As It Happens

Syrian refugees forced to destroy homes in 'hopeless' Lebanon camp, says aid worker

Aid worker Maggie Tookey says it was heartbreaking to help demolish the homes of elderly and disabled Syrian refugees living in a camp in Lebanon, as they raced a deadline by the government.

Lebanese government ordered demolition of semi-permanent structures

Syrian refugees remove a corrugated metal as they dismantle their shelters at the Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon, on June 9. (Hassan Abdallah/Reuters)
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Aid worker Maggie Tookey says it was heartbreaking to help demolish the homes of elderly and disabled Syrian refugees living in a camp in Lebanon as they raced a government deadline.

The small concrete huts break rules against building semi-permanent structures in informal camps, something some Lebanese fear would lead to the refugees' lasting settlement in the country.

"We tried to do it as carefully as possible, and they were absolutely distraught," Tookey, with the British charity Edinburgh Direct Aid (EDA) told As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner. 

In April, the military ordered refugees to comply with the rules before a July 1 deadline or face forcible demolitions, leading many to replace concrete walls with wood and plastic sheeting.

International aid groups say the Lebanese military demolished at least 20 refugee homes in the town of Arsol on Monday.

'I can't imagine what it must be like'

More than 1.5 million Syrian refugees live in neighbouring Lebanon after fleeing a civil war that began six years ago. 

"The stress that they are already under ... as refugees in this town, for some of them six years, and then to have their homes destroyed," Tookey said. "I can't imagine what it must be like to actually be somebody in that position."

The EDA was assigned by the UN refugee agency to a camp that is specifically for elderly and disabled refugees. 

"They had no ability physically or otherwise to demolish their homes and they just didn't know what to do," she said. 

According to the Guardian, 84-year-old refugee Rasmeera Raad sobbed as she sat with her two disabled adult daughters in a makeshift mosque near the site of their old house.

"We don't have anywhere else to live and there is no one to help us," Raad said.

Syrian refugees demolish cement block shelters at a refugee camp in the northeastern town or Arsal. (Joseph EID/AFP/Getty Images)

Over the weekend, Tookey was tasked with helping families to tear down their homes in a "managed demolition" before the deadline. 

That means that the water and sewerage supplies are not destroyed. But Tookey says they had to make sure the walls were no higher than one metre and the rest of the structure is constructed from plastic sheeting. 

This, Tookey says, will do little to protect people from the harsh winter weather — which was the reason the structures were built in the first place. 

'We can't face any more'

Help The Children told the Guardian that the ordered demolitions in Arsal have left 5,000 families and as many as 15,000 children homeless again.

One of the families that Tookey helped was an elderly man and woman, who told her how devastating it would have been for the Lebanese military to demolish their home. 

"He said, 'We would have probably just really felt we wanted to just die. We just wanted to die. We can't face any more,'" she said.  

Children stand near tents at a makeshift camp in Arsal on Jan. 9. (Zeina Alhoujeyri/Reuters)

This was just one of the many distressing stories she heard.

"It's hopeless," she said. 

"Some of them show me their homes [in Syria] and their gardens and their fruit trees and their orchards and ... it's just so sad that they have to live this way and now they have this terrible burden of having to destroy their homes." 

Part of government push 

This move by the government is part of a push for refugees to return to Syria after fighting ended in many parts of the country over the past three years. 

But Tookey says for many people it's still not safe to return. 

"It's not feasible in the sense that so much of the country is destroyed. But the most ... difficult thing is that it's simply not safe for them to go back, particularly the men," she said, citing forced conscription and the disappearances of some who have returned to the country. 

So far, the demolitions have been contained to the border town of Arsal, but aid groups worry that it could spread to other parts of the country. 

"I think there's a general fear now that they will be got rid of in whatever way possible," Tookey said. 

Written by Sarah Jackson with files from Reuters. Interview with Maggie Tookey produced by Jeanne Armstrong.