x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Children pay the price of Syria's conflict

Thousands of children are among the refugees who have escaped to Lebanon from the violence in Syria. They feel more safe across the border but the scars of their ordeal remain, reports Zoi Constantine, Foreign Correspondent.

Dalal, 10, left, and Asma, 8, are among thousands of Syrian refugees who have escaped the violence in their country for the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. Their father says they have not been to school in more than a year.
Dalal, 10, left, and Asma, 8, are among thousands of Syrian refugees who have escaped the violence in their country for the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. Their father says they have not been to school in more than a year.

Thousands of children are among the refugees who have escaped to Lebanon from the violence in Syria. They feel more safe across the border but the scars of their ordeal remain, reports Zoi Constantine, Foreign Correspondent

TRIPOLI, LEBANON // Every morning when the school bus stops in front of their building, Abu Adil's three youngest children rush outside from their ground-floor flat.

But they don't have backpacks slung over their shoulders. Instead, they watch as their friends and neighbours board the bus, then they wave goodbye.

Tamer, 12, Dalal, 10, and Asma, 8, have not been to school in more than a year.

They are among thousands of Syrian refugees who have escaped the violence in their country for the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli.

"When I see the school bus, I wish I could go with them," said Tamer, whose family did not want their real names published.

Activists say children are among the most affected of the 22,000 displaced Syrians now living in Lebanon.

Abu Adil, his wife and their six children are among 12,000 refugees in the northern area of Wadi Khaled and in Tripoli.

He tried to send his four school-age children to a government school when the family arrived in Tripoli six months ago, but the cost of registration, about Dh180, was out of his reach. The fees do not include books, uniforms or transport costs.

"They haven't been to school in over a year," he said, seated on a mattress on the floor of the family's cramped one-room flat in the Mina area of Tripoli.

"Before we left Syria, it was too dangerous to send the children to school. Sometimes kids would go and not come back."

Since refugees began arriving in Lebanon about a year ago, the United Nations refugee agency and its partner organisations have been providing support, including covering school-related costs for some.

But that assistance is not yet reaching all Syrian refugees and the agency is still in the process of registering people in Tripoli.

The Lebanese government is overseeing assistance to the displaced in north Lebanon, but some refugees are fearful of registering with authorities.

They know Lebanon is largely split between groups that still support the Al Assad regime in Syria, including Hizbollah and some of its allies in the governing March 8 bloc.

Having escaped the battered Bayada neighbourhood in Homs, Abu Adil knows they are among the lucky ones. But the scars of what they have endured remain.

"All the kids saw blood. They saw things they shouldn't ever see," his wife, 42, said slowly, before bowing her head and crying. She said she had no idea what has happened to members of her family left in Bayada, which in recent weeks has come under heavy bombardment from Syrian troops.

Abu Adil found a job as a handyman for the apartment building he lives in and in one other building. He does not get paid for the work but, as compensation, his family stays rent-free.

While the arrangement ensures the family have a roof over their heads, it does not provide money for other basic necessities.

His two eldest sons work as car mechanics in nearby workshops, bringing home about Dh180 each a week, which is supplemented by the approximately Dh380 a month they receive in donations from charities.

"I would go back to school if I could, but I have to help my family get money," said the oldest son, 16, at his workshop, his tired and grease-marked face belying his age.

Not far from where his family are staying, dozens of Syrians are living in dilapidated structures, the dirt roads outside littered with rubbish.

A 26-year-old woman, who gave her name as Umm Bakri, her husband and their four young children have been living in a building in the grounds of a stonemason's yard. They left their home in the Homs neighbourhood of Deir Baalbeh seven months ago.

To send her eldest two children to school, she says they have to live in these squalid conditions as they have not received any financial help.

"My children have to learn. If they have no education, this will be a big problem for their future," she said outside her temporary home while toddlers played in the dirt at her feet. "There is no mother who would want their child to live like this."

Other refugees, such as Abu Tareq, have depleted their life savings since fleeing the crisis in Syria. The father of five left the city of Hama seven months ago and is now working with a Syrian group supporting the thousands of displaced in Tripoli.

"We urgently need money for children's education and are badly in need of money for rent for these families to live," he said. "The ones who had money have run out. If no one helps us soon, there could be families on the streets."

zconstantine@thenational.ae