Poverty and abuse in the Bekaa

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Once again, winter is approaching and Lebanon not only faces the environmental disaster of garbage soaking into the groundwater, but yet another harsh season for hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees living in tents with no floors or walls to keep the floods and snowstorms out.

It has been almost two years since I last reported from the Bekaa valley camps of Jeb Janine and sadly little has improved for their downtrodden residents since then. A few weeks ago, before the heavy downpour of last night, I traveled back to the camp with a group of journalists.

Here are some of the stories we heard.

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Fawza al Hassan, pictured above with her two little daughters, showed us the bloated stomach and eye problems the 7-year-old girls face. Fawza says she hasn’t been able to get them medical care and cannot even secure her own tent or steady source of food. She relies on the generosity of neighbors for shelter and a bit of rice.

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Thuraya Ahmed Hamoud from Aleppo (above) says she has not received any aid from the UN for over six months. Her husband cannot help because has been jailed for a year now for not renewing his visa. He avoided renewing it out of fear that authorities would deport him, she says. In addition to the baby on the floor behind her, Thuraya has eight other children to feed, ranging from six months to 16 years old. “I don’t want anything, just food for my children,” she says. Like Fawza, Thuraya is also relying on handouts from impoverished neighbors. “We mainly eat potatoes, sometimes we rice,” she explains. “We have not eaten meat for a year. We have no clothes for winter.”

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Hassan–I won’t include his last name for fear of reprisals– told my colleague Ahmed Shihab-ElDin (below) that he tried to work in sorting garbage from the nearby town of Jeb Janine for recylcing but town authorities stopped the operation due to “lack of having a permit.” (Amazing considering how desperately recycling is needed in the Bekaa and across Lebanon). Thus with little employment for the men, he said the women of the camp are often bread-winners,  picking onions in nearby farms from 3AM to 4PM for just four dollars per day.

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Adding insult to abject poverty, Lebanese army soldiers often raid and harass camp residents by barging through doors in the middle of the night demanding to see IDs, Hassan says. He says troops even broke into his bedroom while he was sleeping next to his wife. But despite all this, Hassan was happy to share stories with us and offered cigarettes and tea.

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The claims of abuse I heard are similar to accounts documented in a recent Vice piece by fellow journalist Sulome Anderson, who wrote of Lebanese police destroying shacks in a camp. (See the link for a video). These claims are heard often and we know that there has been attacks on refugees in the past, from assualts to burning of camps. Is the Lebanese judiciary even interested in investigating these cases? What rights do the refugees have under Lebanese law and would they even feel confident voicing harassment they face?

Following her piece Sulome started a crowd-funding campaign to help rehouse some of the refugees. You can read more about it and contribute here. But hurry, there are only a few days left.

I think it’s great to see an increasing number of journalists going beyond simply reporting on tragedy to actually trying to help those whose stories we tell by providing mechanisms of material support. In fact a lot of refugees are sick of talking to journalists because they don’t see news articles improving their lives.

Other examples include Inara, an NGO that helps injured children in war zones, founded by CNN reporter Arwa Damon. Two of my other colleagues, Brooke Anderson and Venetia Rainey, also started a crowd-funding campaign to help support a Syrian refugee school they had reported on.

Finally my colleague Jenny Gustafsson has compiled a list of organizations you can also donate to. If you can spare a few dollars, that money could go a long way to supporting those who are so desperately in need, especially as temperatures drop.

I’ll leave you with some more pictures I took at the camp. You can imagine how little cold these structures keep out. Remember this is just one of hundreds  of camps scattered across the country.

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Across Jeb Janine, babies lie on dirt or thin concrete floors. How will they cope in winter?

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Ahmed and some of our other colleagues played music for the children before we left. They were so overjoyed at just a few minutes of attention.