Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series looking at one of 2013's most undercovered stories: the effect of Syria's war on its fragile neighbor Lebanon. More than a million struggling Syrian refugees have fled there, swelling the country's population by 25 percent. This humanitarian crisis threatens to overwhelm a country trying to maintain peace after its own civil conflict.
BEKAA VALLEY, Lebanon — A father of 10 sits inside a patchwork shack and watches his children. A year ago, he lived comfortably in the north of Syria, but when government tanks swept into his village, he fled his homeland.
Samir, who like many Syrians asked that his last name not be used for fear of retaliation by the Syrian regime, now lives a life of quiet desperation. He is unable to find work and fears the violence in his home country may follow him to Lebanon.
“I’m afraid that the war may come here,” Samir said, worrying about recent violence in Tripoli between local militias who support opposite sides of Syria's civil war. “I feel more scared.”
Samir’s uncertainty, echoed by a million Syrians like him, reflects a growing threat to his adopted country.
The influx of Syrians into Lebanon has led to rising tension across the small nation. Ramshackle tent settlements continue to grow, populated by the poor and the sick who live in squalid conditions. Many worry the refugees will destabilize a country that has seen its population of four million swell by 25 percent since the conflict in Syria began.
The new arrivals, many struggling simply to provide for their families, complain that the Lebanese have taken advantage of their desperation. Meanwhile, the refugees are straining resources and fanning divisions in a country where memories of civil war remain fresh.
“The more a country is not supported and the more international agencies find their scarce resources stretched, the more human tragedy you will see and the greater the tensions will be within the country,” said Ninette Kelley, a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative in Lebanon. “Small incidents can be blown out of proportion and can spark a violent reaction.”
Kelley worries that the sectarian tensions that fuel the conflict in Syria could just as easily take hold in Lebanon. She pointed to last month’s bombing in Beirut as an example.
“The more unstable a country becomes, the more extremist elements can also blossom,” she said. “If Lebanon goes the way of Syria, it’s a domino effect that can spread throughout the region.”
More than three-fourths of the 845,000 refugees that have registered with the UNHCR in Lebanon arrived in the last year. The Lebanese government estimates that Syrians in the country actually number closer to a million, a total it expects to keep rising.
Many end up in the Bekaa Valley. Some followed friends and family who arrived in the early days of the conflict. Others came because it is the closest community to the Syrian border.
“We have villages where there are more refugees than there are Lebanese, and they create a lot of pressures on an already very fragile infrastructure,” said Kelley. “That’s pressure on schools and health clinics and water and sanitation.”
Fearing that refugees will stay in the country, as Palestinians did after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the government has not allowed Syrians to build any permanent structures, nor has it allowed the UNHCR to set up official camps like those in neighboring Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. Instead, more than 250 informal tent settlements have sprung up along the highways of Lebanon.
With the onset of winter, temperatures have begun to drop below freezing. The first snow has already fallen, and heavy rains are expected to flood some of the makeshift shelters refugees have built.
The shacks are one- and two-room dwellings that house families of as many as 20 members. They sleep on donated cots, plastic mats and rugs that cover the dirt floor. They don’t have enough blankets. The walls are built from scavenged wood, found plastic and vinyl that once covered nearby billboards and still advertises local cell phone companies.
Groups of small children run among sewage-lined paths between rows of shacks. More than 33,000 Syrians are enrolled in Lebanese schools, and the Ministry of Education has promised to try to accommodate twice that number in the coming year, but it is still nowhere near enough.
Even if the government makes good on its promise, 200,000 Syrian children will be without access to school. And for some, access is not the only problem.
“I know there are schools, but I don’t know where,” said Chola, who lives with her five children in a small tent. She also occasionally cares for the six children of her husband’s second wife, who lives in a nearby camp.
Just outside a tent in the same settlement, Zahid, 35, comes home carrying a bag of fast food from the local town. Rubbing sweat from his sunken eyes, he says he can’t support his five children.
In Syria, he produced and sold sweets and made a comfortable living. In Lebanon, he said, “I can’t find work even as a waste collector. They tell you, ‘You’re a Syrian? Go and work.’ But where can I work? There is no work.”
When he first arrived six months ago, he lived in another camp and paid no rent in exchange for working in the fields as a farmhand. But once the agricultural season ended, the landowner evicted him.
He took out loans from the head of this camp to build his shack. Unable to feed his entire family, he married off two of his three teenage daughters.
“With all the problems of the war, should I really keep my daughters living with us?” he asked as his younger children climbed all over him. “I couldn’t send them back to Syria. I couldn’t do anything, so it was better to marry them.”
At a shack in another camp a few miles down the road, Bassam, an older man who bears a resemblance to the actor Omar Sharif, sits with a collection of camp elders. They drink tea and complain about the lack of work and the escalating rent.
Bassam has been coming to the Bekaa Valley as an agricultural worker since before the war in Syria began.
“Starting last year, the amount of work decreased,” he said. Now, some people in the camp work for the equivalent of $7 a day. “Providing food to your children is better than doing nothing or begging in the streets.”
Even as hours and wages dwindle, the cost of living for refugees continues to mount. After his landlord nearly tripled his rent, Bassam moved from a rented house to a hand-built shanty.
“We couldn’t pay,” he said, rubbing prayer beads in his left hand. “I was forced to build a shack in the countryside.”
Bassam said some landlords raised rents by as much as 500 percent.
“It’s exploitation,” he said. “They have exploited Syrians. And the Syrians, where can they go?”
As if to answer Bassam’s question, the sound of a hammer at work drifts over from the edge of camp.
Someone is building another shack.
This series was produced with the support of Focus on Syria. The next piece, publishing Dec. 29, will focus on the stress refugees have put on Lebanon's healthcare system. The third installment, publishing Dec. 30, is about a Palestinian camp in Beirut that serves as a warning of what can happen to neglected refugees in a country that refuses to accept them.