and carefully one listens and observes and empathizes with those who are not oneself.

In my generation the rights of minorities and women and others expanded significantly, at least in the U.S.  My final observation today is: Society can change for the better and you can be part of that.  

Syrian Refugee Tsunami

We’d come to visit a Syrian refugee camp on the Turkish border. When we arrived in Gaziantep, a bustling ancient city just 30 miles from Syria, we were told by United Nations representatives that a battle was going on across the border that day. A bullet had struck a house in the nearby refugee camp so our visit was canceled for security reasons.

The following day a fuller story emerged.  In the Syrian town of Jarabulus just 3km over the border, the battle had been especially brutal. At least 10 men were beheaded and their heads mounted on spikes to terrorize the community. The Syrians from the town were now fleeing to Turkey and away from the al Qaeda-linked fighters.

This particularly grisly battle underscores the horror and tragedy facing the almost nine million Syrians (6.5 million in country; at least 2.3 million outside the country) seeking security.  Aid agencies estimate at least half the Syrian population of 22.4 million is in need of humanitarian assistance, and as many as three quarters of the population will be in need of aid by the end of 2014.

In the past two months I’ve visited Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey—the four main countries absorbing this historic exodus from the three-year old Syrian civil war and have witnessed a human tsunami. Acknowledged as the worst refugee crisis in a generation, the outflow of Syrian citizens mounted a 500% increase in many areas in the past year, a figure threatening to explode further in 2014 if no progress is made in the current peace talks getting underway in Geneva.  Small corridors of security for exiting women and children as recently proposed for the city of Homs will add to the momentum of the exodus.

Each of the bordering countries has responded differently to the crisis. All have opened their borders, at least the first two years. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) has fanned out across the region to assist according to each country’s mandate, with aid and aid workers in their sky blue vests arranging registration, locating or establishing shelters, food, medical care and education and coordinating with other nongovernmental organizations (ngos), but few have experienced a crisis of this magnitude.

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I recently returned from Turkey and Lebanon, both of whose borders are still open.

Turkey has officially registered more than half a million refugees and given one-year residency permits, but many more refugees are estimated within Turkish borders and the permits are already expiring. The government has built and manages state-of-the art camps, having spent $2 billion for 20 camps along the border. These include both tented camps and camps with temporary container housing. The camps include classrooms, play areas, meeting areas, libraries, TV rooms, even rooms of washing machines in the two Nizip camps we visited. The camps are at a standard not seen before, according to one UNHCR official. However, because the camps were established by the Turkish government, not the UN, they are much closer to the border than is standard.

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Within the camps are schools with a Syrian curriculum, overseen by the Syrian National Council, a coalition of Syrian opposition groups based in Istanbul, which has expunged Assad from the textbooks and republishes the textbooks and provides books to the schools. The brightly colored school rooms are largely staffed by Syrian teacher refugees in the camps. Camp officials claim between 70-90% enrollment.

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According to Karim Atassi, the UNHCR Deputy Representative for the region, one Turkish official noted: If we don’t carefully look after the Syrians gathering in Turkey (especially the young), they will be a time bomb for us.  The Turkish government consults with UNHCR, which is recommending that the government certify the Syrian curriculum and education this year so students can get credit and certification for their education.

Approximately 250 Syrian students, who have taken Turkish language classes and passed the TOFEL language test, have been given university scholarships.  “Turkey has helped us a lot,” said one student, a young man set to study economics. He and his four friends in the refugee camp who also received scholarships had been in university in Syria but now must start all over again in a new field, because there was no space in their former fields of study. They were not certain whether the scholarships included a living stipend. Several of the students were married and had families, but they count themselves among the lucky. Sitting with them was a slightly older student of 27 who wanted to finish his study of law, which he had almost completed in Syria, but he had not received a university scholarship.

The challenge in Turkey and in the other countries is that only a third of the refugees live in camps. The rest—between 300,000 up to 700,000 in Turkey—live in the cities and villages and don’t have access to the same services.   In all the countries the urban and unregistered are the biggest challenge and the ticking time bomb.

Lebanon, whose borders also remain open, has not provided nor allowed provision for official refugee camps or shelters lest the refugees “be tempted to stay.”   Proportionate to its size, Lebanon has absorbed the largest share of the refugee population.

“In September, 2011 U.S. Secretary Clinton said to us, ‘Don’t worry. Accept the people from Syria, and we will help you,” said acting Prime Minister Najib Azmi Mikati, in a meeting at his residence in Beirut. “At the time there were 10,000 refugees. We said, ‘Never mind, we can handle it. Now there are more than 900,000 refugees in Lebanon, a country of four million people.  They represent over 20 percent of our population. It may even be more. Some estimates are as much as 1.3 million.”

