The ‘suffocating’ life of Syrian refugees in Lebanon’s tents

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Two Syrian refugee children stand outside a tent erected by the UNHCR in the northeastern Lebanese town of Ersal, December 16, 2013. Al-Akhbar/Haitham Moussawi

By: Eva Shoufi

Published Tuesday, December 2, 2014

In the tents of Syrian refugees, stories abound and tragedies surround them daily. After three years, the tattered canvas of the tents attests to their grief. However, in each tent, there remains room for the laughter of children who have matured too soon. These tents were not set up as a scouting activity. We are not in a camp among friends. But the people here know each other and have become friends in tragedy. With the passage of time, a tent becomes a home and shelter, their only place in this limited world. When rain exhausts the roof of the tents and wind uproots them, the refugees agonize as much as they did over the destruction of their houses in al-Raqqa or Aleppo. “We may have grown accustomed to our tent. Some of us like it, and others still cannot stand it. Do you know how the world can become a tent?”

Ali from al-Raqqa, Shawakir camp - Tyre

”Don’t mention Arwa to her”

Yes, my daughter was born in this tent and died in it. You did not get the chance to meet her. If you had met the beautiful Arwa, you would have certainly loved her. I do not have a picture of her. My daughter came into this world and left it without having a single picture taken. The world does not know of her existence in the first place. All of us, we Syrians, have become numbers, numbers that decrease or increase. “Alexa” loved her more than we did, and therefore took her in the madness of the third day of the storm. She was four months at the time, and her frail body could not bear the cold.

We tried. We tried a lot to warm her up. I begged for a good cover to protect her from the heavy showers, and a small blanket to prevent the cold from seeping into her body. No one cared. On the third day, I rushed her to the nearest hospital. The cold had seeped into her veins. After examining her, they told me that she wasn’t sick, but that her lungs collapsed because of the cold. Half an hour later, Arwa had died from the cold.

After one week, they brought me covers and blankets. Stay here until the evening when my wife comes back. She can tell you about our lives in the tent, but do not mention Arwa to her. My wife heads out at five in the morning to go work in a nearby field. I could not find a job, so I stay at home, care for our children, and make food. She comes back home very tired, and I try as much as possible to help her. She works 10 hours a day in return for 8,000 Lebanese liras ($5.66) so we can feed our children and pay the rent for this tent. Yes, the rent of the tent. I built this tent myself, so did everybody else. Two years ago, it cost me about one million LL ($666.66). I pay $100 a month to the landowner, but he wants to evict us. He alerted us that we have one week to leave, but to where?

Alaa from the Aleppo countryside, al-Ma'liah camp - Tyre

A child to give birth to another child

Alaa smiles shyly and tries to escape with her tiny face. The 14-year-old girl talks about love and marriage. She could be getting married today. She invited us to her wedding which was to be held after Eid al-Adha at no specific date. This girl is going to marry this 21-year-old young man whom she met at the camp. The family finished their breakfast consisting of eggplant, thyme, and oil, “This is what’s available.” Alaa carries away the tray and goes to wash the dishes. “She needs to get used to that as she will become a homemaker.” Everyone sees Alaa as a bride and homemaker, while we see her as a child who complains about having to wash the dishes. The father steps out of the tent, and the session becomes predominantly feminine: the mother, the sister Susan, 16, and Alaa. About a month ago, the Sheikh came to the tent and “arranged the marriage” between Alaa and her future husband. Everyone is excited about the wedding. They will throw a small party for Alaa, which will be attended by the girls at the camp. When the party is over, the girl will go with her ​​husband. They will move to another tent. The mother has completed her child’s “dowry,” which includes a cover, two pillows, and a mattress. The mother cares about her two daughters and loves them. Although she is concerned about them, she does not know that she is thrusting her young daughter into strange fire... or maybe she does. All of them, the mother and the girl, rely on God, who they believe will facilitate their affairs.

“This is my fate,” says Alaa. The little girl is going to get married and transition to the adult world. Years from now, images of adults who create wars, kill children, and marry off young girls will be shaped in Alaa’s imagination. If the war has destroyed Syria, ignorance and destitution have stolen the dreams of children and created distorted, sad, and hateful dreams.

Um Abdo from al-Raqqa, Shawakir camp - Tyre

They are still young

We entered the tent of Um Abdo before she returned from work. Lamis was dressing 4-year-old Rana with clean clothes and asked 10-year-old Adhari to get her brothers from outside. The beautiful Lamis is a child who suddenly found herself responsible for her family in the absence of her mother and father. The polite 13-year-old girl welcomed us with a gentle smile, while her hair was pulled away from her face. I brought chairs for the strange guests who stormed the tent. The girl had just finished cleaning the big tent: three rooms, a small kitchen with a place to shower next to it, and a yard fenced with reeds to prevent strangers from peeking in. Pink curtains cover the gray interior canvas. A half meter tall solid net surrounds the tent’s “walls” and separates it from the ground to allow air inside. “Abu Abdo” also covered the tent’s roof with carton boards to ease the stifling summer heat. The ground is laid with concrete and covered with clean carpets. The tent has become a desirable place to live in due to its beauty, order, and elegance. The family learned these “tent techniques” with time, and Um Abdo has had a major role in the decoration.

