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The forgotten refugees

Martin Jay, Zahle, eastern Lebanon
February 3, 2016

As London prepares to wrangle with funding questions, Syrian refugees in Lebanon burn their shoes to stay warm. Martin Jay reports from Zahle refugee camp.

Image: DW/M. Jay

"I can't really think about my dream, which was to be a teacher. ... Now all I can think about is if my family is going to come back and I will ever see them," says Maynayer, a 15-year-old girl who has been burdened with the task of being the head of a household since her mother left the camp to briefly return to Syria.

But now the mother is stuck there leaving her daughter to take care of three brothers in a tent that has no furniture whatsoever save a tiny television in a corner and a makeshift kitchen. In the same room as the television is a wood-burning stove, but there is no sign of firewood.

"I know my mother is trapped now in Syria. All I can think about is if she will come back," Maynayer tells DW. "All I want is my mum, for us to go to the souk (market) together."

It's a moving story compounded by the surroundings of where Maynayer is and how she lives. She and a handful of other families defy all logic and survive on $100 (92 euros) a month for food, rent, electricity and water in Zahle, eastern Lebanon, in a refugee camp so ghastly that local NGO workers only gave it a number rather than grace it with a name.

And it is not hard to see why.

The camp itself is a redundant scrub of agricultural land that skirts the industrial zone of the town and is populated by Syrian refugees who, according to one NGO, are living well below a "dignity" line. The 27 families who live here cling to the remnants of a life, burning whatever they can to keep warm in tents perched on earth floors with no running water or sanitation.

The snow might have melted, but the money these Syrian refugees need to heat their homes is spent on rent and food. In Lebanon, refugees pay for everything they consume - even the polluted air which fills their lungs. Remarkably, most simply live off a $21-per head, per-month food allowance.

'It's too sad'

The UN helps with cash handouts, but it just isn't enough and now many are getting chest infections from burning plastic in their stoves to fight the cold.

shoes in sand copyright: Martin Jay
Out of sheer desperation to stay warm, many refugees are gathering and burning their shoesImage: DW/M. Jay

"They are stealing each others shoes at night and burning them just to stay warm," a young aid worker tells DW as we view the camp from a rooftop. "It's too sad," she adds. "We never thought it would come to this."

Clearly, the one-off payment of $40 per child to help with heating fuel was unrealistic. Even in Beirut, the UNICEF boss is disturbed by the plastic burning and, although she avoids the word 'crisis,' she admits that the refugees in Lebanon are victims of a funding problem.

"There is insufficient funds, absolutely," Tanya Chapuisat told DW. "There has been however an uplift in recent months due to the European migration ... so there is money coming into the country, but ultimately it's not reaching the levels that it has to."

The price of dignity?

Maria Assi, an NGO worker from Beyond Association, believes that even what the UN is asking for in 2016 - over $8 billion - is the "minimum." She believes that families need $300 per month minimum to live in dignity.

"In most of the cases here you don't have a full family, like father, mother and children," she explains. "The real need is more than what the UN is asking. Maybe the UN is asking for the minimum but we know for the kids, if things continue like this then maybe malnutrition will happen and health conditions too."

children playing copyright: Martin Jay
Children are most vulnerable to the squalid conditionsImage: DW/M. Jay

But it's already happening. Just next to Maynayer's 'house,' three old women have set up their living quarters. They didn't qualify for the fuel allowance. All three claim they have infected lungs from burning plastic in their homes. Older women now belong to the list of vulnerable groups such as children and adolescents in a battle which some warn is edging perilously close to an abyss.

'People losing hope'

Some hint that if extreme poverty continues here, young men like Maynayer's brothers might join the ranks of opposition fighters as downright depression enters the lexicon of Lebanon's aid workers.

"From our field visits, the tension is always getting higher and people are getting more desperate," George Antoun, country director of MercyCorps, explains. "And this is why people are losing hope and trying to find any way to get out of this desperate situation."

But it wasn't hard finding young men in the area who were candid about their own despair - leaving many to wonder if the trauma of the war they fled in neighboring Syria is now going to be trumped by the effects of long-term poverty as a refugee in Lebanon.

In the same area, one camp is made up of refugees who escaped a Damascus suburb when it was targeted with chemical weapons in 2013. A cruel irony has left them now inhaling toxic fumes in their houses as they too are burning plastic to keep warm. It didn't take long for one of them to talk of joining the war in Syria, just a few kilometers away.

"If things continue like this, yes," the man said calmly, pointing to the border with Syria. "What would we lose if we were paid a little money to fight? I certainly would consider it."