The Difference Between Heaven and Hell

September 24, 2013
Originally published in: Huffington Post
Written by Crystal Wells, Senior Communications Officer, Concern Worldwide

With thousands of refugees arriving in Lebanon each day and large camps with winter-proof shelters not an option, humanitarian organizations, including Concern Worldwide, are working to get what unused buildings they can find in habitable condition.

NOTE: The names in this report have been changed to protect the identity of the people interviewed.

The first bomb fell just after 10 pm.

“We were gathering outside and suddenly, a big bomb came from behind,” says Mohamad, 45. “It was very close, no more than 20 or 30 meters.”

Mohamad, his wife, Sara, 37, and nine other families, all Syrian refugees, crowded together, pressed against the cement back wall of their home. Another bomb followed, and then another, until approximately 2 am. “It burned the whole mountain behind us,” says Josianne, 35, a mother of 10 who lives beside Mohamad and Sara. “The kids started crying and we went to hide.”

Six bombs fell in total around the small village of Fraidis, barely a mile from the Syrian border, and its former school, which is now home to 10 Syrian families. After losing loved ones and homes, and braving bullets and bombs, those living in the old school feel they are being targeted and are terrified each night that the shelling will come again.

“Sara is always afraid,” says Mohamad. “[When she hears a bomb], she drops to the ground and screams.”

The memories of what she witnessed, what she lost, are still fresh in her eyes. Their home destroyed, their cousins killed, Sara and Mohamad had no choice but to leaveSyria. Sara left first, eventually traveling to Beirut to stay with family.

For the next four to five weeks, Mohamad moved from neighborhood to neighborhood to avoid the heaviest combat as best he could. He eventually got caught under heavy bombing for 22 days before getting in a car with other Syrian men headed for the Lebanese border. “Traveling together reduced costs and the risk of kidnapping,” Mohamad says. “We said we were day laborers [to cross into Lebanon].”

Mohamad and Sara eventually reunited in Akkar, the poorest and northernmost district of Lebanon. They tried at first to stay with Sara’s sister, but with 12 children to care for and her husband jailed in Syria, she was struggling to cope, and Mohamad and Sara decided it was best to find their own accommodation. Work is hard, if not impossible to come by here, so their best option was to move into a one-room wooden shelter behind the former school at the top of a hill just over a river that divides Lebanon from the war-battered country they left behind.

With few shelter options available in Lebanon, Mohamad, Sara and their neighbors give us a glimpse into what many Syrian families face when they arrive here. Most cross the border with what few possessions they can carry. Unlike Jordan and Turkey, two of the other countries shouldering a high number of Syrians, large formal camps are not allowed by the government, despite the fact that Lebanon has absorbed the most refugees (728,000) since the conflict began in March 2011.

The limited shelter options, coupled with dwindling savings, have forced many Syrian families to take what they can find. Some are gathering in what are called “informal tented settlements,” on open land, with rent as high as $20 a month, while others are renting garages. Others, like Mohamad and Sara, are living with other refugee families in vacant buildings.

With thousands of refugees arriving in Lebanon each day and large camps with winter-proof shelters not an option, humanitarian organizations, including Concern Worldwide, are working to get what unused buildings they can find in habitable condition. The work is complicated by the need to negotiate rent terms with individual landlords and varying construction requirements, but in an environment where it is impossible to accommodate a large number of refugees at one time, it is currently the most practical solution to get families into homes away from shelling-range at the border and before the winter settles in.

Concern, with support from UNHCR, is working to rehabilitate five large concrete buildings into multi-family shelters scattered across a hillside near Halba, the capital of Akkar district. Once complete, the new collective centers will house 150 families, or some 750 people. The five buildings will just scratch the surface of the shelter needs in Akkar, the cross-border shelling near Fraidis clearly illustrates that more safe and rent-free options have to be made available — and quickly.

One week after the attack, many of the families at Fraidis have found alternative housing. Some are moving to a collective center away from the border, while Josianne, her husband and 10 children plan to move to a two-room space for $200 a month. Mohamad and Sara remain in limbo in their single-room, wooden shelter behind the back wall of the school — the same place they all huddled together and hid from the bombing one week earlier.

With their home in Syria in ruins and unsure where to go next, for Sara, the contrast between what life was in Syria and is today in Lebanon is stark. “We were very happy in Syria. We had a big house — three rooms for two people,” she says. “We now live in one room. We had enough money to live, to buy what we want when we wanted.”

“The difference is between heaven and hell.”

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