Syrian Refugees in Lebanon: Mixed Welcome in Akkar

An elderly Syrian (C) receives the iftar meal (the breaking of fast) as aid for Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, during the holy month of Ramadan in the north Lebanese town of Wadi Khaled, 25 July 2012. (Photo: Reuters - Roula Naeimeh)

By: Robert Abdallah

Published Thursday, July 26, 2012

It has been one year and four months since the crisis in Syria began. From the outset, the inflow of refugees has been an issue in the northern Lebanese district of Akkar, adding to the burdens of its already deprived and neglected inhabitants.

Some Lebanese villagers living near the border have also moved to safer locations, says Saoud Saqr, mukhtar (civil representative) of the border village of Qashlaq. “They couldn’t sleep at night from the sound of the shells falling around the village,” he says. So they went to stay with relatives or rented places in villages further away, such as Halba or Talabas. “Regrettably, we were not given any words of assurance by any authority,” he remarks. “So who are we supposed to complain to?”

Many border villages that were ignored for decades by the Lebanese state have become well-known names thanks to the daily news bulletins: al-Noura, al-Dababieh and Qashlaq leading up to the Wadi Khaled valley, and other forgotten places like Bani Sakhr and Awadeh. The same goes for similar villages on the Syrian side, such as Hallat, Awaishat and al-Hosn, and larger ones like Tal Kalakh and al-Qusair.

All of a sudden, the routes linking these villages became strewn with mines and guarded by tanks, in a bid to create a barrier between the “one people in two countries.”

There are deeply divergent opinions over the number of displaced Syrians in Akkar and North Lebanon. Supporters of the Syrian regime deem the true refugees to be in the hundreds – the others are just visiting relatives or friends in Lebanon. The regime opponents speak of 50,000 and more, apparently counting the Syrian migrant workers who they used to consider a burden on the Lebanese economy.

Lebanese state agencies seem confused too. According to George Ayda, director of the Akkar social affairs department, there are between 18,000 and 20,000 displaced Syrians in Akkar. But he adds a crucial proviso: this is only the number of registered refugees, yet “ there are refugees who are not registered, and registered people who are not refugees.” Estimates of the actual figure remain elusive.

Refugees first began arriving in Wadi Khaled in small numbers in the middle of March last year, according to Social Affairs Ministry records. These were mainly families that came to stay with relatives, often going back after a few days.

The first big influx was in mid-May, when some 5,000 people fled from Tal Kalakh. They were provided with assistance by the Social Affairs Ministry in conjunction with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The ministry formed a 27-member group, including social workers and psychologists, who were given special training to see to refugees’ needs, and teams were set up to take charge of their reception at two centers. Each team included representatives of the ministry, the Higher Relief Council (HRC) and the UNHCR, and worked with local mukhtars and mayors. The ministry took on the task of counting and registering the refugees, and providing them with initial counselling and healthcare at its 19 local centers in Akkar. The UNHCR undertook to distribute food supplies.

After the Education Ministry gave its approval, refugees were allowed to send their children to local state schools. The number of students enrolled was 345, and the UNHCR paid their registration fees and the cost of their books and stationery. UNICEF is meanwhile planning to pay for the education of 1,200 refugee children next year.

That is the theory. In practice, the treatment accorded to displaced Syrians has varied.

Mustafa al-Raju, mukhtar of the Wadi Khaled village of al-Majdal, applauds the help provided by the UNHCR and various charities to the refugees, adding that an additional 150 families have arrived in Wadi Khaled in the past few days.

But in Akroum, the head of the local private secondary school, Ali Asbar, says there are refugee families who have been going short of essentials, and he has had to provide supplies at his own expense, or with the assistance of a local charity of which he is a member. He says that at the start of Ramadan, there were 60 Syrian families in the village and a total of 130 in the immediate vicinity. While he admitted two Syrian children to his school last year “with nobody to cover the cost,” he wonders how he’ll cope with much larger numbers next academic year.

Qashlaq’s mukhtar charges that aid donated for relief purposes gets misappropriated by go-betweens. “They keep three quarters of the aid, and distribute the rest to the refugees,” he says.

In Akkar’s Christian villages, such as Andaqt, locals express conflicting views about the refugees in their midst. Some voice apprehension about the influx, often making allusions to the fact that it is mainly Muslim. Others are sympathetic, noting that the new arrivals are mostly relatives of Syrian workers who have lived locally for years.

In Kobayat, they welcome the few Syrian refugees who have arrived, as they are “our own kind” – i.e. fellow Christians.

Manjaz is hosting is only one family, from the village of Uzair. The mukhtar, Tani Antonios, says they refuse to be considered refugees.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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