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Syrian Refugees Seeking Safety in Lebanon Find More Crises

February 6, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
As the civil war in Syria rages on, refugees have fled to nearby Lebanon. Unfortunately, that move has brought new challenges, including inadequate supplies, discrimination, winter weather and hunger. The NewsHour sent video journalist Paige Kollock to Lebanon to report on the crisis first-hand. Ray Suarez reports.

GWEN IFILL: Next, we return to the conflict in Syria and the unfolding refugee crisis there.

The NewsHour recently sent freelance video journalist Paige Kollock to neighboring Lebanon to see how the newly displaced are dealing with winter, inadequate supplies and discrimination.

Ray Suarez narrates our story.  

RAY SUAREZ: Twenty-two months in and showing no signs of abating, the fight for the future of Syria drags on. Both sides continue to wage all- out war, with more than 60,000 dead and the plight of Syria’s displaced and dispossessed only growing worse.

At this tent camp in El-Marj, in the eastern part of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, only 25 miles from the Syrian border, refugees are struggling to adapt to a new, impermanent reality and to winter temperatures that routinely drop below freezing.

ABU MOHAMMED, Syrian refugee: If you want me to compare between living here and living in Syria, we’re not living here.

RAY SUAREZ: This man, who calls himself Abu Mohammed, arrived in December. He didn’t want to reveal his face, still deathly afraid of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

ABU MOHAMMED: I came here because Bashar al-Assad was killing us, was killing our women and raping them. They were kidnapping the women and raping them inside their tanks. They destroyed our houses, shops and cars. They didn’t leave anything.

RAY SUAREZ: As harsh as that was, he and others, like Maryam Al-Okla, say life here is also unbearable.

MARYAM AL-OKLA, Syrian refugee: No one is helping us. Look at the water. It flooded yesterday, and my kids, I took them outside since the morning because I don’t have diesel to heat the room. What should I say? What should I say? We were dying over there, and we’re dying here.

RAY SUAREZ: With her three children, Al-Okla lives up the road in this modest apartment in Majdal Anjar, where she pays $100 dollars a month in rent. Her daughter, asked whether she prefers her new life to her old one, says the broken heater, called a sobia, makes the choice clear.

CHILD: There. Here, the house is small and it doesn’t fit us. We can’t sleep. We are sleeping next to the sobia, but we’re turning the sobia off at night. We try to turn it on, but it’s not working.

RAY SUAREZ: Each day, more refugees stream into the area, lining up to register with Dar al-Fatwa, the organization responsible for Sunni affairs in Lebanon.

The country’s Muslim population is fairly evenly divided between Sunni and Shias, but the vast majority of Syria’s refugees are Sunni. And here they hope to receive diesel fuel for their stoves and blankets to keep warm. The local population is buckling under the strain, says Sheik Amayn Sharkieh, head of humanitarian affairs for Dar al-Fatwa.

SHEIK AMAYN SHARKIEH, Dar al-Fatwa: We opened our houses, our families, and we put the people in our houses, until the amount of refugees increased so much that it became a burden on us.

ALEXANDRA BROSNAN, International Rescue Committee: This crisis is very complex, because it covers quite a wide area. It covers at least four neighboring countries, five neighboring countries. And it’s growing.

RAY SUAREZ: Alexandra Brosnan is with the International Rescue Committee, a non-governmental relief agency working to aid Syria’s displaced.

ALEXANDRA BROSNAN: If we think back to April, there were 33,000 registered refugees. Today, we’re looking at over 700,000. It has evolved very, very quickly. And it’s also difficult, in that we do believe it’s going to be protracted already.

RAY SUAREZ: Last week alone, some under cover of night, more than 20,000 fled into northern Jordan, overwhelming an already crowded refugee camp.

According to the United Nations, Jordan’s now home to more than 238,000 Syrian refugees. To Syria’s north, some 170,000 have migrated into Turkey. There are tens of thousands living in Iraq and Egypt, too. But Lebanon, the smallest country in both size and population, is home to the greatest number of displaced Syrians, more than 250,000.

ARAM NERGUIZIAN, Center for Strategic and International Studies: If you look at the ratios of population to refugee population, Lebanon is arguably the one that is under the most pressure.

