Over 200,000 Syrians are fleeing their country each and every month to seek refuge in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. We marked World Refugee Day just last week, and on that occasion Fr Simon Faddoul, President of Caritas Lebanon, a partner organization of Development and Peace, provided an alarming assessment of the plight of the Syrian refugees who are arriving in Lebanon daily in ever increasing numbers.
How many Syrian refugees are there in Lebanon and what sorts of conditions are they living under?
There are nearly 530,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and over one million according to the Lebanese government, which includes the refugees who arrived before the onset of the conflict. Whatever the case may be, the number of refugees is increasing alarmingly, and the needs of the refugee populations are also increasing while resources continue to dwindle. In spite of our efforts, we are unable to meet all the needs of these people, who are living in extreme distress.
The most fortunate refugees manage to rent apartments, while the rest settle on parcels of land and build makeshift shelters. As many as 10 family members may be found under a single tent, and sometimes people set up outside on the ground! They live from hand to mouth in very difficult conditions, without kitchens, running water, or basic health facilities.
What are the refugees’ most pressing needs?
Given the continual influx of Syrian refugees into the country, the needs are very significant indeed. There are disabled children lacking access to assistance and people suffering from chronic illnesses who can’t manage to acquire the medicines they need. Some refugees are selling the food packages they receive to buy medicines and other basic items.
Moreover, the refugees live in terribly overcrowded conditions, and there is no way to isolate the sick, thus exacerbating the risk of infection. As such, we see all sorts of long-forgotten illnesses and epidemics emerging, such as tuberculosis and scabies. There is also a looming risk of cholera due to poor sanitary conditions.
What is Caritas Lebanon’s role in response to this situation?
Caritas Lebanon’s tasks include distributing food and hygiene items, mattresses, blankets, clothing, and goods for the children, while also providing psychological support, and in certain cases an allowance to help pay rent.
We are also involved in providing medical assistance, especially through our medical centre and mobile clinics, but only for basic needs, i.e. medical consultations and prescribing and providing drugs and vaccines. We are unfortunately unable to look after chronically ill or extremely needy patients.
There is another problem of great concern for us, involving the children living in the camps, in particular their schooling. Nearly 40% of the refugees are school-age children, and they must be looked after. We are witnessing thousands of traumatized children growing up with absolutely nothing, and we are therefore looking at establishing an informal education project in the camps. But this will be very costly.
How are the Lebanese reacting to the situation?
Lebanon is in an unstable situation, and the living conditions of Lebanese families are deteriorating a little bit more every day. They are affected by drastically rising costs for basic items and housing. Receiving refugees represents an extra burden for these families, who sometimes have few resources themselves, and this is why we are trying to support the most destitute families by providing financial assistance to pay the rent. Generally speaking, the influx of refugees has an impact that is at one and the same time economic, social, and security related. Caritas Lebanon must therefore serve as a sort of shock absorber and help the most disadvantaged Lebanese as well as the refugees.
Describe how you’re working with Development and Peace?
We are working hand in hand with Development and Peace to fund and implement projects designed to meet the needs of both refugees and host communities. We took action from the word go on food security, especially with regards to distribution. Then, thanks to funding from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), we were able to intervene at the medical level to assist refugees living outside the camps through our medical centres and by setting up mobile clinics.
What do think the future holds for Syrian refugees in Lebanon?
Right now it’s hard to see any future. There aren’t enough available resources, and needs just continue to grow. We can’t see any end to the suffering, and that’s what makes daily life so very complicated.
What message would you like to send to the Catholic community and to Canada’s Lebanese community?
I would like to send a message of love and peace. We must work and pray for peace; it’s what our region needs most. We’re all brothers and sisters, and we have to put love and reconciliation ahead of everything else. The refugees we receive include Catholics and Muslims, but we welcome them all without distinction. The needs are there for all to see, and everybody has to deal with the suffering. We’re acting today in the name of the Church, and we must continue to do the right thing and reduce the suffering as much as we possibly can.
Development and Peace invites you to act without delay to assist the displaced persons and refugees of the civil war in Syria. Support our emergency assistance efforts in the Middle East today.