Thanking and giving in the Syrian refugee camps of Lebanon

by Oxfam Canada | October 10, 2015
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I have a lot to be thankful for. Good health, a loving family, a home and a gratifying job. But like many, I often take these blessings for granted.  This year, however, is different.

Today I am thankful for having shared a cup of coffee with Syrian women refugees in Sawere, a small town in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley.

The small refugee settlement where I met these courageous women is nestled between the fertile mountains of Eastern Lebanon, not far from one of the countries world famous wineries. It only has 13 households, and most of the refugee families are from the Syrian City of Homs who were forced to flee to safety.

Fatima* is six months pregnant, but very thin. She was shaking somewhat as she passed around a flower-patterned tray with small cups of Turkish coffee. It should be a happy time for the young expectant mother in her early twenties, but she is ill prepared to welcome her little one into such a precarious situation.

“I am scared in this condition,” she told me. “I need to make a relationship with a taxi driver or neighbour so I can go to the hospital when the baby wants to come. This is not easy because our settlement is very isolated, and the situation is difficult with the community and authorities. There are only three months to go, I have no clothes for my baby.”

Fatima’s story broke the ice and soon everyone wanted to join in the conversation. Nahla*, a lady to my left, jumped in and added that other children in the camp were barefoot, and were missing out on an education. “No shoes, no school,” she said.

No shoes? “What will they do when the snow and cold come?” I asked. Silence gave way to shrugs and I-don’t-knows.

Globally, the humanitarian response to the Syrian crisis is only half funded and aid organizations are struggling to deliver programs. In fact, many Syrian refugees have seen their food support cut by 50% this year because of a lack of funding – a severe blow to families in Sawere and other refugee settlements in the area, who were already unable to make ends meet. They are extremely worried about facing the oncoming winter with little food, no heating oil and inadequate living conditions.

“Last winter was horrible,” said Fatima. “It was a very hard winter in Lebanon, but worst of all for us, in the refugee settlements. We got some support from Oxfam and are very thankful. But it is not enough. We don’t want to burn our rubber sandals again in order to keep warm. What kind of life is that?”

One out of four people living in Lebanon right now is a refugee, and the small country is struggling to cope under such strain.  As the violence in Syria shows no signs of abating, the humanitarian situation is only getting worse – for those trapped inside the country, for those living as refugees in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon and Jordan, and for those making the often perilous journey across the Mediterranean in search of a better future.

For the most part the women in Sawere just want to go back home, to return to Syria. Some of them are attempting to go back home, even though it is very dangerous.

I felt thankful at that moment, despite bullets and bombs raining down just across the mountains. Just a group of women sitting together with a cup of coffee in compassionate camaraderie, despite our differences in the face of an uncertain future. We even managed to get a couple of laughs in.

These women had little although their needs are great, yet they offered me what they could and shared what they had. That is the spirit of thanksgiving.

Oxfam has reached nearly half a million refugees in Jordan and Lebanon with clean drinking water, cash and relief supplies, such as blankets, stoves and vouchers for hygiene supplies.  Melanie Gallant is Oxfam Canada’s Media Relations Officer. She is currently in Lebanon.

*names have been changed for security reasons

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