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Syrian refugees in Lebanon: hand for help in the Beirut neighborhood

BEIRUT | - February 07, 2013, 14h27
Lebanon is full. Today, with more than 250 thousand Syrian refugees, it is standing at the edge of humanitarian emergency. However the NGOs and international organizations try to handle it. And they are not alone. The civil society and universities are getting involved. At AUB, it is the recently launched Hand in Hand project (Yad fi yad), that is bringing a priceless help to hundreds of Syrian refugees in Bourj Hammoud, the well-known neighborhood of Beirut.
Majd Nassan, the 21-year-old Syrian student and the fresh coordinator of the university social project bets everything on the direct personalized help. After the three-month activity, the HiH portfolio involves more than 93 registered Syrian families with tens of new-comers arriving every day. Two days spent in the field with Majd and the AUB volunteers have revealed the day-to-day struggle of the Syrian refugees, as well as the tricky issues of running a volunteering university project.

“I can't believe people are finally going to help us. Everybody is focusing on Bekaa and Akkar, they all forgot about us here. We got to Beirut hoping we'd get help, and instead we didn't get any until you came,” the young mother of four almost bursts in tears when we entered her new home; a very modest room inhabited by six. Leila and her husband arrived four months ago and so far have not had the chance to access help from any organization. Now and then, her husband manages to work and brings home some income. However, Leila is sick and still has not obtained any treatment. With a 7-month-baby, a 2-year-old girl and 2 boys around five years of age, it is not easy. First, to pay the rooms, then the food and in the end there is rarely something extra that would cover the healthcare. Rashid, a 42-year-old father must deal with a similar destiny. He has spent the first two months after his arrival in a garage in the Nabaa main street which serves as a bedroom at night and a busy garage in day. Rashid, employed in the car repair is quite lucky to have a job, which enables him to cover at least the very basic needs of his family.

Helping step by step

“We are registering more and more families every week. We come to Nabaa usually on Saturday and carry out the new registrations, distribute the food baskets to already assessed families and visit the newly registered ones,” says Majd meanwhile a small group of veiled women is approaching him to discuss their situation.

Everybody from his small team of four is occupied with the registration forms that must be filled-in before the families get any help. The crucial question not to be omitted by any volunteer is the families´ arrival date to Leban, then a quick passport check and their new home address.

“Unfortunately, we do not have enough volunteers who would actually go in the field. In the beginning, about 100 people from AUB have volunteered and I was very happy. But in the end, many of them are not ready to give up at least one part of their weekend and go to the field. I hope this will improve soon,” Majd keeps his optimism.

Hand in hand (Yad fi yad) is operating mainly thanks to the material and food donations from the Jesuit order which prepares about 80 food baskets every week, often accompanied by blankets for the most needed and the medicine. A doctor can also be paid if needed.

“The current contributions are great, however we are still in search for additional donors as there are more people coming every day,” says Majd, for whom the Syrian nationality was not the main reason to start the project. He says he wanted to make a change, help out in the areas which remain outside the priority list of the already overloaded international organizations.

The day-to-day and divided families struggle

Most people attended by Majd and his volunteers today have not been in Lebanon longer than 6 months. Especially the new-comers are facing the major problems upon arrival. If they do not know anyone in Beirut, their living situation turns to be extremely difficult. No relatives, no friends, no organization to assist them immediately. Nevertheless, the Syrian sense for community and mutual help steps in. “We are helping each other,” says Hasan, a Kurdish Syrian, who arrived seven months ago. “Whenever someone who is settled has a little space in his place, he invites the new-comers to stay until a suitable solution appears. Yes, it is very difficult, but we must manage.”

Most fathers who are among those lucky ones and got a job in Beirut, bring home around 500 USD a month, an amount that is not enough to cover anything else except for the rent and some basic food for a rather big family. This is also the case for Hasan, who barely manages to feed his family of seven (including his sister-in-law) and to pay the rent of their tiny two-bedroom flat. He is from Aleppo like most people I met with Majd today. Some of his relatives fled to Turkey, and others stayed in Aleppo. Hasan, along with his wife and kids opted for Beirut. Although two of his daughters are in the school age, they do not go to school yet. They used to, in Aleppo. A couple days ago, Hasan only registered them in one local private school, where the class attendance is subject to fee. So far the girls could at least attend the daily English classes with the UNHCR in their neighborhood. When I ask Hasan if they have also registered as refugees with the UNHCR, his answer is negative, like in the cases of many.

“It is not very easy, mainly as there is a huge crush at the registration offices being only three in Lebanon and thousand Syrians coming every week. Once you got on the list, you have to wait two or three months until they give you the appointment and can assess your situation and provide help,” says Hasan, thus confirming the testimony of some other families from Bourj Hammoud. In this situation, the immediate and in-field assistance provided by the small NGOs is more than welcomed.

“Who is paying for this?”

“Naturally, in our activities we have been often dealing with attempts to abuse our help. Sometimes the person who approaches us is either a long-term resident in Lebanon or even a Lebanese pretending to be a refugee in miserable conditions. I believe that we manage to sort them out. That is why we are so careful in our interviews and the assessments on the spot,” says Majd.

Since the beginning, he has created a solid database of registered and helped refugees and you would hardly ever see him without a pile of paper forms and pens in his hands. The administrative work starts right after the field visit and is very time consuming. In the end, Majd shares another interesting experience with me. “Some Syrians ask us questions as well. When they see our white bus in the street, they want to know who is behind the help, who pays for everything. Most of them make it clear that if it comes from the Syrian opposition forces, they do not want anything from it! Sometimes it takes us a while to explain how we work and who is funding us.” There is no doubt that the humanitarian aid today is not just about the mere food distribution, but also about empathy, communication and transparency. Let´s hope that Majd´s enthusiasm and effort will inspire more volunteers to ease the burdens on the Syrian shoulders.
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