The mother, in her 30s, returns from work accompanied by her elder daughters, raising the number of persons inside the tent to 16 – in the absence of Abu Abdo and his second wife. The cost of the tent is 1.5 million LL ($1,000), in addition to the monthly rent of $200 because it is a larger tent. The family comes from al-Raqqa and was financially stable back in Syria. All the children were in school. They had big ambitions: one wanted to become a doctor, another a lawyer, and another an engineer. These ambitions were shattered before they matured. None of them are in school today. Um Abdo fears for her daughters, so she forbids them from leaving the tent. She placed the bathroom – which was supplied by international organizations – inside the tent so they would not have to venture outside. Some of them give her a scare and go out during her absence. She even forbids her 15-year-old son from going outside alone. When he returns from work at night, his employer drops him off at the entrance of the camp where his father waits for him. The mother fears for her daughters from any harassment they may experience. She is also concerned that her son may be subjected to racist taunts. Their only outlet to breathe outside the tent’s canvas was the sea, but they were deprived of that too.

“The decision to impose curfews, threats of assault, and accusations of us belonging to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)... all of these prompted us to refrain from going out. The children are suffocating here, but what can we do?” Um Abdo asks sadly.

She refuses to marry her daughters because they are “still young.” She points to her 19-year-old daughter. “My daughter joins a [non-profit] organization weekly to give lectures on the dangers of early marriage and sexual harassment.” One of her daughters, 11-years-old, interrupts her, saying: “When we go back to al-Raqqa, we will continue our education and then get married.”

The family does not know what happened to their house in al-Raqqa. “No one is allowed to talk about the situation there. When we contact our relatives, all they say is that the situation is good. When we ask them about our house, they don’t reply,” Lamis says.

Dalal from the Aleppo countryside, al-Ma'liah camp – Tyre

Sadness on Dalal’s face

With time, living in a strange tent takes its toll. Some have gotten used to it, while others reject it. Have you ever asked yourselves how refugees spend years of their life inside tents? Dalal wakes up at five in the morning, regardless of whether or not she has work. The noise at the camp leaves no room for sleep. She has developed wrinkles that have made her look 10 years older, a reflection of the sadness on the faces of the people there. The woman in her 30s sits in a corner of the tent, which is equivalent to a few wooden poles planted in the dirt carrying a canvas on which the UNHCR logo is printed. That’s all that Dalal can afford. It is not possible to sit in the tent for more than five minutes during the summer. Heat trapped inside the nylon canvas raises the temperature inside to more than 35 degrees. Throughout the summer, Dalal slept in the open. She crosses a one-kilometer distance, more than 10 times a day, to fetch drinking water.

“We cannot send the boys because we are next to a highway, so the women go.” She talks with us while busy preparing food. She says mockingly: “Rice. Rice is cheap and filling. It would do with some tomatoes or potatoes.”

The refugees agree that rice has been their main daily food during the past years. Outside the camp, avocados can be seen scattered on the ground, but no one touches them for fear of being accused of theft. Ramadan enters into the tent to take part in the conversations. He is the guide of the camp. He is a kind man in his 40s and knows everybody. Ramadan arrived to Tyre nine months ago. Before that, he was in the Bekaa but he fled the racist practices there, which he refuses to talk about.

“I left Syria to avoid carrying a weapon, and so I would not have to kill my fellow countrymen regardless of their affiliation. We fled the violence and did not come here to cause problems. So we preferred to move to Tyre.”

All women work in agriculture. An “agent” provides jobs for them in exchange for 2,000 LL ($1.33) for each person. The agent distributes the jobs “fairly” among the families in the camp. Women work more than 8 hours per day in return for 8,000 Lebanese liras, which seems to have become the standard fee in Tyre. Everyone who enters Dalal’s tent is served coffee. If a “bothersome” guest refuses to have coffee in an attempt to save the hosts money, the incident takes a racial dimension. “Is it because we’re refugees that you refuse to have coffee at our place?” The tent owners may be right about their casual objection.

The refugees hate winter. Winter in a tent fixed in the soil can be fatal. A scene of destruction: collapsing tents, crawling dirt, deep cold seeping into the body, wet blankets, and rampant diseases. In the winter, Dalal places several mattresses on top of each other to avoid getting wet. She sets fire to a “pot” full of timber outside until it turns to embers, which she later brings into the tent to warm it up. She repeats this motion throughout the day.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


Very poignant and absolutely tragic.

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