Lebanon’s dual approach to Syrian refugees: the personal and political
search for solutions
Even as Prime Minister Hariri canvasses Europe for investment to rescue Lebanon's overburdened infrastructure, grass-roots efforts work to improve the quality of individual lives.
Saadnayel, Lebanon—In a quiet field on the outskirts of this Bekaa Valley town, dozens of children under age 13 are attending classes in several wooden schoolrooms erected beside a newly built refugee camp.
The schools were built by Beyond Association, a local nonprofit seeking to alleviate through education and therapy the suffering of war-traumatized Syrian children, most of whom have been forced to work to support their refugee families.
In Lebanon, the country with the highest per capita refugee population in the world, some 250,000 Syrian refugee children between the ages of 5 and 13 do not attend school because their families depend on their income.
“This is a lost generation,” says Maria Assi, CEO of Beyond. “Mothers tell me they cannot work because they have small children to look after, so they send the older children to work instead. We say no. Give us all your children and you go to work.”
Beyond’s effort is part of the country’s two-pronged approach to solving its refugee crisis, deploying nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to address needs at a grass-roots level even as Prime Minister Saad Hariri tours Europe’s capitals this week to reiterate his case that Lebanon has been brought to a “breaking point” and desperately needs international investment to improve its overburdened infrastructure.
“The failure of the international community to come to a solution in Syria should not be the responsibility of Lebanon in taking care of these refugees,” Mr. Hariri recently told a small group of foreign reporters. "Everyone talks about how Lebanon is resilient, how Lebanon is beautiful, how the Lebanese can take it.… Well, you know, the Lebanese … have reached a point where they can’t take it anymore.”
Hariri, who recently unveiled a sweeping seven-year plan for international investment, has delivered that message in recent days in Paris, Berlin, and on Tuesday, Brussels, where he is attending a two-day conference on the future of Syria.
These two approaches represent two sides of the same coin – one investing effort into a broader national solution to the refugee crisis and the other investing in the human potential of individual refugees.
Misery in camps, but 'also a lot of talent'
Lebanon, which has a population of around 4.5 million, has since 2011 absorbed an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees, the rough equivalent of the entire populations of Poland and Germany moving to the United States in a six-year period. The burden has greatly strained Lebanon’s already frail and inadequate infrastructure, swamped schools, and aggravated tensions between overwhelmed host communities and the refugees. According to Lebanese government officials, citing World Bank figures, Lebanon’s economy lost an estimated $18 billion between 2011 and 2015 from the impact of the war in Syria.
At Beyond’s schools outside Saadnayel, some 280 children attend classes run in two shifts from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Alongside basic education and literacy programs, the school also offers art and music therapy to help troubled children. Many of the refugees arrive in Lebanon severely traumatized, having witnessed the brutality of war and in many cases lost friends, relatives, and their homes to start new and uncertain lives as refugees in ramshackle encampments.
“They come here angry, scared, and disillusioned, and the women wearing black [in mourning]. They need time to adjust, and after a month or two they usually calm down,” says Ms. Assi, whose organization works across the country helping refugees.
In one small classroom, a group of students are rehearsing a play they co-wrote about rejecting sorrow and hatred and promoting love and peace.
“I love this hobby and I like to send a positive message through acting,” says Hussein Ibrahim, 11, from Aleppo province. “It’s true there is a lot of misery in the camps, but there is also a lot of talent.”
In another classroom, students perform their own songs, playing instruments and singing. The lyrics to one of their songs laments the war in Syria and their life as refugees, but ends on an upbeat note.
“We stand our ground, and when we go back to you, Syria, we will rebuild and no longer be refugees. We were in the sky as stars glowing in the night. Now we are waiting. We are Syrians, not refugees,” they sang.
'Nothing left to give'
Saadnayel, a Sunni-populated town, generally supports the cause of the rebels in Syria seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad and welcomed the refugees, almost all of whom are fellow Sunnis, when the war began. But today, tensions are rising between the residents of the town and the Syrians.
“At the beginning of the crisis we were happy to receive the refugees from a humanitarian and religious perspective. We gave them everything we own. But they have bled us to death. We have nothing left to give,” says Hussein Shoubassi, a member of the Saadnayel municipality.
Marwan Traboulsi, another member of the municipality, said the Lebanese government allocates to the municipality 500 million Lebanese Lira ($333,333) a year for infrastructure needs.
“We are still getting the same amount of money, but our population has increased by three times because of the refugees,” he says.
The Lebanese government recently came up with a crisis response plan to help alleviate the refugee burden and is hoping to persuade the international community to invest. Although the government has not published a target sum to raise, Hariri says a guideline would be to secure $10,000-to-$12,000 per refugee over a seven-year period. The money would be used to invest in Lebanon’s infrastructure and to answer the educational needs of Syrian children through vocational training and accelerated learning programs.
“This allows them to find jobs [in Lebanon] and allow them to go back to Syria when conditions permit where they can work in the [country’s] reconstruction,” says Nadim Mounla, Hariri’s adviser on refugees.
While the Lebanese government attempts to tackle the refugee crisis on a macro level to resolve the national burden, Beyond works on a micro, human scale, hoping to improve the quality of individual lives.
“People look at the refugees and see only tents, but I see the lights coming from the tents,” says the CEO, Assi. “They are very talented and have a will to continue with their education. Money is not everything in life. Just give them choices, options, and support, and they can continue by themselves.”