Syrian refugee crisis: A country overwhelmed

More than a million displaced people have poured into Lebanon

  • Dec. 3, 2013 2:00 p.m.
Amina Mustafa prepares dinner for her family in the kitchen area of her one-room apartment.

Amina Mustafa prepares dinner for her family in the kitchen area of her one-room apartment.

Abbotsford News editor Andrew Holota was in Jordan and Lebanon with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB) last week, reporting on the Syrian refugee crisis. CFGB is one of the nation’s largest non-governmental aid organizations. It has been funding refugee relief in Jordan and Lebanon since the summer. CFGB is a partnership of 15 churches and church agencies, partnering with a number of NGOs in Jordan and Lebanon, assisting them with funding to deliver aid.

Abbotsford is an important donor community for CFGB, which receives 4-1 Canadian government matching funding and works with other NGOs such as World Renew in Canada and around the world to deliver food aid.

If there is one word that overrides all others in describing Lebanon in relation to the Syrian refugee crisis, it is “overwhelmed.”

Since the civil war began, more than one million refugees have poured into the tiny nation. In the two weeks following Nov. 15, 25,000 refugees entered Lebanon – in just one area.

One-quarter of Lebanon’s population now consists of refugees.

Placing that in perspective, imagine Canada suddenly dealing with eight million displaced people.

Aside from the vast need for humanitarian aid, tremendous pressure is being placed on the Lebanese cities and towns hosting these desperate people. Water, power and sanitation systems are under increasing strain, as are the people of Lebanon, most of whom remember four decades of Syrian occupation which ended less than 10 years ago.

Nevertheless, they endure, and continue to provide support. How long that can continue, however, is a question of increasing importance and concern.

There aren’t many bright lights among the deep shadows cast by the Syrian refugee crisis.

A small school in a district of Beirut is one though. Run by the Lebanese Society of Education and Social Development (LSESD) – which receives funding from World Renew – the school is situated in what  is regarded as Lebanon’s poorest, roughest neighbourhood. Many of its students also receive food aid from Canadian Foodgrains Bank, a faith-based non-governmental organization that sees four-to-one matching funds from the Canada government.

Surrounded by slum housing, the Tahhadi school provides an educational environment for 140 children – a place where they can learn, and play, and laugh; all things distressingly absent for so many kids in this corner of the world. Including a significant percentage of Lebanese students as well as refugees, the school is a rare option for families who cannot enrol their children in public schools, and can’t afford private education.

Yet, a moment’s walk from the school’s gates plunges one into a depth of stunning poverty and deplorable living conditions.

The area is a collection of ramshackle single and multi-story apartment blocks, with the poorest of the occupants on the ground, existing in little more than leaky concrete bunkers, some covered with tattered tin, and connected by filthy dirt alleys where sewage and run-off water trickles. When it rains, the maze is turned into a muddy, soggy mess.

Paying $60US a month for a cement 12×16 room is Amina Mustafa, a quiet, shy woman who won’t allow her photo to be taken. Like so many Syrian refugees, she’s afraid of being associated with a wrong side or faction if and when she and her family return to Syria.

Tears well up after she describes the home she used to have in her home country. It was spacious, and there was room in the yard for her children to play. Now she owns one pan, and cooks meals over a single-burner stove in a kitchen the size of a broom closet, with no running water.

A block over is Leila Chawa, from Nabaa. Her living conditions are even more grim. A concrete box not much more than 25 square metres is home for nine people, including five children. There is no power, although it’s unclear whether the family can’t afford it, or whether the space was simply never wired for electricity. Perhaps both.

The room is surrounded by a warren of others, with laundry strung betwixt and between doorways and open staircases.

The Canadian doctor in charge of a neighbourhood medical clinic run by LSESD says the area is a nightmare for injuries among children. Ragged tin, glass, metal, wire and other objects protrude everywhere. A fall often ends in cuts, which can infect quickly. A variety of skin conditions and head lice are not uncommon.

Refugees from Syria cluster in the Sabra area of Beirut – which became a refuge for another wave of people more than six decades ago. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled to Lebanon in the late 1940s now share their already densely crowded spaces with Syrian refugees in what were first called camps, but are now know as “gatherings.”

The neighbourhoods consist primarily of older apartment buildings which, compared to the shantytown of Hay el-Gharbeh, provide almost reasonable shelter, albeit expensive – upwards of $200 for a one-room bottom floor suite. Consequently, it’s common for an entire extended family to live in one or two rooms, or for multiple families to share tiny apartments, which see three hours of scheduled power outages per day. Along with other infrastructure, demands on Beirut’s power grid is beyond capacity. Evidence of dangerous electrical workarounds between homes is apparent in every poor neighbourhood, with webs of crude wiring festooned between and along outside walls – sometimes running beside jury-rigged water pipes.

