Lebanese mayor builds ′center′ for refugees | Middle East| News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 05.04.2013
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Middle East

Lebanese mayor builds 'center' for refugees

It's becoming ever more difficult for Syrian refugees to find living space in Lebanon. But the mayor of a Lebanese town has come up with a solution by donating land to build a "welcome center" for the Syrian refugees.

View from within a tent at the Marjayoun welcome center

View from within a tent at the Marjayoun "welcome center"

Syrian Riad Baroudi lives with his wife and two grown sons inside a 16-square-meter (172-square-foot) tent. Thin foam mattresses lie atop a carpet covering the dirt, while a stove sits at the center of the tent.

Baroudi described life there as simple: "We eat breakfast, pray, and speak with our daughters in Syria and the US. Life here is very regulated."

The 35 durable grey tents in three rows house about 20 families, from Aleppo, Hama or Damascus. Although the camp is on municipal property in the town of Marjayoun, it can't be called a "refugee camp," as Lebanon has banned the building of refugee camps in light of the Palestine conflict. Instead, the camp in Marjayoun is a "welcome center."

Stove in tent with carpet and foam mattresses

Riad Baroudi lives with his wife and two grown sons inside a 16-square-meter tent

Best option

Clothes hang out to dry on the tent cords, while children play on the white gravel. Music pours of out one tent, filling the entire grounds. Two men are always present, to take care of any repairs and keep an eye on the entrance.

The town of Marjayoun, with around 20,000 inhabitants, lies in southeastern Lebanon about 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) from the border with Syria. Listening closely from the camp, one can hear muffled explosions in the background.

Baroudi said this prevents him from sleeping, with his thoughts on Syria and his three married daughters living there. But he's happy to be in the Marjayoun camp with the rest of his family, since fleeing at the beginning of February.

His wife, Salwa, said they're doing well compared to other refugees. "We have running water, electricity and gas for cooking. But of course, I miss my homeland," she added.

The Baroudi family originally wanted to rent a room upon arriving to Lebanon. But nothing was available in their budget, of about $150 (117 euros) per month. The region has been flooded by refugees from Syria - at least 150,000, according to the United Nation's refugee agency, the UNHCR. Thousands more unregistered refugees are estimated to be arriving.

Living space, including group housing, is not available under $300 to $400 (235 to 312 euros). That reaches far beyond the means of refugees like the Baroudis.

Row of canvas tents at the Marjayoun welcome center

The 35 tents in three rows house about 20 families, from Aleppo, Hama and Damascus

Municipal initiative

It's hard to not notice the refugees, who are all over the villages and fields in the region. Many live in huts they've built out of sheets of plastic and leftover fabric. The refugees in Marjayoun are far better off, in comparison.

Raid Baroudi had heard about Marjayoun before arriving there. "We knew of a mayor here who cared about our fate," he said.

Marjayoun Mayor Imad Shmouri took action on the issue after seeing how it affected the town. "We couldn't just leave the people out on the streets," he said. After witnessing the flood of refugees and investigating other alternatives, Shmouri decided to erect tents on municipal property. "It's like a town within a town," he said.

Center, not camp

A large white sign marks the entrance to the camp, including its official name: Welcome Center for Syrian Refugees. Flags of supporting countries Syria and Saudi Arabia are also depicted, along with logos of Egyptian non-governmental organizations.

Use of the term "welcome center" is deliberate, as "refugee camp" is taboo in Lebanon. Even though it is essentially a refugee camp, Marjayoun is not allowed to call it that - "The Lebanese government has established a clear mandate to not build any camps," Mayor Imad Shmouri said. "So we called this encampment a center."

The term "refugee camp" has been associated for decades with existing camps for Palestinian refugees. Since there's no long-term solution for the Palestine problem in sight, the Lebanese government has become unwilling to build new refugee camps.

Children play on gravel next to tents and large white sign

The region has been flooded by refugees from Syria - at least 150,000, according to the UNHCR

More centers needed

As is the case in this region, capacity to receive refugees here has already been reached. UNHCR representative Ninette Kelly sees an urgent need for further transit centers built after the Marjayoun model.

Transit sites could work at least as "temporary spot where people can come initially and get accommodation that we know meets their basic needs, until we can find more appropriate accommodation elsewhere," Kelly said, adding that at least two such centers are needed, particularly in the Beqaa Valley of northeast Lebanon.

"But now a political decision has to be made as to whether or not to move forward on the construction of transit facilities," Kelly added. Yet after the collapse of the Lebanese government in March, it's not likely that a renewed push for the construction of such transit centers will take place.

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