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Snowed in, under canvas in Lebanon

11 March 2016


The informal tented settlement near Bar Elias, in the Bekaa Valley.There are now almost 2000 such settlements in Lebanon, where the settlement/integration of non-Lebanese prohibited by the constitution,

The informal tented settlement near Bar Elias, in the Bekaa Valley.There are now almost 2000 such settlements in Lebanon, where the settlement/integra...

AMONG the unexpected sights at the Informal Tented Settlement in Bar Elias is a giant Christian Grey leaning in to kiss Anastasia Steele. Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson, the stars of Fifty Shades of Grey, might be surprised to learn that their clinch — blown up on a giant billboard covering — is now adorning a tent in Lebanon which is sheltering a Syrian family from the winter rains.

A month earlier, the tented community here in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley faced a greater test, when snow fell. “We turned on the heater so the snow would melt, and the boys would go up and sweep snow off the roof,” says Mouamar, a mother of five. “We wouldn’t sleep. We need to be monitoring all night what is happening.”

The elements had already beaten them once: they moved into this shelter — wooden slats covered in thick cloth, a single bare bulb — after their tent had collapsed on top of them during strong winds.

She lights the stove, and, with a low rumble, it quickly heats the room. They tend not to buy wood (the money on the “Winterisation card” provided by World Vision has gone on bread and medicine), but burn bits of plastic that her boys, Riad (15) and Basel (13), collect from the roadside. “They are too ashamed that people will look at them, so they hide it, and go get it at night,” she says.

Hanging on the wall is a treasured possession: ten-year-old Yasmine’s green schoolbag. The cost of transport by bus means that Mouamar can afford to send only one of her children to school, and Yasmine’s brothers nominated her. “It’s so that she learns a little bit how to read and write,” explains Basel.

“I am happy they wanted me to go to school, but not happy that they do not get to go school,” says Yasmine. “I would love to leave Lebanon and travel, so that my brothers and I can get an education.”

The children have “ideas” about travelling, says Mouamar. They hear about it everywhere. She has heard things, too — about what happens to children in boats. “We are already dying 1000 deaths every day. Why risk a secure death?” 

At 15, Yasmine’s neighbour Fatme has put childish things behind her. Fifteen days earlier she was married to her 21-year-old cousin Hasan. There wasn’t much of a ceremony. She fixed her hair, and put on a rented dress, before leaving her parent’s home for the shelter in which we meet. It is decorated in soft pinks and purples for the newlyweds.

Getting married at this age is traditional in Syria, Hasan says. Before the conflict, 13 per cent of Syrian women aged 20 to 25 were married before their 18th birthday. NGOs report that child marriage (below the age of 18) is on the increase in refugee communities. In Jordan, between 2011 and 2014, it rose from 12 per cent of all registered marriages to 32 per cent. Some families believe this is the best way to protect their daughters from sexual violence, while transferring the cost of caring for them to another family.

Fatme concedes that, in Syria, which she left in her first year of secondary education, she would have waited until her 20s to get married. She married for “honour and protection,” she explains. “Now I am someone’s responsibility. He is responsible for me, and I am responsible for cooking and cleaning and taking care of the house.”

There is a degree of pride in her answers, this small, pretty, snub-nosed girl now presiding over her own home. “When I got married, I became a woman,” she explains. “When I did not get married, I would still be a girl. If you do not get married and become really, really old, people start talking about you.”

We learn later in the conversation about the degrading time she endured working in a factory packing potatoes, where she was screamed at by supervisors. “Wherever you go you are humiliated,” she says, indignantly. “They call us ‘the Syrians’. They look down on us.”

She stopped working with potatoes as soon as she got engaged.

Both Hasan and Fatme agree that they have no plans to have children at the moment. But the settlement, one of almost 2000 in Lebanon, is home to dozens of them, chasing each other down the central thoroughfare.

Before the war, almo st all Syrian children were enrolled in primary school, and literacy rates were at 95 per cent for 15-24-year-olds. Today, close to three million children are out of school, including about 700,000 displaced in neighbouring countries.

This is no indictment of the host countries. Both Jordan and Lebanon have opened up public schools to Syrian refugee children, deploying a double shift system. Lebanon has vowed to go beyond even the ambitious goal set at the recent London donor conference (education for all refugee children by the end of the 2016-17 school year), with a pledge to extend it to those aged three to five. But it will take more than money to achieve this. The cost of transport, security concerns, and the need for children to work are all obstacles for families, as is the fact that refugee children have often missed years of schooling, and bear the psychological scars of fleeing a war zone.

World Vision is trying to address some of these barriers. In Jordan, it is funding remedial classes, helping Syrian children, alongside their Jordanian peers, to catch up in Arabic, English and maths. In Lebanon, I visit a “Child Friendly Space”, where young children have an opportunity to play, interact and, as one World Vision worker puts it “get the pain out of their hearts”. Each classroom has a Syrian and a Lebanese member of staff. They begin undoing the damage slowly — the children often act violently when they first arrive — establishing rules such as clapping each other when they voice an opinion. The change that results is noticeable. One seven-year-old, Mohammad, was unable to speak at the start of the cycle. By the time he left, he was forming entire sentences. Although he could not keep inside the lines, an exception was made to put his colouring on display —he was unable to even hold a pencil when he arrived. 

Leaving the Bekaa Valley involves a climb back up into the mountains, past a series of checkpoints. The country, roughly half the size of Wales, is now home to 1.5 million Syrians, of whom 70 per cent live below the poverty line. Its generosity is all the more impressive given the two countries’ recent history: a 29-year occupation of Lebanon by Syria ended only in 2005. Demand for public services is outstripping capacity, and social tensions are simmering in a country in which a third of young people are unemployed, and 400,000 Lebanese live below the extreme poverty line. The “legendary ability of Lebanon to defy gravity” must not be taken for granted, the Government warns in its current response plan. It has good cause to be anxious. Despite about $1 billion in contributions, Lebanon’s 2015 appeal to the international community was less than 50 per cent funded.


Madeleine Davies travelled to Jordan and Lebanon with World Vision. For details of the aid agency’s response to the Syrian crisis, visit www.worldvision.org.uk/Syria or phone 01908 841010.

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