Take a look at the hands of married women who’ve fled Syria to take refuge in neighbouring Lebanon and you’ll notice that almost all aren’t wearing any jewellery. Many families fled the fighting in Syria with little more than the clothes on their backs. Desperate, traumatised, and in severe need, families were forced to sell off whatever they had with them to get out of the country, find a flat or a space to shelter and buy food for the family – even if it meant selling off a precious wedding ring and other gold jewellery.
Fatena, who used to live in Yarmouk camp for Palestinian refugees, in Syria, starts to cry as she tells me her family’s story. Most inhabitants of the camp, near Damascus, fled when violent clashes between pro-regime fighters and rebel militants, escalated dangerously. Fatena says her family paid $400 dollars to pay for a car to the Lebanese border. They arrived on Christmas Eve. “The drivers exploited our miserable situation and asked for much more money than normal”, she said bitterly.
The same is true for rents. With a large influx of more than 200,000 registered and unregistered refugees arriving in Lebanon, normal rental prices for even the most basic of buildings in many areas has increased two to three-fold as landlords have been taking advantage of the demand-driven market.
Fatena had to sell off her jewellery, including her wedding ring, to pay for the basics. She points to one pretty ring on her finger. “This is worthless. It’s not gold, just a bauble”, she said. “No use to anyone”
Safely inside Lebanon, families worry about the future. Most have managed to pay some rent now, but have no money for rental fees in the coming months. Their homes, which are often just garage spaces, are mostly damp, unheated and unfurnished. It’s not uncommon for large family groups of up to 20 people to live in just two to three rooms. They worry about how they’ll pay for food and heat, with most unable to find work; fret about their children’s health, with many getting colds and bronchial infections, and whether their children will ever
have a chance to go to school again.
The cost of living in Lebanon is way higher than in Syria. Life each day is a struggle, though many neighbours and family members have lent the newcomers what little they have including blankets, cooking utensils and some rugs.
Oxfam and its partners have also been distributing blankets and mattresses to some of the neediest families during what has been the worst winter weather conditions in 20 years.
Hanaa’s family are among those who benefitted from our help. Despite her difficulties, she laughs and jokes as she explains the set-up of where she’s living. Three families, a total of 15 people, share a couple of dark rooms and more relatives are on their way. Its an old building, draughty and unheated. Seeping rainwater has caused large patches of damp and peeling paint on the walls. And in the bathroom, she laughs, pulling a face, there are rats.
“Lack of money is the biggest problem we face. We have no washing machine, no fridge, no gas, no winter supplies, no food, no way to find any work”, she says.
Another relative living with her, Alaa, an English teacher, nurses her four month-old son. She and her husband have both been unsuccessfully looking for work. She says her two young children have become sick and developed bad coughs. Everyone huddles close to each other at night to stay warm.
“It’s so expensive here”, she laments. “But I have hope things will be better, that we can go back home and the violence will end. We used to live like kings [in Syria] but here we are like beggars. We beg for people’s help. This is killing us: we feel so ashamed.”
Out in the courtyard, her relatives’ children play. They’ve got wooden sticks, which they wield like rifles, and aim as if they are taking shots at each other in a war game. All are less than ten years old. Way too young to have witnessed the atrocities of war. But clearly, already scarred by what they have seen.