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.

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’

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