Derek Stoffel: Syrian refugees struggle in Lebanon

As the civil war rages in Syria, hundreds of thousands of refugees are fleeing to neighbouring countries. CBC's Derek Stoffel writes about meeting some families trying to make a place for themselves in Lebanon.

Families try to find shelter in private homes, old schools - even a former jail

Approximately 1.3 million Syrians have fled to neighbouring countries to escape the violence of the two-year civil war, according to UN figures. CBC's Derek Stoffel reports on the plight of some Syrian families from Masnaa, Lebanon, near the border with Syria.

They don’t notice the bars on the windows anymore. The heavy metal doors in every small room are ignored. For twenty Syrian families an old, two-storey concrete building that used to serve as a prison is now home — a temporary refuge from the fierce fighting just beyond the nearby Syrian border.

In Lebanon, there are no United Nations refugee camps for the 400,000 Syrians who have escaped the violence at home. The refugees find shelter in private homes — sometimes the landlord chooses not to collect rent. Families sleep in old schools, and in at least this one case, in a former jail.

"We live like prisoners here," says Um Abdo. "There is nothing to do all day. We are forced to sit and think about our friends at home who are being killed."

Abdo, like most of the Syrians who spoke to CBC News, requested we use a pseudonym, as she fears for the safety of relatives still inside Syria. She has not heard from her husband — an opposition fighter — in more than two months.

Her four children do not attend school. Instead, they try to pass the time as best they can. The boys play marbles in the prison’s dusty courtyard. Her two daughters help with the chores, such as washing and cooking.

In all, ten people — her family along with several of her husband’s relatives — sleep in a small, former cell. Foam mattresses line the walls of the room. A single hotplate is used to cook meals.

"Back home, we had a big house," she says. "Here we wait in line to go to the bathroom. Back home, there was no power or water for days. But it was still our home."

Small country, big problem

With the war next door showing no sign of end, thousands of Syrians stream over the borders into neighbouring countries every day. The UN says 1.3 million Syrians have sought shelter in Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon.

The strain of such a large influx of people is putting particular pressure on Lebanon, which has seen its population swell by about 10 per cent since the Syrian crisis began more than two years ago.

The UN says 1.3 million Syrians have fled the the country because of the civil war, including 400,000 in Lebanon. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

"Lebanon is a tiny country. It’s not even double the size of Prince Edward Island," says Ninette Kelley. "They’ve taken in all these refugees. It’s a startling story. And it’s one that’s really pressing this country in unprecedented ways."

Kelley, who is originally from Toronto, runs the UN’s refugee agency in Lebanon.  "I think we’re doing the best we can but we are struggling," she told me from her office in Beirut.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is running out of money to pay for the services it provides, including food and medical assistance for the refugees in Lebanon. The international community has pledged about $1.5 billion to aid Syrian refugees. But it has delivered less than 40 per cent of those funds.

"It means we have to make tragic choices, every single day. It means we cannot have full coverage and that we cannot welcome every new arrival with some assistance immediately," Kelley says.

The UN warned this week it will have to halt food aid next month to the 400,000 Syrians in Lebanon, unless countries come through with new funding. If the assistance comes to an end, it could lead to unrest — in a country that has already seen violence and even deaths as the war in Syria spilled over the border.

Some Syrians have faced high rental prices for apartments and homes from Lebanese landlords looking to cash in on the crisis. The national government in Beirut has struggled to provide basic services, such as education and medical treatment.

Kelley says the Lebanese authorities were slow to react to the influx of refugees, but she says the situation has improved. "It took them a while to fully embrace the problem. But now they know they just can’t" ignore the problem, Kelley says.

Opening their homes

Kelley says Lebanon is now a model for dealing with refugees. "They haven’t been told they have to move into camps. That’s a good thing for the refugees. But it imposes real challenges in the community. And shelter is in short supply so we have to find a mix of solutions."

In a rundown, old house in Aabay, in the hills high above Beirut, Hanan Schimess is part of that solution. He opened up his house rent-free to a Syrian family.

His two-storey home was damaged in Lebanon’s civil war in the 1980s. Schimess decided to fix it up when he started to hear reports of the battles in neighbouring Syria two years ago.

"When I saw what was happening in Syria, I became very emotional. This is why I wanted to help," he says, fighting back tears.

Schimess invited the Abu Ahmed family to stay with him. They fled the violence in the Syrian city of Hama about a year ago.

"I am so grateful that he opened up his house to my family. It’s like he treats us like we are his own family," says Mustafa Abu Ahmed, the father.

The family — 10 people in all — sleep in two small rooms on foam mattresses on the floor. The kitchen is tiny; there is little to do to keep the children busy. But no one is complaining.

"A house is much better than a tent in a refugee camp. A tent is small. If it is cold outside, it is cold inside. Here [we have] a roof and walls around us," Mustafa Abu Ahmed says.

His wife nods her head. Um Ahmed tries to stay in touch with friends and family back in Syria. But with the continued fighting and shelling of their village by Syrian forces, that is increasingly more difficult.

She, too, tears up when she considers what Hanan Schimess has done for her family. "I'm certain that if we had stayed in Syria… we would have been killed by the shelling. Like so many in our town."