“We don’t call them camps,” my guide said. “Lebanon doesn’t have any Syrian refugee camps” Instead they are called Informal Tent Settlements (ITS) The phrase Informal Tents! conjured up 1950 camping caravans – happy families leisurely picnicking. Munching on small sandwiches arrayed on red-gingham clothes. A far cry from what ITS looks like throughout this region.
The refugees in Jordan and Turkey live in UN Refugee camps that are organized and coordinated by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees or UNHCR. These camps are huge – up to 100,000 people —roughly the population of South Bend, Indiana! — with enormous infrastructure. But Lebanon – worried creating permanent camps, has elected for something more ad hoc …more informal.
Here’s the way it works: As Syrians surge across their western border, they are met by farmers or landowners willing to rent the edges of their fields (above) or entire swaths of their fallow fields to refugees. I heard rents ranging from $50 – $300 month. Some landlords are known to extract the rent by forcing families (including children) to work the farms for a dollar or two in pay.
An ITS can range in size. Anything from 4 to 140 tents are described as a ITS. New arrivals must build their own tents. Depending on the particular site there may be a concrete pad for a floor and some crushed stone for pathways or roads. Otherwise the ground of hardened clay is the floor as well. Aid agencies come through the communities to register residents, and to provide basic services like latrines and water.
Yesterday 4 of us sat with Aheed and her three children in her tent situated in the Baaka Valley – about 15 miles from the Syrian boarder.
While her children played around us on the large jute rug, Aheed shared the overview of her life. In Syria, her husband worked in various labor jobs in their Aleppo home. Her parents and brothers lived close by while she was busy raising two children. They got increasingly nervous in the early months of 2012 after two car bombs killed 28 people. That year would see several other car bombs killing and wounding hundreds. That’s when they thought they had to get out.
Aheed and her family fled — stopping briefly at one camp…sorry…ITS... before settling into this tent community outside Zahle where they have tried to build a life. While her husband has assumed the role of a “shawish” an ITS volunteer leader who help new arrivals settle in and construct their homes, Aheed stays close to her tent. She and her children are fearful. Still. Even after 4 years in this new place. Rarely do they venture beyond the confines of this tent community. As Aheed says it, “Even though I have a piece of bread and a place to live, sill I am scared.”
Aheed is worried about she or her children being kidnapped or the authorities sending them on to another place. But she is also scared about the state of her homeland too. She calls home once every two months or so. It’s infrequent because she can’t bear to hear the “sad stories” she knows will be shared. Most of us can’t relate to that kind of persistent existential fear.
The other primary worry for Aheed is something more common to us all. Aheed worries about her children.
She now has three of them – her youngest son was born in the ITS. Her 11-year-old daughter, Shahed, is doing well in school–she loves writing and drawing. Shahed eagerly drew this picture of herself with full mascaraed eyes, high-heels and a skirt that seemed to mock the impoverished conditions around her. This is a girl who is going to make it, I thought.
The older son, at 12 years old, is struggling. There is a fair amount of bullying in school, and being small for his age, Mahoun is an easy target. For the past several months he has simply wandered around the camp with many of the other young boys. They lack purpose, focus and it’s not difficult to see him as being part of a lost generation of youth.
We call it the Syrian Refugee crisis, but as one aid worker said today, it might be more accurate to call it a women and children crisis. More than 50% of the refugees in Lebanon are children and another 30% are women. As rape and abuse rises within the settlements fearful families start to marry their girls at a younger and younger age. It is better for their 13-year old girls to be married than to be sexually assaulted and risk never being married at all.
It is the most vulnerable who are on the run. But inside these informal tent settlements, even the most vulnerable can stand with dignity. With carefully braided hair, focused attention and with a mother determined to watch her every step, Shahed may just make it out of her informal tent settlement and into some level of stability.
How many more Shadeds are out there? I wondered.
I didn’t know it but I ended up meeting an entire group off amazing girls the following day.