Adonis Diaries

Archive for January 8th, 2016

One village in Lebanon is hosting more Syrian refugees than the entire United States

KETERMAYA, Lebanon — There is a small village in the mountains of Lebanon that is hosting more Syrian refugees than all 50 US states combined.

Situated at the southern end of the Mount Lebanon range, Ketermaya is a quiet little place surrounded by patches of farmland. Much of the traffic in the area goes to and from a nearby cement factory.

A young boy rides his bicycle at an informal camp for Syrian refugees in Ketermaya, Lebanon.

Richard Hall GlobalPost

It isn’t a particularly wealthy town, but the residents here have taken in thousands of refugees fleeing the war in Syria.

“We have a history of welcoming refugees,” says Ali Tafesh, a local business owner. “In 2006 we did the same,” he adds, referring to the displacement of people caused by Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon that year.

Tafesh has done more than most. When Syrian families started to arrive in the town in the early days of the civil war, he arranged housing for them. When there were no more places left to stay he offered up his own land.

“We built the first tent for two families. Then more people came and we built a second, and then it just kept growing,” he says.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) says more than 350,000 migrants were detected at the EU’s borders between January and August of this year, compared with 280,000 for the whole of 2014. The organization says that many more went in undetected.

European leaders have struggled to find a coherent solution to a worsening refugee crisis within its borders. Germany has led the way, promising to take in half a million refugees annually over several years. Hungary, meanwhile, is in the process of introducing harsh new laws that would target migrants and rushing to build an anti-migrant fence on its southern border.

The US has resettled 1,500 Syrian refugees since war broke out in 2011 (the small village of Ketermaya hit this number in July 2014), and aims for that number to reach 5,000 by the end of the year. President Barack Obama announced on Thursday that he had ordered his administration to prepare for double that number in 2016.

Aid agencies have said this is not enough: Oxfam America had been calling for the US to resettle 70,000 Syrian refugees.

But compared to the crisis facing Lebanon, the numbers reaching Europe are a drop in the ocean.

Sihan and Ibrahim stand with their children outside their home at an informal refugee camp for Syrians in Ketermaya, Lebanon.

Richard Hall / GlobalPost

A warm welcome

There are currently more than one million registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon (the actual number of refugees is thought to be much higher). If you include the estimated number of unregistered refugees, Syrians now account for more than a quarter of the country’s population. The Chouf region, where Ketermaya is located, is hosting nearly 60,000 refugees.

In some areas, the influx has put a strain on the local population as they now have to compete for jobs and resources with a greater number of people.

There are no official refugee camps in Lebanon. Instead, refugees are scattered across the country and make their home on whatever land they can find. Some make arrangements with landowners before building their shelters. Others build and then wait for their landlords to arrive, asking for rent.

Tafesh hosts 330 Syrians on his one-acre plot — a stony patch of land on the side of a hill, with olive trees scattered in between makeshift tents. At his own expense, he built a toilet and installed running water into the camp.

He doesn’t charge the residents of this camp, but people like him are in the minority. Most refugees pay rent to landowners, even when their accommodation is little more than a wooden shack.

“I wasn’t using my land for business purposes so I could afford to let people stay here. Others are not so lucky,” says Tafesh.

The crisis is visible all over Lebanon. Mothers beg on the streets of Beirut with their children in tow; others sell their wares by the side of the road. In the north and east of the country settlements are built by the side of the road.

Most of these settlements exist at the mercy of the elements. In the winter they are bashed around and sometimes destroyed by storms, and in the summer they are often too hot to bear staying inside.

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‘No other choice’

While some Syrians are making the journey to Europe, others do not have the money or other means to get there. Many of those who fled to Lebanon did so because it was the only option open to them.

Sihan left her hometown of Qusayr with her husband and four children in 2013, after their house was destroyed in a government airstrike. She pulls back the hair of her young son Muhammad to reveal a small scar on the side of his head made by the explosion.

“We have no other choice but to be here,” she says. “We are sitting here with nothing. My husband is not working so we have no money for rent. It’s hard in the winter and in the summer.”

