For Syrian refugees in Lebanon, mounting piles of debt (+video)

A new study from Oxfam estimates that more than 75 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon have taken on debt. Some families even rely on remittances from family still in Syria. 

By , Correspondent

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    Syrian refugees walk outside their tents at a refugee camp in the eastern Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon, Nov. 18, 2013. Thousands of Syrians have fled to Lebanon over the past days as government forces attack the western town of Qara near the border with Lebanon.
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When Fatma Mohammed crossed into Lebanon from Syria a year ago, she brought with her $1,500 in cash – enough she thought to get her family of seven through a few weeks in Beirut.

She and her family rent a small apartment in Shatila, a Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Beirut where rents are much lower than the city. She earns $300 a month working at a youth center. Her oldest son, who is 18, brings in extra cash when he can get work lifting concrete and cement, but they can barely cover half of their expenses. Her husband, whose old job at the Ministry of Electricity in Syria afforded the family a comfortable life in a Damascus suburb, has impaired sight and now is unable to work.

Now, they are $500 in debt, and that sum is growing quickly. It’s a plight that has become endemic for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, according a report released this week by humanitarian agency Oxfam.

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Food and shelter are so much more expensive here than in Syria that even formerly middle class families, with substantial savings, are running out of funds. Many less wealthy Syrians crossed with only a few hundred dollars, some with nothing. The average monthly shelter costs about $225, according to the report, and everything from clothing to transport is significantly more costly.

“The amount of money they brought…really speaks to people’s perception of how long they thought they would stay,” says Noah Gottschalk, senior humanitarian policy expert with Oxfam. “It’s starting to sink in that there won’t be a quick solution to the conflict and they’re not able to go home.”

More than 75 percent of the 260 Syrian refugee households surveyed by Oxfam carry debt. For refugees like Ms. Mohammed, it is unclear how they will pay that money back.

“I thought we would stay a few days here, maybe a month,” she says.

Some refugees take remittances from family still inside Syria. Despite the critical situation in the country, the cost of living is so much lower in Syria that those who stayed behind can sometimes afford to send money out to those who fled.

“As the conflict continues these sources of income are drying up,” says Mr. Gottschalk.

Only 32 percent of refugees polled have paid employment and in many cases that income only covers their rent, about half of their living costs. Some rely on the kindness of local shopkeepers who allow them to buy on credit, or landlords that allow them to postpone rent payments. But this debt burden is stretching the local communities thin.

Um Mohammed says the small grocery shop she owns with her husband in Shatila is already owed around $3,000. She complains she is unable to buy new stock and she’s has had to cut off Syrian refugees buying on credit.

“When they get up to $100 or $150 dollars, that’s it,” she says, pulling out a book where she keeps records of what’s owed. “How do I know they will not just leave and not pay me back?”

There are an estimated 1 million Syrians in Lebanon, a tiny Mediterranean country with a population of just 4 million that has deep religious divisions exacerbated by the war next door. 

“This has Lebanon obviously worried,” says Ninette Kelley, The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Lebanon. “It’s about the size of Connecticut, so it’s struggling.”

Refugees in Lebanon face an additional hurdle accessing assistance because Lebanon has not allowed the UN agency to set up an official refugee camp like it has in Jordan, with the camp at Zaatari. Refugees in Lebanon are dispersed throughout the country, in cities and towns, in informal settlements in rural areas, and in improbable places like an abandoned shopping mall. 

More than 70 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are entirely dependent on international assistance, according to Ms. Kelley. 

Among them, is Nouma Ghazi Raji, who shares a one-room apartment in Shatila with her six children.  A local organization called Najda Now, or Help Now in English, pays her rent and she scrapes by with the $220 in monthly assistance she receives from the UN.

“Every month I owe about $150 and I have no way to pay it back,” says Ms. Raji, whose husband left the family seven months ago.

If she can reach her family in Syria, she says, she will consider returning to her native Daraa, despite the ongoing violence.

“There is already a lack of funding. We have a greater need – and the amount of funding is getting less and less,” says Ali Shiekh Haidar, a coordinator at Najda Now. “Sadly, I don’t think the donors will stay interested if this situation continues for two more years.”

There has been a surge of new refugees crossing into Lebanon at the border town of Arsal in the last week. More than 2,200 families have entered from that crossing point since fighting intensified in the nearby Qalamoun region of central Syria. These newest refugees are at particular risk because many of them lack even winter clothes, and thousands lack proper winter shelter. 

“It’s evident they were taken by surprise because they came over with nothing,” Kelley says.

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