In Lebanon refugees are registered by UNHCR and then receive services and assistance with food, medicine and rent.  Some have been able to find apartments; many have landed in temporary shelter, including at an abandoned shopping mall in Tripoli or in shacks at a cement factory in the southern city of Saida, where they work for rent, or at a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut.

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At least 75% percent of the refugees are women and children in all countries. After shelter and food is found, one of the biggest challenges is education for the children. That and long, idle days of waiting…waiting for husbands to find work, for relatives to get out of danger and arrive…and most of all waiting for the war to stop so they can go home. At a point, and that point has long passed for many, the waiting becomes a way of life, corrosive to the spirit. How does one fill one’s days and one’s children’s days when there is no work and no school, asked one woman.

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At one gathering of women in an abandoned shopping mall in Tripoli, Zaira, a mother of four sons ages 7 to 13 said all her children had been in school in Syria, but in Lebanon, there is no available school nearby. What will happen to their education? she asked. Many of the refugee children have missed one or two years of school already.

UNHCR and ngo’s offer some transportation to schools if there is space, but in Lebanon 70% of the education is private and the 30% public schools are filled, even with second shifts. Refugees are also finding barriers of language since instruction in Lebanon is traditionally in English and French and only occasionally in Arabic.

UNHCR and the local ngos also offer vocational training such as hair dressing, computers, and sewing, but jobs are not assured after the training. Some men and older children refugees have found manual labor or part time agricultural work, but mostly the population waits.

In the abandoned shopping mall over 900 people live in the shells of stores that had never been finished. The 30 owners of the abandoned mall have returned and now collect rent. The advantage of the mall as shelter is that the walls are solid; there is a roof; electricity has been strung in.   Laundry is hanging everywhere. There are no shops, except for one small candy store near the entrance and a small improvised vegetable/fruit stand, but there are dozens of satellite dishes. Even in the most improvised shelters refugees manage to find televisions to connect them to the outside world and sometimes back to home.

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In one shop/residence women gathered sitting on the floor covered with a brightly colored mat and mattresses along the wall. One woman from Hamah shared her story while others nodded in agreement:  “I left because of the constant bombing. We couldn’t leave the house even to buy bread.  Before we left home to come here, we were internally displaced, moved from one place to another to avoid the shelling. My brother got killed. To get here we walked, rode a bike with our two boys and two girls, sometimes walking, sometimes biking. We left Hamah to Homs. It was easier to cross on the northern border.  There are problems on the Syrian side of the border. The Syrians try to split families. It took us two days to get here. We brought nothing. We arrived with nothing. People here had extra mattresses and gave them to us. The biggest challenge is now rent. In Syria we were working as farmers [but we don’t work here].

“As the situation has gotten worse in Syria, we’ve been able to talk to a cousin but can’t talk to our parents. There’s no reception. First we went to Beirut for 27 days where we knew people. After that we came here because my sister-in-law lives in the area, and we stayed with her until we found out about the rooms here.”

Some estimate that by the end of 2014 the flow of refugees out of Syria could double with over 4 million total outside the country. Will the four buffer countries of Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey be able to continue absorbing the refugees without severe destabilization of their own populations? While countries like the U.S. and countries in Western Europe have contributed financial aid, they have admitted only the tiniest trickle of refugees into their countries. Last year Germany admitted 5,000 Syrian refugees, and the Germans were among the more generous. The United States has accepted 90.

 

Those interested in learning more and in assisting in this crisis can contact among the following organizations:  UNHCR, International Rescue Committee,  International Committee of the Red CrossSave The Children,  Refugees International.

 

Welcome Home? Syrian Refugees Building On Top of History

(A version of this article was published on GlobalPost.)

I recently returned from visiting Syrian refugees in northern Iraq and Jordan on a field mission with Refugees International.  As I handed over my passport and custom’s form to the U.S. officer, he said: “Welcome home!”

That greeting always touches me but more than ever after this trip  spending time with refugees who have no idea when and if they might be able to go home, who no longer know where their home is. Hundreds of thousands are living in tents and caravans and many in even more problematic structures in fields and behind houses across the border from Syria. Men, women and children–often on foot or in buses and taxis–have fled into Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and countries further away.

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The displacement from the three-year old civil war in Syria has caused the worst refugee crisis since Rwanda, according to officials at the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). They estimate that at least two million people have fled across Syria’s borders and millions more are internally displaced. Adding to the challenge of assisting these people are the growing restrictions on crossing from Syria into Iraq and Jordan, restrictions which some complain are tantamount to closing the borders.

