x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Syrian refugees scared to return, scared to stay

Thousands cross border to flee violence, but on as local communities, government, UN and NGOs offer aid to those seeking shelter, families fear Syrian authorities have infiltrated Leban.

A Syrian refugee woman holds her three-week-old baby, who was born in Lebanon, as she sits on a mattress in an abandoned school where food and shelter are provided by a local charity, in Wadi Khaled area, northern Lebanon. Mohammed Azakir / Reuters
A Syrian refugee woman holds her three-week-old baby, who was born in Lebanon, as she sits on a mattress in an abandoned school where food and shelter are provided by a local charity, in Wadi Khaled area, northern Lebanon. Mohammed Azakir / Reuters

WADI KHALED, LEBANON // At an unused Lebanese school near the border, Syrian children played army - standing guard at the entrance to each floor to keep the enemy away.

The first floor of the building housed people from the Syrian town of Arida; the second floor was reserved for those from Tel Kalakh.

As the children played their game, families inside the classrooms were glad to feel relatively safe, but growing anxious about the day when the children's games might come to an abrupt end.

Six months after the Syrian government's crackdown on protesters began, increasing numbers of Syrians are heading across the border into Lebanon to escape the violence. Some are afraid that Syrian authorities will, or already have, infiltrated Lebanon.

A 42-year-old woman who would be identified only as Khadeeja, has been staying in a former classroom with her eight sons for several weeks.

Mattresses were spread on the floor and a washing-line hung from the walls. A refrigerator whirred in the corner - a gift from the community, she said. Many of those who fled have relatives on the Lebanese side of the border.

"Arida is full of army and mukhabarat [secret police] now," Khadeeja said. "Every 100 metres there's a checkpoint. We're afraid to go back now - maybe they'll take the children or the men."

Khadeeja said she was particularly afraid for the safety of her eldest son, Alaa. The 27-year-old electrician said it would be impossible for his family to return to Syria while President Bashar Al Assad remained in power.

"Of course, we want to go back, but we can't. At the same time, we are scared to be here [in Lebanon] too," Alaa said.

The refugees have been relying on support from the Lebanese government, United Nations agencies, NGOs and the local community for several months since fleeing the fighting in nearby Syrian towns such as Arida and Tel Kalakh.

The UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, has registered 3,800 Syrians as refugees in Lebanon, some staying just a few hundred metres from Syrian territory in Lebanese border towns.

"But this number is going up and there are also people who are not registered here," said Alain Ghafari, a field coordinator for UNHCR.

Other groups place the number of displaced Syrians as high as 6,000. UNHCR operates two shelters in the Wadi Khaled region along the Lebanon-Syria border to accommodate displaced families.

"But, we also continue to rely on the host community as well, which is a good arrangement [for the refugees] to be protected and hosted with families," said Mr Ghafari.

After the trauma of fleeing their homes and the long summer, some of the refugee children have been enrolled in schools. According to UNHCR, Lebanese authorities instructed schools to open their doors for the younger refugees being sheltered in the Wadi Khaled area.

In a house belonging to a Lebanese family down the road from the shelter, several Syrian men gathered around a television watching a satirical animated programme poking fun at members of the Syrian regime.

The Lebanese owners are staying on the ground floor of the two-storey building. The second floor is the temporary home for two dozen Syrians.

"At least I can look from here and see my country out the window," said a man in his 20s, who declined to give his name. "I don't prefer to be in hiding, but the community here has been helping us so much more than we could expect."

Ali Badawi, a local community leader, said more than 400 Syrians were being sheltered in his town of 4,000 people.

"We are one community that is separated by borders that we don't care about," he said, sitting on floor cushions among the Syrian men. The group flinched as shots rang out from across the border, before some of the men broke out in nervous laughter.

There have been several cross-border incidents since the refugees began crossing into Lebanon, including reports of Syrian soldiers pursuing people fleeing the country. Mr Badawi said that while the community welcomed those in need of shelter, he also said they were under pressure.

"We had some problems about preparing places for people to stay," he said. "There is stress for us here in the village. But we feel it is our humanitarian work."

zconstantine@thenational.ae