Syrian refugees learn to help themselves | Middle East| News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 18.12.2014
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Middle East

Syrian refugees learn to help themselves

As winter approaches making life for the Syrian refugees stuck in Lebanon even more miserable, one aid agency is trying to help by encouraging them to become more self-reliant. Melissa Tabeek reports from Lebanon.

Inside "Shawish," leader, Mohammed's large tent, 12 men sit on the tiled floor covered with long pillows and discuss issues that affect their daily life in a tented settlement in Miniyeh, a city in northern Lebanon. Mohammed is the informal leader of this tented settlement. Today he's joined by Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) staff members who listen to a long list of complaints.

"Bugs." "Malnourished children." "No electricity." "No school." "Have to sell food vouchers to pay rent." "No dumpster for the garbage." "No heat." "Not enough aid."

This scene looks and sounds like a typical NGO visit to assess the needs of aid beneficiaries. However, they are not gathered here to express their grievances today to NRC staff, but rather to choose the first two members of a committee that will represent the camp. It is the start of a process to train refugees how to take care of problems like these on their own called the Community Capacity Building Program (CCBP).

Instead of only asking what can they do for refugees, NRC is now asking refugees, what can they do for themselves with the aid provided to them?

Teaching self-reliance

As part of this program, the NRC has facilitated more than 100 refugee committees in informal tented settlements throughout Lebanon, in places such as the Bekaa, Tripoli and Arsal - although due to security issues, they are currently unable to work in Arsal - since January. The members of these groups, usually comprised of 12 individuals, are appointed by their fellow residents and are trained by the NRC in essential aspects of humanitarian work, such as writing reports, stakeholder analysis, how to follow up directly with aid agencies, and the monitoring of services provided to them and their living standards.

group of people Photo: Osie Greenway

Learning to help themselves

"It's called community capacity building because the objective is to capacity build the refugees in self-management, which will then lead to increased dignity and accountability through the participation. So it's participation in the program design, monitoring and also implementation and evaluation. But not just our programming, but general humanitarian programming," Kristin Vestrheim, NRC Camp Management Advisor, told DW.

An important objective of this project is to also use these committees as a feedback mechanism, a crucial part of ensuring that the aid being given is appropriately distributed to those in need.

"Even after two years, they don't know who works there, they don't know who distributes the water, who empties the latrines, who gave them the plastic sheeting, which is so shocking. The shocking part is, why did the agencies not introduce themselves and include the refugees in this service?," Vestrheim said.

"What we want as well is for the committee to ensure that the aid that is appropriate and not decided by some people that sit in Beirut and go, 'This is what a donor is asking us to do so this is what we'll do,'" she said.

An alternative system

The system that currently exists in the settlements is one where the power lies with the Shawish in the settlement, who makes decisions on behalf of his fellow refugees. The Shawish collects rent for the tents, and is the designated negotiator, whether it is with the landowner of the property or aid providers.

NRC wants that process to change, and it is, albeit very slowly. Although the Shawish is invited to participate, these committees are made up of men, women, youth, elderly and people with special needs - voices that are not always heard because in this setting, they have not had the chance to be. According to Vestrheim, these voices are more representative than the Shawish in identifying needs within the settlement. As other organizations utilize and consult refugee committees in their work rather than only the Shawish - something NRC is actively advocating for - refugees have a chance to be represented and have an ability to take an active role in the aid they are provided.

Vestrheim used a recent example of one man in the Bekaa Valley who called an NRC staff member after his first training and was able to get a latrine unblocked because he had the responsible agency's phone number.

Woman standing Photo: Osie Greenway

The NRC initiative has been welcomed by the refugees

"It's so simple. He shouldn't even be excited about this, this is their right," she tells DW.

Harsh weather, obstacles ahead

The winter season in Lebanon has already seen precipitation that has well exceeded last winter's during the same period. More harsh weather is expected. That makes projects that focus on appropriate aid that foster self-reliance all the more important.

"It's extremely important [to facilitate independence for refugees], especially if it improves their lives in the camp, it decreases their dependence on humanitarian aid agencies that for a number of reasons may fall short of reaching them with aid, either because of funding shortfalls or access issues or because sustainability issues or donor fatigue," Dana Sleiman, communications officer at UNHCR, told DW.

UNHCR facilitated the election of seven refugee committees from February to September this year in Arsal, where they were trained in many similar methods to NRC.

In many cases, the refugee committees become crucial for access. They are given phones, telephone numbers and schedules when different organizations visit. During the most recent storm, the settlement DW visited was flooded. The families were moved out overnight and provided with emergency items by Solidarites International during the week they were displaced.

One of the ways success is measured is by an increase in communication between refugees and service providers, something that can be seen on a daily basis by NRC staff in the field.

"It's the whole monitoring of the services and reporting this so they used to call us a lot and now they've moved on to calling the service providers directly. Which is great because at the end of the day we will not be there," Vestrheim said.

Refugee Response

In the first camp DW visited, NRC explained to the refugees how the CCBP works, the benefits for them, and urged them to nominate two men from the group to represent them on the committee.

"We all want to nominate Khudor," one of the men says. Most of the other men quickly agreed, as does Khudor himself, one of the Syrian refugees sitting in the room. He already works in the camp helping families and fixing tents and the position is a natural extension for him.

Some expressed concern about what would happen if organizations take a step back. "But you have to help us, we can't call NGOs on our own, they won't answer our calls. You can't leave us on our own," Abdullah points out.

Hiba Douaihy, NRC Camp Manager Coordinator, explains to them that in the first part of the project, they will be supported and trained before they are left alone.

The men were hopeful about the success and benefits of a committee, encouraged by the help they received most recently when they were flooded. "We're not getting heat, but because of organizations, our tents are getting better equipped."

Old woman Photo: Osie Greenway

At the end of the day, they just want to return home

However, on the second floor of the NRC's community center during an afternoon training of another committee that had been working together for months, the adults were less energetic. In their settlement, they had also been flooded in the winter storms, but unlike Mohammed's settlement, theirs did not have concrete floors or raised tents, and it becomes untenable whenever it rains.

Ahmad Rahhal, 65, lost his four sons, three to prison and one to war. His wife is paralyzed and one of his motivations for joining the committee was to find benefits for them. He is not as hopeful about his future in Lebanon though. When he thinks of the harsh weather, he says he can only think of his homeland.

"We want a storm that's strong enough to throw us back to Syria," he said.

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