“Nobody here is starving, we have enough to eat. But we lack everything else,” Majd describes the living situation in the camps. She is sitting at the desk of her office in the Lebanese town of Chtoura, half-way between Beirut and Damascus. Only ten kilometres separate the town from the Syrian border, on the other side of which the civil war has entered its fifth year. In the background, the sunburnt hillsides of Mount Lebanon can be seen glowing.
A year ago, Majd Chourbaji founded the organisation Women Now in Lebanon in order to provide support to Syrian refugees. Around one million refugees live in the Bekaa in the eastern part of the country alone. As Lebanon tightened entry requirements for Syrian nationals in January 2015 and no longer allows the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) to register them, refugees now depend on support from non-governmental structures more than ever before. Organisations such as Women Now and Sawa for Syria proactively build refugee camps, community centres and schools. A visit to the Bekaa provides important insights.
School at last
“If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands!” a teacher calls into the schoolyard through a loudspeaker. Around 100 children clap their hands. They stand side by side in front of a bright low-rise building which carries a colourfully painted roof. The children stand there beaming. Concentrated they try to understand the English text and the directions to the song. For most of them, school is a welcome distraction from the otherwise dismal life in the camps. This is where they are reminded of a certain degree of normality.
The children of this school in Taalabaya are privileged, given that school attendance is not guaranteed for Syrian children living in Lebanon. A meagre 30 percent of around 400,000 Syrian children attend schools here. On the one hand, authorities are not able to offer enough places, on the other hand, the Lebanese curriculum is very different to its Syrian counterpart. The only language taught in Syrian schools is Arabic, whereas Lebanese schools also teach French and English. Many Syrian children therefore cannot keep up with the pace in Lebanese schools.
The song has ended and the children leave to go back to their classrooms. The school, founded by Women Now, provides education for about 700 pupils who are taught by teachers who themselves fled Syria. There is a small vegetable and fruit patch and a bakery, in which Syrian refugee women bake bread: “That way, the children have something to eat in their lunch break and the women can earn some money by selling the bread to other camps.
Tackling the memories of bombs, goal by goal
“One time, we initiated a project on the topic ‘my memories of Syria’. Many children drew pictures of bombs falling from the sky. That is their last impression of their home. Afterwards, their houses were gone,” Majd explains. Originally, the goal of the project had been to provide the children a sense of identity. Many of them have been here for two, three years – enough time to forget. “If you ask them where they are from, they hesitantly tell you they are from Bar Elias, the Lebanese refugee camp,” says Rouba Mhaissen, head of Syrian organisation Sawa for Syria. Both institutions provide psychosocial support to children and adults alike. This is the place where they can process the traumatic memories of war.
The school in Bar Elias lays special focus on including the entire family. That is why they offer regular classes in the mornings whilst in the afternoons, the doors are opened to all as a community centre. “Families are the social point of reference for people here. The inclusion of men is also important for the women here. They are more likely to allow their wives to participate in programmes if they themselves are actively involved,” Rouba explains.
For this reason, a football team was organised which meets up on a daily basis. “Football helps the men defuse aggression and frustration.” Given that violence within families in times of crisis is a known problem, organisations offer specialised courses on gender-specific violence. In the meantime, the children are familiarised with rhythm and tact in music groups or partake in puppet theatres. Around 15 children between the ages of six and eight are sitting on the floor in one of the rooms. They are excited to show us what they have learned. A little boy curiously peeks through the window. A young woman is hiding behind a turned-over table and animates the puppets for the children. She brings a small hand puppet lady to life. “Sabah al-kheir,” she greets the children whose attention seems to be more directed towards us visitors rather than the puppets. Nonetheless, they all chant “Sabah al-noor”.
Both centres invite mothers to participate in language and sewing classes and teach them how to use computers. “That is very important for women, especially because it allows them to stay in contact with their relatives in Syria via social media such as Facebook and Skype,” Majd points out. Amidst the handling of problems in the here and now, Woman Now is thinking a step ahead, of what is still to come: a phase of reconstruction. The organisation therefore offers courses in AutoCAD software which is used by architects and engineers and which will be useful in the reconstruction of Syria’s cities and infrastructure someday.
Back to Syria?
There are numerous day-to-day problems, in view of the increased barriers Lebanese authorities are establishing. “Everything is an issue here. If you have a child, that’s an issue. If you die, that is also a problem,” Majd summarizes while telling us about situations in which authorities have refused to register newborns and about the struggle to find a cemetery which accommodates Syrians. When a relative of hers passed away, the family was forced to search for two days. “Just for keeping her in the cold chamber of the morgue we were charged 100 dollar a day. We pleaded with them and explained that we really have no money, and they reduced the price to 50 dollar.”
The camps resemble slums, with the sheds protected by plastic tarps and lined with cardboard and foil, and are not officially refugee camps but are merely tolerated by the government. Landowners charge a refugee family up to 100 dollar for rent a month. Upon payment, the family is permitted to set up their tent on the private land. For people who have lost everything, the rent is an enormous burden.
Even the UNHCR is of no help to them. A woman with children who lives in Lebanon without a male head of family receives only 13 dollar per month through the World Food Programme. Only last year, it was still 27 dollar. Since then, the amount has diminished due to the financial shortfall in the UN budget for the crisis in Syria. A symbolic amount, rather than actual support. “Some women are pushed into prostitution,” Majd tells us. She explains that this is a sensitive issue and off-limits in conversations. Majd adds that in many cases, children are sent out to support their families. “Some return to Syria. ‘Rather the bombs than life here,’ they say.”
Continuing for those who have died for the revolution
Majd knows what she is talking about. She herself followed the dream of a better Syria in 2011, and is an active member of anti-corruption campaigns in her home town of Daraya at the periphery of Damascus. The town is known for its creative and explicitly peaceful protests. Due to her political activities and the possession of a suspicious book, she was arrested by security forces at a regime checkpoint in December 2013. When her concerned husband asked about his wife’s fate at the same checkpoint, he was also arrested. Both of them were taken to the interrogation centres of the air force secret service. While Majd was transferred to the prison in Adra, her mother took care of her three children. There was no trial. After seven months, she was freed during a prisoner exchange. Her husband remained in Assad’s torture prisons. Again and again, she tried to find out where he was located and demanded information. In August 2014, she received a document together with her husband’s valuables. She was told he had died under torture, in the air force interrogation centre on January 28. “They murder a person and all they send me is his wedding ring. And then they want confirmation of receipt,” Majd says in a calm tone. Speechlessness is all that remains.
For some time, Majd has been receiving massive threats from strangers. That has not stopped her work, but she fears for her children. She is even considering sending them abroad. “That is not an easy decision for me to make but it would be safer for them and they would be able to attend school.” Her oldest child is only 11 years old. “I hope they will not reproach me with this decision someday, when everything has been reduced to rubble and the traces of the Syrian revolution have become faint and they ask: Mum, where were you?”
Majd’s gaze wanders over to the mountains which conceal the view of her home country. “We no longer dream. We feel neither joy nor sadness, just numbness,” she then says. Many aid agencies have left Lebanon and have moved to Turkey in order to help there, as it is easier for them to register and work there. “But we cannot all leave and abandon the people here.”
Majd is staying. “I will continue, for everyone who died in the struggle for a free and democratic system in Syria.”