Syrian Refugees in Lebanon: Much More than Exploding Numbers

I wasn’t sure what we were waiting for, as we stood in the narrow, hot hallway of the concrete apartment building. Bahaedeen, a volunteer from the local mosque, had brought me and my friend Karin to the apartment, but the woman in a black abaya and headscarf had shut the door on us a moment after opening it.

“Should we leave and try another home?” asked Abdallah, the volunteer coordinator from Cedars for Care, who had organized our visit.

“No, there was someone inside who needed to cover up,” answered Bahaedeen, raising his hand to indicate hair covering. “It’ll just be a minute.”

Tfaddalo,”* said the woman who reopened the door. Come in. The ceiling of the tiny apartment was mold-stained ceiling, and the “kitchen” was makeshift – a sink and a propane-fueled burner. No refrigerator to keep food fresh in the 90-degree weather. Thin mattresses were folded up against the wall of the main room, waiting to be unrolled at nighttime and convert the living room into the bedroom. As in every home we visited that day, there was a television – essential for following the news coming from their homeland. Comforts were few, but people were in abundance: two families, totaling 12 people, were living there. It was mid-morning, and no men were at home, but there were several children, ranging in age perhaps from 4 to 14, and three or four women – all wearing long black overcoats (abayas) and headscarves, one also with a veil covering her face.

These families had fled from Homs in Syria some months before. Finding work was always a stress, but between the families they were managing to make the monthly rent payment of US$250, with enough left over to get by. Not enough, however, to buy school supplies or pay for transportation to school for the children. (Public school in Lebanon is free and Syrians refugees may go if they can afford to get there and obtain the books and supplies.) The biggest concern in this household was medical bills – 10-year-old Ruqaya suffers from thalassemia, a blood disorder for which she needed transfusions, and the family needs two million Lebanese lira for treatment – about US$1,300. We didn’t have that to offer, but my friend Karin handed them a bag with oil, rice, shampoo and soap, and Abdallah let them know that we were leaving clothing and household goods at the mosque, where families could come to get what they needed. The mosque is providing assistance to about 900 families.

In recent weeks I had collected a carload’s worth of clothing, toys, household goods and food from friends, and when I contacted Cedars for Care about donating it, they encouraged me to accompany them in taking the goods to some of the people CfC is serving. And so last week I found myself in Naamé,

a dusty town of concrete block apartments located twenty minutes south of Beirut – near the coast, but cut off from it by the main highway. I had jumped at the opportunity to personalize the news reports by putting a few faces to the relentlessly increasing numbers of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and my friend Karin was enthusiastic about joining me.

Children smiled eagerly for our cameras, but adults were reluctant to have their pictures taken, so most of the pictures that I have to share are of their homes instead.

Here are a few more of their stories:

The woman in this photo is a widow who fled Syria with her seven children. The youngest two are 5 and 7 years old. Those two were not home at the time of our visit, because they are the only ones to have found work, helping a local plumber. The teenage daughters said the family is getting by okay, but the mother lamented the lack of milk for the younger ones.

This is the home of a Palestinian family who had fled Syria 10 days prior to our visit. Because they have a disabled 12-year-old son who cannot walk, they were able to negotiate the rent down to US$200 per month, instead of the $250 that seemed to be standard in Naamé. There was a toilet but no shower, and the mother was desperate for diapers for her disabled son – a commodity that is apparently far more expensive in Lebanon than Syria. Without money for diapers, she has to wash her son’s clothing several times per day.

The recently-painted pink walls of this home gave this home a cheerier and tidier air than most – but like many, the family living here did not have a chair to sit on or a table to eat at, and their “kitchen” was limited to the small collection of pots you can see at the far end of the room. Its inhabitants were a widow and her adult son who had arrived just 20 days before. They also hailed from Homs, and had stayed two weeks in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli before fleeing the fighting that is also occurring there, and coming south to Naamé. The son had found intermittent work installing drywall (gypsum board), which paid US$100 per week when there was a job. But he was home jobless on the day of our visit.

The pictures above of are a one room home housing two families, including a three-month old baby. The families left the suburbs of Damascus two months ago for Lebanon. They look for daily work, but struggle to find it. One corner of the apartment was separated into the kitchen area pictured above, where they had managed to install a sink, and they had a propane-fueled burner to cook on.

Across the highway, there are fruit fields between the highway and the shoreline. One-room, windowless concrete storage sheds in the fields have been converted into one-room homes for refugees. The CfC representative says he prefers this kind of housing over the apartments in town – while there is no running water, toilet or kitchen, families have built outdoor patios and outhouses, and jerry-rigged connections to the electricity wires that pass overhead, for the indispensable televisions. But the true advantage of the location in the fields is that the families here do not pay rent – they are allowed to live there in exchange for keeping an eye on the fields.

Some of the refugees had arrived as recently as 10 days ago, others have been here as long as 10 months. Many of those who arrived longer ago are from Homs, many of the more recent arrivals came from Idlib, and from as far away as a place called Jazeera near the Iraqi border. Many of the tiny homes had 7-12 people living in them.

Since I last blogged about Syrian refugees in April, just over two months ago, the official number of refugees (including those awaiting registration) in Lebanon has increased from 431,110 to 560,620. Registration provides refugees with grocery store vouchers of US$50 per month for a family, and several families mentioned that their lives felt less precarious since getting their registration papers. That document also allows Syrian refugees to access Lebanese public services.

Returning to the numbers – the arrivals over the past two months are around 60,000 per month, over 2,000 per day – excluding those who do not register as refugees, which is a significant amount. Making temporary homes in this postage stamp country of 4 million people. To recalculate the per capita equivalent in the US that I mentioned in my last post, it is as if 43 million refugees flooded across the US borders over the course of a year and a half. The ability and willingness of the Lebanese to provide refuge to those in need is deeply admirable – and their borders are open to all, without discriminating between Shia and Sunni, Christian or Muslim, Palestinian or Syrian. Cedars for Care is emblematic of the best of the Lebanese spirit, likewise providing assistance without discriminating according to politics or religion, and I felt fortunate to have been put in contact with them.

Anyone based in Lebanon and interested in contributing to Cedars for Care can contact them at 01-751-760 or 03-670-890, or email them at A woman named Iffat (a volunteer herself) organized my visit, and as noted above, Abdallah accompanied me on it. While CfC loves for contributors to get to know the beneficiaries, it is certainly also possible to make a donation without taking the time to make a site visit. Goods can be donated at their offices on Touffic Tobbarah Street, in the basement of the building Touffic Tobbara Center, a block from Sanayeh Gardens. It is possible to make a financial contribution directly on their website.

Bahaedeen (on the left) and Abdallah (on the right) were clearly committed to their work of helping people in need, and gracious hosts as they took us from home to home all morning.