4 March Mar 2013 1141 04 March 2013

Lebanon: helping Syrians seeking refuge

AVSI is helping Syrians seeking refuge from one of the most violent wars affecting our world today with interventions near the border in order to save thousands of families from the cold of winter and guaranteeing that children can continue to attend school, despite the dire conditions in which they live.

The civil war in Syria is having a significant impact on neighboring countries, particularly Lebanon and Jordan, where thousands of families have fled and continue to arrive every day, leaving behind destroyed houses, violence and often part of their family.
In this framework AVSI implements several activities funded by the EU agency for Humanitarian AID and Civil Protection (ECHO), the Swiss Foundation St. Camille and the AVSI’s fund raising campaign.
The heavy snowfalls in Lebanon have strained the poorest family hosting Syrian refugees so that  a swift  action is needed. AVSI, under the coordination of UNHCR, is assisting 450 displaced families in the West Bekaa through the distribution of “winterized” Non-Food Items: winter blankets, stoves and fuel vouchers.
But winter cold is not the only concern. The international humanitarian community has identified child protection and school support for Syrian families as priority issues.The United Nations estimates that 50% of refugees are children.
AVSI emergency team based in Beirut started in February a collaboration with UNICEF Department of Education and Child Protection by implementing an intervention in four public schools with high attendance of Syrian students: weekly remedial classes will be organized and a “Child Friendly Bus” will move among rural communities and the poorest suburbs where Syrian families have found shelter in order to organize recreational activities and provide psychosocial support to people in need. interviewed Marco Perini, AVSI Country Officer in Lebanon.

How many Syrian refugees are currently living in Lebanon?

Even as we speak the flood of Syrians arriving in Lebanon, both officially and unofficially, continues. The numbers are around 6,000 known refugees every week, so it's still a steady exodus. Today in Lebanon we are at about 400,000 individuals officially registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In reality, there are many more, because there are those refugees who needed to enroll with UNHCR to receive assistance, but there are also many other wealthy families, from Damascus, who can manage without political refugee status. And of course, there are those people who for various political reasons do not register for fear that the list with their names will end up in the wrong hands, which could make their future even more uncertain.

Four of your staff are present in Bekaa West . What are t he components of your project there?

It is an ongoing project, building on previous work in Lebanon and Jordan, which remains urgent and dramatic. We are working in four regions to help over 2,000 people, including Syrians who have not yet been registered by UNHCR, as well as Lebanese returners. This last group is comprised of those who had been living in Syria for many years, but for many reasons have now returned to Lebanon, where they no longer own anything. Under the coordination of UNHCR we are providing them with kits to allow them to fight the cold. In December, West Bekaa was under a blanket of snow.

Where are the refugees living?

The refugees are hosted in tents or in cramped rooms in cement buildings with no floors. When they arrived, it was still warm and they came with summer clothing and shoes. We distribute blankets, heating stoves and gasoline to keep them from dying from the cold.

And in southern Lebanon?

In the areas bordering Israel, specifically in Marjayoun and Bint Jbeil provinces, we are working in 11 public Lebanese schools which have accepted Syrian children. Our goal is that they don’t miss out on the academic year, considering that Lebanese children study certain classes in English or French, while the Syrians study every thing in Arabic, meaning that access to school is unequal and the new arrivals tend to cause a big drop in the level of teaching. In collaboration with UNICEF’s child protection unit we are expanding the remedial classes and add activities with a “Child Friendly Bus”, allowing the mobility to take recreational activities to refugee children closer to where they are living.

How do you help?

We organize daily remedial classes for the Syrian children who are behind the curriculum . At the same time, we provide psychosocial accompaniment through social workers to help the young refugees to integrate as smoothly as possible in the difficult context. You have to imagine children who find themselves in an area that’s not completely safe, living in makeshift shelters after having fled from their homes. Many refugees families are also living with just one parent, as often mothers escape with their children while the fathers stay behind in Syria to protect their homes or fight the war.

Is life on the border with Syria calm or are there conflicts among armed groups even there?

The border regions of Lebanon are used as reserve for the Free Syrian Army. It often happens that the raids of the official Army reach the villages along the border of the two countries by land or by air. Conversely , the rebel militias have bases in Lebanon, so they enter into Syria and then retreat beyond the border again.

What security measures have you taken to protect your personnel?

To work in the South, we have to have military permission, since they are regions that border Israel. In West Bekaa, we are constantly monitoring the situation through information channels of the Italian Embassy and United Nations. Some days, there are areas where we cannot enter because of security reasons.