More from GlobalPost: The refugee from Homs who can’t afford to feed his family 

The UN is currently facing a funding shortfall that means refugees here barely have enough to survive on. Sihan and her family receive $13 per person per month from the UN for food, and often it won’t last two weeks.

“Thank God we have this tent,” says Sihan. “Lebanon is not able to look after its own people, how are they going to look after Syrians as well?”

Despite the miserable living conditions for refugees in Lebanon, not everyone wants to go to Europe.

Ahmed, an Arabic literature graduate, came to Lebanon from Damascus suburb of Ghouta three years ago, bringing his wife and two children.  He and a few other camp residents built a school among the tents and now he teaches the children in the camp.

“I don’t want to go to Europe,” he says. Even if someone says I can go I don’t want to.”

He says that going to Europe would make it less likely he would return to Syria one day.

“Everyone loves their country. If the bombing stopped I would go back home. I am here because I want my children to be safe.”

Employment prospects are dim for the camp’s residents. Sihan’s husband Ibrahim can earn $20 a day working in construction, but the work is irregular.

Save the Children was running a school in the area which recently ran out of funding. It is to reopen soon, providing full time education for children up to the age of 12.

Ahmed, a teacher at a school built by residents of the camp in Ketermaya, Lebanon.

Richard Hall / GlobalPost

A dangerous journey

Sihan and Ibrahim say they have thought about going elsewhere, but wonder where they would get the money to move.

When asked if Gulf countries should do more to help Syrian refugees, Ibrahim replies: “In Kuwait, they have big parties with fireworks. The amount they spend on that could feed the Syrian population.”

The couple would like to go to Europe, but they fear the journey is too dangerous.

“We would go if we thought it was safe. We don’t want to get thrown out of a boat,” says Ibrahim.

The whole family is weary from their ordeal. They entered the country illegally by traversing the anti-Lebanon mountains on the border with Syria.

Sihan, it seems, would like to wait a little while longer before making another arduous journey.

“We came over a mountain to get here. We are not ready to do it again.”

More from GlobalPost: A harsh winter for Syrian refugees in Lebanon 

Inspirational Women from Middle-East

1. Zaina Erhaim is a Syrian journalist who was living in London before she returned to Aleppo to risk her life under barrel bombs to cover the Syrian conflict. This year she won the Reporters Without Borders freedom prize.

The Paris-based media rights group singled out Erhaim for her “determination and courage” in covering the conflict in Syria, deemed to be the most dangerous country in the world for journalists.

“After living in horror for all these years, it is normal to feel abandoned and forget there is someone listening or reading our stories who actually cares,” Erhaim told RSF in August.

“Such initiatives make me feel that my Syrian colleagues and I do matter, and that our hard work is appreciated. It gives me power to go on in my daily surviving battle,” she added.

2. After Israeli settlers and the army stormed the al-Aqsa site in October a group of Palestinian women took it upon themselves to defend al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.

The group of women, commonly referred to as Murabitat [“steadfast fighters”] were banned by Israel from Islam’s third holiest site.

“Many Muslims abandoned it, so the women decided to defend it,” Halawani, one of the women, told al-Araby al-Jadeed.

“Women became the primary defence line at al-Aqsa, which disturbed and intimidated the Israeli police,” she added.

“We are subjected to violence on a daily basis, be it verbal or physical. But suffering is nothing new to Palestinian women. We have always been wives, daughters, sisters or mothers of prisoners or martyrs. We suffer all the time.”

3. Mahienour al-Massry is an Egyptian human rights activist and lawyer and one of 51,000 political detainees imprisoned in Egypt.

“Not a single struggle was off limits to Mahienour: human rights, student rights, women’s rights, labour strikes, legal aid, anti-police brutality, housing for the poor, corruption, anti-military trials, heritage preservation, right to public space, state-led land reclamation from the poor, climate change, street children’s rights, Syrian refugees; the list goes on,” wrote Egyptian academic Amro Ali.