RAY SUAREZ: Aram Nerguizian is a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

ARAM NERGUIZIAN: You have what was a trickle become a essentially an open spigot. You have anywhere between 200,000 and 300,000 Syrians who are essentially living with Lebanese families wherever they can, in some cases squatting. You have to remember that you already have 200,000 to 400,000 Palestinian refugees. You have to remember that this is a country of 4 or 4.5 million people and with very small territory, very rugged.

RAY SUAREZ: Unlike in Turkey and Jordan, thus far, the Lebanese government has refused to build permanent camps for its Syrian population. Nerguizian says that’s based on its experience with Palestinian refugees, who for decades have lived in camps in Lebanon, some of which became autonomous and ungovernable states in the 1970s.

ARAM NERGUIZIAN: Here you are, 2013, you still have that same Palestinian issue. You add to that an additional 200,000 to 300,000 Syrian refugees, again, predominantly Sunni. It’s essentially creating a lot of the same backlash.

RAY SUAREZ: This Lebanese drivers, who didn’t want to give their name, confirm that hostility.

MAN: The Lebanese people are maxed out more than the Syrians now. The Lebanese people are living in their country, which is only 4,500 square miles. I don’t mind. Anyone that got persecuted over there and came here to stay safe, I don’t mind, but for them to interfere with my interests, I’m not going to accept that.

MAN: The refugees here are suffering a lot, and the Lebanese people are harassing them a lot, frankly. In the past, to rent a house, the standard was about $200. Today, since we have refugees, they are taking $800 or $900. The landlords are using the people.

RAY SUAREZ: In addition to struggling to house and care for the refugee population, there’s growing concern that the ongoing conflict and the wave of refugees could upset a delicate balance in Lebanon, a country comprising Sunni and Shia Muslims, Maronite and Greek Orthodox Christians, Druze and others.

ARAM NERGUIZIAN: You have Sunni fighters from the predominantly Sunni north of Lebanon who are now fighting with the armed opposition. And you have Shiites, especially from Hezbollah, who are fighting on the side of the Assad regime. They basically both go to Syria, they duke it out and they come home. And they don’t bring the fight back. The problem is that that works, until it doesn’t.

RAY SUAREZ: Last October, a bombing in Beirut killed intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan, a Sunni. Many believe Assad and pro-Assad forces within Lebanon were behind the attack. To avoid reigniting a civil war in Lebanon along sectarian lines, Nerguizian says the international community must provide support to help Lebanon deal with the refugees.

ARAM NERGUIZIAN: Lebanon is the smallest player in the Levant, with the least capability, the biggest pressures, and at the best of times, that was precarious, and this is not the best of times.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: We’re under no illusions. The days ahead will continue to be very difficult.

RAY SUAREZ: To that end, last week in a video directed at the Syrian people, President Obama announced $155 million dollars more in humanitarian aid for those displaced by the fighting.

BARACK OBAMA: This new aid will mean more warm clothing for children and medicine for the elderly, flour and wheat for your families and blankets, boots and stoves for those huddled in damaged buildings.

RAY SUAREZ: That assistance came ahead of a donor’s meeting in Kuwait, where countries from around the world pledged $1.5 billion dollars, nearly two-thirds of that to deal with regional issues arising from the crisis.

ALEXANDRA BROSNAN: I do believe that they will follow up, and I do believe that this was a successful way to bring much-needed resources to the crisis. But we do need to make sure that we continue to do that in a coordinated and fast fashion.

RAY SUAREZ: Until that money materializes and resources can be marshalled, many in the Bekaa Valley, like Abu Mohammed, will be left with little hope and mounting frustration.

ABU MOHAMMED: Where is Islam? Where is America for the Syrian people? Where is the world? They all say, we are with the Syrian revolution, but we haven’t seen anything. These are empty words.

RAY SUAREZ: There’s no telling how long promises by the world will be just empty words, as the conflict rages on in his homeland. However, there will more and more refugees like him in Lebanon and other neighboring countries this winter, cold, tired, hungry, and war-weary.

GWEN IFILL: You can find more about Syria’s refugees and internally displaced on our Web site. We have a dispatch there from a camp in Northern Syria where two toddlers have died this winter of hypothermia. You can also find out more about what the U.S. is doing to help, including the use of underground networks to deliver X-ray machines and other equipment.