Lebanon’s tipping point: how the Syrian crisis is punishing the generosity of its neighbours

Syrian refugees could soon account for 30% of Lebanon's population. Its people fear it will fall back into yet another conflict.

As the Syria civil war shows no signs of abating, the hospitality of countries absorbing Syrian refugees is progressively sinking them into crisis.

"My crime is that I am a mother to my sons," Yalda said. We were sitting in the old and crumbling outhouse she calls home near Saadneyil, central Lebanon, when she told me her story. I had made my visit to the region to see for myself what the civil war was doing to its people, and I was shocked by what I saw. After her second son died in the Syria civil war, Yalda travelled with the remaining members of her family from Idlib, near Homs, to cross the border with fake identification papers. They now reside on the outskirts of a makeshift refugee settlement. Her husband has been forced to work through his severe back injury and none of her remaining three children are in education. They struggle daily to make ends meet.

While the current humanitarian crisis in Syria has been highly publicised – and rightly so – the spill over effect into neighbouring states, such as Lebanon, has gone largely underreported by the media. With no official refugee camps for the Syrian refugees, further pressure has been placed on these host communities. I saw firsthand the sheer devastation this crisis has caused Syrians and Lebanese alike, with stories like Yalda’s echoed across the country.

In the past two years, more than half a million Syrian refugees have fled to Lebanon. This number is expected to increase to one million by this Christmas. Around 4,000 refugees cross the border every week into a country half the size of Wales. This means 30% of the population in Lebanon could be refugees by the end of the year, compared to 0.3% of the population in the UK. This is the equivalent of 15 million refugees seeking refuge in the United Kingdom. I cannot imagine how we would begin to cope.

On my first day I visited an informal settlement of Syrian refugees with international children’s charity World Vision on the outskirts of a town in the Bekka Valley. The horror of the situation there is all too apparent. Hundreds of refugee families are living in dozens of makeshift tents in unsanitary conditions. As more and more refugees arrive to this camp and thousands like it, it has becoming impossible to maintain any semblance of normality. Rubbish and food scraps are collected irregularly from the overstretched local government, causing further unsanitary conditions for the refugees and their Lebanese neighbours. The work that NGOs and UN agencies are carrying out to address this is vital. Recently, World Vision has implemented WASH (Water and Sanitation Hygiene) projects in refugee camps, providing much needed toilet and shower facilities and water filtration devices.

It was just outside this community where I first met Yalda and her family. During our meeting I was struck by the resourcefulness of her three children and the senseless waste of their potential. The eldest, Sabeen, had planned to continue her studies at a prestigious Syrian University but was unable to complete her final year of study. The youngest, a boy of fourteen, was forced to work as a mechanic and take on the mantle his elder brothers had presumably once held. However, the child that struck me most was 16-year-old Fayzeh, who had dreamt of becoming a journalist before she was forced to leave her home and flee to a foreign country. This assertive, confident girl told me she had felt the need to burn all of her writings in Syria through fear they would be found by the Assad regime. She said that although still a child, the civil war had forced her to grow beyond her years. She told me about the horrors she and her family had faced living in Syria, of the senseless murder of her friends, family and neighbours.

She put in writing what was too difficult for her to say out loud: "I am a Syrian girl from Homs; Homs, the victim which has tasted the bitterness of life; Homs, bereaved of its children; Homs, the widow, the orphan; Homs which was violated". She wrote about her grief, the loss of her brothers and how her land had been abducted "I will follow in the steps of my brothers, the hero martyrs, who refused to surrender their land and their honour to those who wanted to rape it". What struck me were her perseverance, her attachment to her country and her desire to survive: "I did not give up and I will not give up".

Tragic stories like Fayzeh’s are all too often heard up and down the country. Tens of thousands of refugee children have had no education since leaving Syria. Lebanese schools are struggling to cope with the influx and many children have been unable to find a place. Aid agencies like World Vision have attempted to fill the gap through Accelerated Learning Programmes, which offer refugee children a three month burst of intensive education. But funding for this is also scarce. It is crucial that the UK government leads the way by increasing funding to NGOs and the international community so that these children can again return to education and reach their full potential. This present situation does need to be their reality.

Witnessing firsthand the suffering of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and the impact their arrival is having on Lebanese host communities; it became clear to me that greater assistance is urgently needed to prevent destabilising the country and its precariously balanced system of sectarian politics. Lebanon and the Lebanese have done a commendable job in hosting Syrian refugees. However, the situation is unsustainable and their continuing generosity is coming under strain, with reported incidents of intra-communal violence on the rise. The aid required under the new UN plan is $1.3bn by the end of this year for Lebanon alone.

This enormous amount will undoubtedly be difficult to raise, but ignoring Lebanon and leaving the country to continue on the same path will have dire consequences. Beirut is a confident and buoyant capital with glittering sky scrapers and scenic harbours lined with yachts, but in the outskirts of the city and across the country there is a real underlying fear that this country, a country which should be the jewel in the Middle East’s crown, a country where Sunnis, Shias, Alawites and Christians all live side by side, will fall back into yet another conflict. It is the children like Fayzeh, brimming with potential, who will be the ones to suffer if we allow this to happen.

Rushanara Ali is speaking at a fringe on Syria on Monday the 23rd September at 17:30 in the secure zone at Labour party conference. The event is in partnership with Islamic Relief. 

Syrian refugees fill jerry cans with water at a pump inside a refugee camp in Baalbek, Lebanon. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rushanara Ali is Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow and shadow international development minister.

Qusai Al Shidi/Flickr
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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war