The tiny Lebanese village taking more refugees than Britain

After 4 years of the Syrian war, 1 in 4 people in Lebanon are Syrian refugees. One village hosts 5,000 Syrians – more than Britain has pledged to take in a year, as Michaela Whitton reports.


Makeshift tents for Syrians in Lebanon's Ketermaya refugee camp. by Michaela Whitton

‘We have nothing to go back to’

‘So you’re a supporter of the Syrian cause?’ Beirut taxi driver Michel asks aggressively while speeding through the streets of Lebanon’s capital city. Seemingly oblivious to the ambiguity of his response to a simple request for a quote, Michel’s xenophobic tirade proceeds to blame Syrians for all of Lebanon’s problems – highlighting the developing tensions in this overwhelmed country.

The size of the English county of North Yorkshire, Lebanon, beautiful yet bruised, is still licking the wounds of war. A reported 6 in 10 households own an automatic weapon and areas remain blighted by water shortages and electricity cuts.

With extraordinarily high living costs, fragile infrastructure and barely able to care for its own diverse population of 4 million people, Lebanon hosts more than a million registered Syrian refugees. Actual numbers are thought to be much higher and, unlike Jordan and Turkey, there are no formal camps, with aid provided mainly by civil society.

The size of the English county of North Yorkshire, Lebanon, beautiful yet bruised, is still licking the wounds of war

During British Prime Minister David Cameron’s fleeting visit to a camp near the Syrian border in September, he claimed that British aid to the region of $1.55 billion has helped ensure that only 3 per cent of Syria’s 11 million refugees have sought refuge in Europe.

Boasting that Britain is the second-largest donor to the area will provide little consolation to the Syrians sleeping rough on Beirut’s streets, or the sisters in Shatila refugee camp – forced to alternate when they attend school, due to sharing a pair of shoes.


With a population of 15,000, the 2.8-hectare mountain village of Ketermaya, just 2 hours from the Syrian border, is a microcosm of Lebanon’s crisis. Dr Bilal Kasem, who doubles as the village dentist and Head of Municipality, explains to me that the steady flow of refugees since 2011 now totals almost 5,000. More than 400 families are hosted in the village itself, with over 50 in a makeshift tent camp.

Dr Kasem highlights the strains on the village’s already scarce resources and the labour market. ‘For example, there used to be 3 or 4 barber shops; now there are 7 or 8,’ he says. While donations of funds, food and clothing are spread among refugees, he treats 80 per cent of his patients for free. ‘They are already on aid; it’s too tragic for me to make them pay,’ he sighs.

‘We can’t do everything’

On a hill clothed with olive and fig trees, Ketermaya refugee camp is home to over 50 families from the Syrian war-afflicted centres of Aleppo, Homs and Damascus. After the village became saturated 3 years ago, landowner Ali Tafish donated his land to house the overflow. The reward for his endeavours was investigation by the Lebanese authorities and the confiscation of his passport.

As women sit under the shade of olive trees, some feeding new-born babies, Tafish explains that everyone in the camp has lost someone, and that there are many orphans. Each family of up to 10 people has a tent made of wood and plastic and 10 toilets are shared by more than 400 people. ‘It’s not enough,’ he says. ‘People are standing in line every day.’

Grandmother Iman feeds her orphaned grandchildren rice and vegetables.

Michaela Whitton

Tafish would take more refugees if he could but the camp is at full capacity. Anticipating a harsh winter with a shortage of money for fuel and stoves that need replacing, he feels the burden and claims that the UN hasn’t visited for 2 years.

‘They have the best cars and buildings, while the people get nothing. They are thieves, cheating on our trust,’ he adds.

Reliant on donations from individuals, he provides the camp with rice and vegetables, but no meat. He claims that 70 per cent of families don’t receive the $13 per month that UN-registered refugees are given for food. The ‘$13 doesn’t even cover breakfast,’ he says. ‘This is about corruption, and donor countries have no surveillance over their money.’

While frustrated, Tafish has no regrets. He says he does it for humanity: ‘This is something we don’t see in the UN, we don’t see them caring about humanity. Shame on them.’

Discussing difficulties faced by Syrians accessing healthcare, Tafish explains that hospitals are unable to cope and only treat simple cases. ‘The UN has enough money to build separate hospitals for Syrians only; they don’t need to count on Lebanese hospitals,’ he says.

Tafish explains that everyone in the camp has lost someone, and that there are many orphans

Tafish is grateful for a European audience. ‘Here is what I want you to tell the European Union,’ he says. ‘We Lebanese have 1.6 million refugees, plus those not registered. Our country is $80 billion in debt and we are a failed economy. We have no income except tourism, which the Syrian war has blocked.’

Adamant that if Syria’s neighbouring countries are supported, people would stay in them, he asks where the European Union (EU) has been for 4 years while Lebanon has been ‘drowning in the crisis’.

Angry at the lack of people visiting to see the difficulties, he adds: ‘Sadly, the EU, with all its greatness, is arguing over how to distribute a few thousand refugees. It’s a disgrace!’

On the prospect of increased destabilization of Lebanon, Tafish is concerned: ‘Imagine you need to feed a baby but don’t have the means. Either the baby dies or you steal, to feed him, from the nearest people – the Lebanese. It’s up to the EU and US to stop this before there are real problems.’

He adds that ‘it’s important for people not to go hungry – this brings problems. We can’t give them everything, we do what God gives us, but we can’t do everything.’

‘Can you help us?’

After a government missile demolished her home, 35-year-old Sanaa fled Syria to live with her mother in Beirut. When her mother died of cancer, the family of 10 was evicted and, after sleeping on a beach for 3 days, a woman discovered them and took them to Ketermaya.

Sitting on the floor of the 2-room tent, feeding her youngest daughter, Sanaa describes life in the camp as tragic. ‘In winter it is so hard, with illnesses and no electricity. We don’t even have winter clothes or shoes,’ she explains.

The monthly box of basic food items from the Red Cross lasts the family 2 weeks and her biggest worry is providing nappies and milk for her 18-month-old daughter. While some of Sanaa’s 8 children attend the camp’s makeshift school, her eldest daughter Noor’s education ended when they fled Syria.

The children talk about violence all the time. After seeing their home demolished, Noor’s hair fell out. Although grateful for the support of other women in the camp, Sanaa says that she is tired and wants to travel to give the children a better future.

‘Can you help us?’ she asks.

‘We have nothing to go back to’

Hadia and her two sons shortly after finding out her son had been killed in a Russian air strike in Syria.

Michaela Whitton

As I leave, a group of women insist that I photograph Hadia, who has just been informed that a Russian airstrike had killed her son, his wife – both were paramedics transporting people to hospital – and their unborn child.

‘The Russians think they are killing terrorists. Who are they killing except for our sons?’ one woman yells.

Another woman describes her existence in Syria as ‘like heaven’ and says she had a ‘life to be envied’ there. Forced to leave everything behind, they all agree that life in the camp is humiliating.

‘If we go back we will be living in tents. We have nothing to go back to. However, it is more comforting to go back to your own country instead of living as a foreigner,’ one of the women adds.