At least the refugees are permitted to have a job if they can find it, as compared to Jordan, where it is illegal for them to work.

Relief comes in the form of food vouchers through World Renew with funding from the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. Further assistance is supplied in this area by the Mennonite Central Committee. One of the MCC partnerships is with the Popular Aid for Relief agency in the Palestinian of Beirut, which provides a school for children aged four to six. They engage in activities that allow them to forget for a few hours what has happened to their lives. One of the Lebanese teachers relates how one youngster who keeps saying all he wants is his toy which he left behind in Syria. When some of them draw pictures, they draw weapons.

One Syrian boy can describe how many snipers there were in his neighbourhood. His father, whose wife died in childbirth, now lives alone with his young son in Beirut.

He says he is preparing his boy to become “a very important person.”



For more information on the CFGB visit

For more information on World Renew visit

Previous articles in the series on the Syrian refugee crisis

Christianity a motivating force behind aid effort

Life among the stones

Selling a child to feed a family

‘They shoot them all – in front of their mothers’

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The speculation and vacancy tax declaration must be filled out by the end of March. (Black Press Media files)
SVT declaration packages en route to homeowners in Langley

A penalty will apply to those, not exempted, who don’t pay by due date

oOties mini donuts served fresh treats at the grand opening of Lantern Park in Aldergrove last fall. (Special to the Aldergrove Star)
Free oOties mini donuts for Aldergrove residents on Valentines Day

Joti Steeves and the VIP team will bring in the food truck between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Feb. 14

R.E. Mountain Secondary School parent volunteer Lorraine Baldwin and her daughter Jessica visiting the Thompson Rivers University campus in the fall. Jessica is a Grade 12 student at R.E. Mountain Secondary.
Online fundraiser aims to create memorable grad year for Langley students

R.E. Mountain Secondary School targets $10,000 goal for Grade 12 dry grad

The new facility in construction a few months ago. (Critter Care/Special to the Langley Advance Times)
Critter Care expands raccoon and skunk care centre

The Langley wildlife care centre takes in injured and orphaned animals

Crews with Discovery Channel film as an Aggressive Towing driver moves a Grumman S2F Tracker aircraft around a 90-degree turn from its compound and onto the road on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021. It was the “most difficult” part of the move for the airplane, one organizer said. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
VIDEO: Vintage military plane gets towed from Chilliwack to Greater Victoria

Grumman CP-121 Tracker’s eventual home the British Columbia Aviation Museum on Vancouver Island

The Independent Investigations Office of BC (IIO) is looking into the death of man discovered Jan. 11 in east Maple Ridge. (Black Press files)
B.C.’s police watchdog investigating man’s death in Maple Ridge

Man was found dead Jan. 11 after recent contact with police

Chilliwack Law Courts. (Black Press file)
Man sentenced to 20 months for sexual offences involving a minor in Mission

Will Laws Clark was 22 and victim was 13 at time offences began

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Rolling seven-day average of cases by B.C. health authority to Jan. 21. Fraser Health in purple, Vancouver Coastal red, Interior Health orange, Northern Health green and Vancouver Island blue. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
2nd COVID vaccine doses on hold as B.C. delivery delayed again

New COVID-19 cases slowing in Fraser Health region

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry talk about the next steps in B.C.’s COVID-19 Immunization Plan during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, January 22, 2021. Two more cases of the COVID-19 strain first identified in South Africa have been diagnosed in British Columbia, bringing the total to three as of Jan. 16.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. now has three cases of South African COVID-19 variant, six of U.K. strain

Both variants are thought to spread faster than earlier strains

Rodney and Ekaterina Baker in an undated photo from social media. The couple has been ticketed and charged under the Yukon’s <em>Civil Emergency Measures Act</em> for breaking isolation requirements in order to sneak into a vaccine clinic and receive Moderna vaccine doses in Beaver Creek. (Facebook/Submitted)
Great Canadian Gaming CEO resigns after being accused of sneaking into Yukon for vaccine

Rod Baker and Ekaterina Baker were charged with two CEMA violations each

Police discovered a makeshift nightclub in a Vancouver apartment on Jan. 23, 2021, and say it wasn’t the first time this month officers have been called to the unit over social gathering concerns. (Phil McLachlan - Capital News)
Doorman of makeshift ‘booze-can’ in Vancouver apartment fined; police look to court order

This marks the fourth complaint about social gatherings inside the apartment in January

A Kelowna couple welcomed their Nooner baby in December. (Flytographer)
Kelowna couple welcomes baby girl from Hotel Zed Nooner campaign

Nicole and Alex will now have 18 years of free stays at the hotel

Most Read