Friday afternoon, beginning of June, in Daouk 'gathering', Beirut−a kind of neighbourhood which is all poverty and overcrowding, home to Palestinian and poor Lebanese families, and increasingly, to Syrian refugees.
You meet Yasmin*, an 11-year-old girl, who in quiet words informs you: "My father has been kidnapped about a year ago. We heard that he was tortured.... then that he was killed." It sounds so shocking that you almost don't want to hear it. You stare at her beautiful face, bright eyes, her hands resting on her chest, holding on to a necklace adorned by a plastic flower.
Photo: Yasmin, second left with her siblings, half-open suitcases in the corner of the room.
She lives with her three siblings, her mother, another widow called Nada and her daughter. They are all Syrian refugees. Her mum is away, working, and you pick up the story from Nada.
They fled to Beirut four months ago. For three months they found shelter in a mosque. It was overcrowded, hot, and Nada shyly recalls having to wait for long hours in a queue to go to the toilet.
Bad as the conditions were in the mosque, they had a free roof over their heads, but after three months, they've got evicted. Now they are here-in a two-room apartment, with tall, empty walls and a few matrasses lining the walls, half-open suitcases tucked in the corners. Her words echoes what you've been hearing all week form refugees living in urban areas: "I earn $100/month cleaning houses. Yasmin's mother earns about the same. How can we live on this when our rent alone is $400/month?" she says it not so much as a question but as a cry for help. Since in Beirut, she received food assistance once.
Nada speaks fast as if to air all her grievances, as if she's been waiting all along for you to come and hear her out, straining herself to smile from time to time. The four girls─Nada's daughter is out─stand around and listen until Yasmin punctures a moment of silence with the recollection of her father.
Later you walk out and the white air of the hot day instantly envelops you. It drains your energy, numbs your heavy heart for the moment. You try to just focus on getting to your next destination.
You arrive in a room with ten women, seated in a semi-circle, some with their children sitting at their feet, more women standing in the doorway.
They are also Syrian refugees. When did they flee to Lebanon? Eight months ago...two and a half months ago...one month ago.....14 days ago come the answers.
"People keep coming. Every day. But it's becoming harder. It costs more and it's getting riskier," adds one woman.
"When I arrived, I felt isolated, I didn't know anyone. Now there are so many Syrians here. It feels like a Syria away from home," says one of the women; she's been here the longest.
"Our home in Syria got bombed. We saw it with our eyes. That's when we decided it was time for us to leave...But, in Syria, life was much cheaper. Here we can't even afford basic things," says Amina who arrived two and a half months ago. The others nod.
A visibly unwell and distressed Hasnaa, a 25-year-old widow with two children, came 14 days ago, after her husband was killed in clashes, she says. She has a sister here and she is staying with her and her family. Her 6-year-old son Ali* is stretched on the floor at her feet; he is restless and rubs his red, swollen eyes every few minutes. "The children can't sleep. They are afraid all the time....I am too," she adds.
The other women chip in. Those who have been here longer need help to cope with high rental, living and medical costs. They have husbands or children who have been sick, and they can't pay for medication or health care. They struggle to find work. Those who have arrived recently, well, they need everything, says simply a woman on the right hand side. They need food, clothing, mattresses, shelter. Everything.
Photo: whilst 60% of Syrian refugees live in rental accommodation in Lebanon, about 30% are forced to live in informal camps, unfinished houses, derelict buildings, such as this family.
As you listen to them, your eyes turn back to Ali. He is sitting in the centre of the room now. He seems to be singing. You ask the translator what is the song about. Everyone stops to listen. "You're a criminal...You're a coward....You killed my father...You killed my father," comes the translation.
Silence falls over the room, the doorway area as the boy repeats: "You killed my father".
The air is filled with despair, defeat, sadness. Then tears, cries. Coming from the floor, from the chairs, the doorway. Long minutes pass. Minutes that will stay with you for ever.
You keep thinking to yourself--you're surrounded by women and children who have seen their homes destroyed, their near and dear ones killed. They fled in search for safety. They might be physically safe now, but what about their souls? They need basic things so that they can carry on living. They need healing so that in some corner of their hearts they can carry on hoping. They are part of a shockingly large and often impersonal number−part of about half a million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and over a million and a half in Syria's neighbouring countries. They are trapped in what is the largest humanitarian crisis to date, and what seems like the dead end of history, with only the future to fully judge and find appropriate measures for.
NOTE: CARE Lebanon plans to support urban refugees and host families in Beirut and Mount Lebanon--which hosts over 90,000 refugees--to meet their most basic and pressing needs, including access to information and services; shelter; livelihood opportunities; and psycho-social support.
By Adel Sarkozi/CARE