This month, the number of refugees who have fled the conflict in Syria officially passed the 1.5 million mark, according to the UNHCR. Almost half a million Syrian refugees have been registered, or were awaiting registration, in Lebanon alone, but the real number is thought to be almost a million, in a country of four million. Two-thirds of the Syrian refugees are women and children.
Visiting Lebanon at the invitation of the European Journalism Centre, I meet Sheikh Ayman Charkiya of the Sunni Dar al-Fatwa council outside a disused school he owns in Baalbek, north-east of Beirut. Following this imposing man into the building, which is now used to house refugees, a throng of boys and men immediately surrounds us. I am hit both by the rancid smell, caused no doubt by people living, cooking and sleeping too close together, and by the cold. It is warmer outside.
The building is dilapidated and I can’t hear the sheikh speak above the noise. Every inch of space is occupied by either people or belongings. There are at least 200 people living in a space that was condemned as unsafe some years ago.
I meet Fatimah, who escaped from Syria with her husband and five children last year. Three of her nephews also live with the family and the conditions are dreadful. They occupy an old classroom with broken windows and damp walls. “We would not mind living in one small house with five families but we don’t want to live in a school with people who we don’t know,” she says.
Fatimah’s family left the Dara’a district of Syria “because of the shelling”. “They have destroyed all the neighbourhoods,” she says, crying. “Our house is gone.” Fatimah says life before the conflict was good. Her husband, Mansour, worked as a plumber and they had enough to eat.
What does she think of the current government? “I do not support either side,” she tells me. “That is not true,” laughs one of her sons, a 16-year-old who had earlier told me that the things he misses most about home are his friends and the falafel stall. “She hates the Assad regime. We all do. Don’t be frightened, Mamma.”
Rape as a weapon of war has been used extensively in the Syrian crisis. There have been disclosures of sexual torture and sadism by soldiers and male civilians, and all too often the shameful stigma of rape falls on the victim rather than the assailant. During my visit I was told that one young woman who had been raped by soldiers was then shot dead by her father in order to avoid further “dishonour” to the family.
But fleeing Syria does not always protect women from sexual violence. A report by the International Rescue Committee found that female refugees are not safe from sexual and domestic violence in camps and urban dwellings.
Poverty, lack of police protection in the dwellings and the stress caused by displacement and cramped living conditions have all contributed to an increase in sexual and domestic violence among the Syrian refugee communities. International people-trafficking gangs target the poorest families and persuade them to sell their daughters, some as young as 12, into marriage.
“If my husband had been younger he would have joined the army [the Free Syrian Army]. I did not allow my sons because I am too scared,” Fatimah says. “There are many women who have fled Syria without their husbands and it is not safe for them.”
She cooks pasta or potatoes for the main meal of the day, and can afford meat twice a month. “I miss my spices and the Arab dishes I used to cook. But everything is head over heels now. Nothing is the same.” Her days centre around cleaning and cooking. There are five small cooking rings for approximately 80 people, and three washing machines that repeatedly flood the building.
Curtains partition off the sleeping areas, but with so many in one room privacy is impossible. There are so few lavatories and washing facilities that there are constant queues. Many of the refugees look as if they have not washed for some time.
“The smell of people’s feet is horrible,” Fatimah says. “My home was so beautiful and clean, but in here it is impossible to keep anything nice.” Unsurprisingly, there is tension, and arguments between the residents can erupt into fights. As I prepare to leave, some children start to scream, pointing at two young boys skateboarding through the corridors and knocking washing off makeshift lines.
“The noise here is terrible. But I suppose it is not as bad as the noise from the bombing,” says Fatimah. “When you write about this, ask anyone who has blood in them to help us.”