“Mahienour would rush to defend victim’s rights—regardless of their affiliation—and she attended the funerals of people she had never met. Her presence sent a message that an issue really mattered and raised protestors’ morale.”

Other prominent female activists released from Egyptian prisons this year include Sanaa Seif, Esraa al-Taweel and Yara Salam.

4. Nudem Durak is Kurdish folk singer and teacher who was imprisoned for ten years in Turkey for singing in her native language.
She was charged with promoting Kurdish propaganda.

“Singing in our mother tongue and passing the music down through the generations honours us,” she said in an interview to al-Jazeera plus, shortly before she was detained.

“I am in trouble for following my dreams,” she said.

Durak is from the town of Cizre near the Syria border where clashes between Kurds and Turkish security forces have escalated this year.

(A terrible year for the Kurds in this town, suffering consecutive security shut down and blockades. Erdogan ofr Turkey claimed that he killed 1,300 Kurds this year)

“You either go to the mountains and join the guerillas, or you go to prison,” she said. “I don’t think I will do either of them.”

5. Radhiya al-Mutwakkol

Radiya is a Yemeni human rights activist documenting atrocities on both sides of the Yemeni conflict that has claimed thousands of lives.

Her father, a politician and academic, was assassinated by unknown gunmen last year.  However, that has not deterred her from continuing to advocate for human rights in Yemen.

She is married to another human rights activist and founded Muwatana Organization for Human Rights.

Amidst the conflict, she also emphasizes the particular oppression that women have faced from the warring parties.

6. Zeina Daccache

Daccache is a Lebanese woman who sought to give a voice to those who have been excluded, marginalised and silenced in a divided society through drama therapy.

Working alongside female prisoners, they produced the play Scheherazade’s diary, and Daccache created a second documentary depicting daily life in prison and women’s place in Lebanese society.

This followed her successful documentary “12 Angry Lebanese“, concentrating on male prisoners.

“Nobody understood what I wanted to do… I think they thought I’d give up trying to get permission, and in the end, they were the ones who gave in,” Dannache said, commenting on the difficulties of gaining access to the prison.

She focused on issues such as rape, forced marriage, drugs, adultery, and murder. Her documentary looked at those things never spoken about by those who have experienced them.

Daccache later continued her initiative in Iraq.

7. Meherzia Labidi
Labidi is an Ennahdha MP and the first woman to hold the position of deputy speaker of parliament in Tunisia.  She has become known for running parliamentary sessions with a firm hand.

Before the revolution, Labidi lived in France and worked as a translator.

“I’m indebted to the revolution, the youth and the martyrs who scarified their lives for me to be able to return to Tunisia, after living in exile for many years,” Labidi said.

Since her return and involvement in political life, Labidi has taken time to speak to the people. Her conclusion is that they have found “a degree of freedom to voice their concerns, as the former regime had denied them the right to express themselves”.

“You cannot imagine the injustices they try to convey to me,” she said.

Last year she helped introduce a clause to protect women’s rights into the new Tunisian constitution and in 2015 lead the government’s committee for women, children and the elderly.

Labadi was one of many Tunisian women, of differing political and ideological backgrounds, who are prominent in the political life of the country.

8. Sara al-Drees

Sara al-Drees is a lauded Kuwaiti novelist and teacher who isn’t afraid to speak her mind.

This year she was issued with an arrest warrant for tweets insulting the prophet Mohammad.

Drees, commented in a tweet saying that she was returning to Kuwait and that she had done nothing wrong.

In 2013, a Kuwaiti appeal court upheld a 20-month prison sentence on Drees for posting political comments on Twitter.

She was described as Kuwait’s “first political detainee”.

9. Niloufar Ardalan

Ardalan, the captain of the Iranian national football team, missed the Asian Cup because her husband refused to let travel, which is allowed under Islamic laws enforced in Iran.

Later the same year her husband also refused her to go to the world championships in Guatamala.

Ardalan fought her case court, and the judge allowed her to go to the world championships.


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