A lot has happened since my last blog entry. Please forgive me for my neglect, and please afford me some time to provide you with, what I hope will be, some sobering statistics and imagery.
Three weeks ago a very important event occurred. Another child crossed one of Syria’s borders into a foreign country and became the one millionth Syrian child to inherit the title of refugee. And these one million children are just the ones that are officially registered with the UN. The actual number is unknown, but is much higher. To give you a small indication of what’s possible, back in mid-March there were only 228,000 Syrians officially registered with the UN in Lebanon, but the Lebanese government estimated the number to actually be over four times that many. We, by no means, can use this figure to say that the actual number of Syrian refugee children is now four times the officially registered number. Suffice it to say, there are now over one million Syrian refugee children who have fled their country and are now living abroad, very likely in harsh conditions, with very limited access to education or mental or physical health care.
The last few weeks have also been very eventful for Syria in the Western press. As you know from the news, US involvement in the war in Syria has ramped up, although so far only in talk. On 21 August, chemical weapons were used against civilians in a rebel-controlled area near Damascus, and the US along with France and Great Britain have now all concluded this attack was carried out by Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. Shortly after the attack, the Syrian opposition made statements attesting that more than 1,300 people were killed, and Washington has now come to a similar conclusion of just over 1,400 victims. Needless to say, Syrians continue to flee their country at alarming rates. On 3 September, UNHCR announced that the number of Syrians forced to seek refuge abroad topped the 2 million mark since the war began in April 2011. The most alarming part of that figure is that 1.8 million of those 2 million fled Syria in just the past 12 months. In addition to these 2 million refugees now located in other countries, there are also an estimated 4 million IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) in Syria, people who are forced to flee their homes but who stay within their country’s borders. These 6 million people represent more than 25 percent of the total population of Syria. To put it in America terms, this number would be equivalent to roughly the entire populations of the states of California, Texas, and New York combined.
And now, since we’re deep in numbers, let’s talk about some other important figures from Lebanon. Since my first trip to Lebanon back in January, the number of refugees has increased from 130,799 to, as of 12 September, 739,823. That’s nearly a 500 percent increase in just over six months. During the past month alone, Syrians have been flowing into neighboring Lebanon at an average rate of 5,466 people per day. These people are flooding into an already strained country, and one that’s smaller than the state of Connecticut.
Now that I’ve inundated you with numbers, I must admit that while I do love numbers, I care even more for pictures. I’m a visual learner, and it’s time I force you to be a visual person too, at least for a few minutes. I’d like you to start this exercise by wiping clean the canvas of your mind. Erase all impressions you have of the war in Syria. Wash away any notion you have of the Middle East, or of Muslims. And now go ahead and temporarily eradicate any political doctrine that tints your worldview. Good? Good. Now that your mind is clear, we are going to paint a picture together that will transport you to Lebanon. A picture of the refugee world, framed and dictated by the numbers we just discussed.
Imagine with me, you are now standing on a balcony of an apartment complex perched on the side of a mountain, looking out over a beautiful valley in a foreign country, a country you moved to several months ago. It’s the middle of the day and you are at home. You see kids playing in the streets below you, you hear birds chirping. You almost forget that you’ve been so worried for the past few months, and you almost believe that you are on vacation. Almost. But then reality floods in and you suddenly remember why you have been so stressed. You don’t actually have a job, and your children are sitting around the house because there isn’t room in any of the schools in your area for them. In fact, they haven’t been to school in two whole years. Oh, and this balcony you’re standing on, it’s actually attached to an abandoned concrete shell of a building that you have had to move into, because there were just no other options.
Back home, back before you moved to this new country, you led a good life. You were a simple person, sure, just a farmer, but you owned land with lots of avocado and fruit trees. You owned a large home, and you made more than enough money for your needs. In fact, you took a family vacation once a year or so. You were so proud of your accomplishments and the life you had made for yourself and your family. But that life now seems like a fading dream. You now remember that you left all your possessions in your home when you hurriedly fled Syria because the war broke out. You called one of your neighbors that remained behind to ask him about your house. “They broke the locks and stole everything,” your neighbor informs you. “Then they burned your house to the ground.”
You feel constant embarrassment, you have fallen so far. When you moved to this new place you had nothing but the clothes on your back. So after you found a place for your family to sleep, you had to ask your Lebanese neighbors for a few items, a mattress to sleep on, a couple of plates to use. They looked at you like your were a beggar, like you were worthless. This strikes you as ironic because back home in Syria you had a nicer house than they have now (but you don’t mention this to them). And you’ve seen that look somewhere else too, you saw it the day you went to get a food basket distributed by an organization in the next town over. The people distributing the food yelled at you and looked at you with such distain, and for no reason. They treated you like someone might treat an animal. They made you feel less than human that day.
The town where you live is now bursting at the seams with Syrians. It’s very difficult to find work because everyone is jobless. Your cousin, who is living in Beirut in a Palestinian refugee camp, tells you that Syrians there are so desperate that they are working for pennies. The Palestinians are not happy with the fact that all the Syrians have come in and started taking their jobs away. Your cousin hopes this will not lead to clashes.
You think back to how cheap things were in Syria. You could eat for a fraction of what it is costing you now in Lebanon. And because there are so many Syrians here now, the Lebanese shop owners in your new town have significantly raised the prices of their food. You guess this seems normal since the demand is so much greater now. The only problem is, they only raise the prices for the Syrians.
This also seems to be the case with rent. Since moving here, your landlord has continued to raise rent, and all of your Syrian neighbors are saying the same. You also heard an especially sad story the other day. A man you know had both of his legs blown off by a mortar back in Syria. He finally made it to Lebanon, and he moved into an apartment near you. As most landlords are now requiring from their Syrian tenants, the man had to pay for two months rent up front. The day after he moved into his new apartment and paid the rent, he found a friend who offered to let him stay for free in a room near the hospital, to make it easier for his frequent trips there. When he returned to explain the situation and to ask for his money back, the landlord refused to give him anything.
There is no mercy in Lebanon.
This picture we have just painted is a truthful one, created not from my imagination, but from the stories of Syrians I have met in Lebanon. Please remember, the nameless and faceless Syrians you hear about on the news do not exist. Behind all the numbers are people with names, people with fears, and people with hopes, and these people remain in desperate need of our help.
I will be creating a page on a crowd funding website in the coming weeks in order to start official fundraising for the school I plan to open in Lebanon for Syrian children. Please check back soon to find out how you can help, and please share this blog with your friends and social networks.