In Jordan, a country of six million people, the UNHCR believes that there are nearing 600,000 refugees, and some others estimate the figure to be over a million. In both Iraq and Jordan, only a third of the refugees are in camps; the rest are dispersed throughout cities and towns, often unregistered and without services.

“We walked three days in the dark, at night, afraid, carrying our two children,” said one young man, who travelled with his wife and three-year old son and one-year old daughter, trying to avoid the fighting. They finally got a ride and arrived at Za’atari refugee camp in the desert of northern Jordan. The Za’atari camp, originally built for 10,000 people, currently houses over 80,000 and at times has held as many as 150,000.  The camp is now the fourth largest “city” in Jordan.

Though conditions have improved considerably, according to those who have visited the camp in the past, the landscape at Za’atari is stark—five square miles of barren rocky desert with tents and caravans laid out as far as the eye can see. There is not a single tree or bush or plant anywhere, nothing to break the view except coiled barbed wire around certain parts of the compounds.  Running through the middle of the acres of desert is a dusty path with stalls on either side where residents sell vegetables, clothes, shoes and other wares. The residents have dubbed it the Champs Élysées.  A new camp nearby has been set up and will soon take the overflow from Za’atari.

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The conflict in Syria is only eight miles away. According to one humanitarian aid worker, you can sometimes hear the explosions. The proximity to the border and the conflict adds to the insecurity in the camp.

“Za’atari is the tip of the iceberg of the Syrian crisis,” said Kilian Kleinschmidt, the camp manager.

Za’atari is said to be the second largest refugee camp in the world. Since Kleinschmidt arrived in March, the violence in the camp has decreased, but there is still considerable resistance to authority, he says.  “The challenge is for the people to respect some authority so when the refugees return, they can rebuild and govern Syria. If people return with the state of mind now, it is going to be difficult.”

In the past months the camp has been divided into 12 districts. The UNHCR camp manager is planning for everyone to be registered with an address so each refugee can be located.  Another goal is to replace tents with metal caravans, which offer more protection from the elements.

“People want to be able to stand upright in their homes and be able to lock their door at night,” Kleinschmidt said. But the caravans promised by international donors are no longer arriving in the numbers needed.

The camp is preparing for winter. Ninety thousand thermal blankets had just arrived, and winterization packages were being assembled which would also include plastic sheeting, kerosene and heaters.  A few days before 20,000 ration cards had been deactivated in an attempt to get an accurate registration roster. A large protest had broken out, including among those whose ration cards no longer worked.

Education for the children is a significant challenge in Za’atari and at other refugee camps as well as among those living out in the Jordanian communities. In Za’atari an estimated 13,000 children attend school out of 18,000 enrolled and an estimated 55,000 youth in total. Outside the camps parents often face fees and expenses for schools. One parent living in a community outside the camp said he wanted to send his children to school, but he didn’t have the funds, and he was not allowed to work to earn the money. In Syria he had been a school principal.

As the year ends, the region is facing increasing needs and another shortfall of funds, according to Daryl Grisgraber, senior advocate for Refugees International. (Running Za’atari is said to cost roughly $500,000/day.) But there is also some progress with more countries willing to take in Syrian refugees on humanitarian grounds.

Despite the harsh conditions in Za’atari, there are signs of hope. Myriad small enterprises—30 restaurants, a supermarket, even a new coffee shop—have sprung up. There are many more births (10 per day) than deaths (5 per week).

The situation in northern Iraq appears less tense than in Jordan, perhaps because both the refugees and the residents are Kurdish.

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At a local community-based organization in Sulaymaniyah one worker noted, “There is a bond between us. The Syrians Kurds took us in at a time we needed help. Now we can help them.”

The staging areas for urban refugees who come to Sulaymaniyah for assistance is a former military barracks where Saddam Hussein’s army tortured Kurdish citizens in an underground chamber. The conversion of the barracks and torture chambers into a community center was financed by a grant from the U.S. government which is reported to have contributed $1 billion to the Syrian refugee crisis.  Now refugees gather in the former barracks to get assistance with housing, food and education. In Northern Iraq the refugees are given six-month residence permits that are renewable, and a new program has just commenced offering 70- four-year university scholarships to refugees who have competed and qualified for the slots.

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“Our home was bombed. Though we lived just four miles from the Turkish border, we came here because for us the language is better and the people know us. In the war of ’91 the Syrian people helped the people here,” said one father of two. He has pitched a tent in a field where he helps on the farm, though when the farming season is over, he doesn’t know where he and his family will live.