When Layal greets me at the door of the home that she shares with her husband and their three children, she turns away in shame. ‘I am embarrassed for you to come in,’ she tells me. Layal and her family are Palestinian refugees from Syria. They once led a comfortable and happy life in the Homs. But on the afternoon that I meet Layal and her husband, Faysal, and their two-year-old daughter, Helen, their lives seem anything but . They live in what used to be an electricity storeroom, which they rent for $150 a month. It’s cold and dark.
‘We used to work and provide for ourselves, but look where we are now.’ Layal glances around the storeroom, as if taking in her new surroundings for the first time. There is very little in their home. In the makeshift kitchen behind a curtain a small frying pan hangs from the wall. A cheese grater sits on a sparse shelf next to two eggs. ‘When we fled Syria we fled with nothing but what we were wearing ,’ Layal explains. ‘We have no winter clothes – nothing. I worry about the children. Nothing here feels stable.’
Layal’s family is among the 785,000 official refugees from Syria in Lebanon. For a country with a population of only four and a half million, the arrival of thousands of refugees has swelled its population by almost 25 per cent. Lebanon is said to be teetering on the edge of breaking point.
Refugees face a miserable winter, the third since the conflict began. Many fled with next to nothing; they struggle to find warm and safe places of sanctuary. Families are living in abandoned shops, in garages and in the basement of disused mosques. These places offer little protection from the harsh winter weather now sweeping across the Middle East. Children are still clothed in t-shirts and shorts; often having fled – like Layal – from Syria during the searing heat in the summer months.
Many of the individuals and families appear to be in a state of shock. Layal’s sister, Helen, lives next door in what was once a shop. She speaks quickly and laughs often , but it’s laughter borne out of disbelief rather than joy or happiness. Helen was four months pregnant when she and her husband, Wassim, fled their home and the fighting in Damascus.
She tells me that she surprised her husband by bringing their photo albums with her. The photographs depict a happy, comfortable, playful life. ‘It is humiliating for us. This is the end that was waiting for us; living in a shop.’ Becoming a refugee has turned Helen into somebody that she no longer likes, or recognizes, she tells me.
It is this sense of loss – both physical and emotional – that is common to all Syrian refugees Ein el Helweh, a Palestinian refugee camp south of Beirut, has absorbed more than 3,500 Palestinian Syrian refugees in the last three years. These people’s lives were already marked by a history of displacement.
Ismael is a Palestinian refugee from Syria. He and his family were displaced within Syria three times before they were finally forced to cross the border into Lebanon. ‘Can you imagine the state that we are in?’ Ismael asks me as I sit with him in the small two-room apartment that he shares with 15 members of his family. ‘Can you imagine after all this time how I feel? I should be able to feel alive again.’Emotional needs are as pressing as physical ones. Families spoke of having lost everything. They described horrific scenes of violence they had witnessed and lamented years of hard work to build lives that have now been destroyed by war.
Amy Merone is Communications Officer at Christian Aid. She traveled to Lebanon in December to meet local partner Association Najdeh, which is working to make life more bearable for refugees.
Christian Aid’s Syria crisis appeal, has reached 40,000 people within Syria and the neighbouring countries of Lebanon and Iraq. Support comes in the form of cash vouchers for food, health kits, and access to psychosocial activities.