When Saada Khalaf, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon, lost her husband to a long illness earlier this year, she could not find a place to bury him in the eastern Lebanese town where the couple had lived since they fled the civil war back home. The nearest cemetery where she and her relatives were allowed to bury him was in the village of Dalhamiyeh, about 16 kilometers from the town of Barr Elias.
Some 1.5 million Syrian refugees who fled their country’s conflict are believed to be living in Lebanon, equal to about a third of the Mediterranean country’s population of 4.5 million people.
With many cemeteries almost full, Syrians are facing difficulties finding places where they can bury their loved ones who die in Lebanon. Most are not able to take them back for burial in Syria because of the dangers and closed roads – just some of the results of the five-year civil war that has killed more than a quarter-million people and displaced half the country’s prewar population.
“Syrians have become a burden whether they are alive or dead,” said Riad Rashid, a refugee from the Syrian city of Homs.
Khalaf, who fled from Homs after Syria’s crisis began in 2011, only remembers that her husband, Ali Jomaa, died on a Monday morning a few months ago.
She says she is illiterate and does not know exact dates.
She and their neighbors had brought him to a clinic that morning, suffering from asthma-related breathing problems, and he died shortly afterward.
She did not attend the funeral in Dalhamiyeh – as a woman and in accordance with Muslim tradition – as male members of the family took the body for prayers and burial.
Later, when she first went back to the cemetery, she could not find his grave. Two weeks ago, she went again with her brother and an Associated Press crew and the brother pointed out the burial place, at the edge of the cemetery.
Khalaf burst into tears. The grave, which she said cost her $100, had no marker on it like those of Lebanese who were buried at the cemetery.
She walked toward the grave and started touching the red sand on it.
“My heart is burning. He went and left me alone,” said the 45-year-old woman, who has no children, as she wiped her tears with her brown headscarf. “May God give him mercy. He was good to me. He never upset me.”
Many Syrians say they increasingly face prejudice from the Lebanese, who claim the refugees have drained Lebanon’s resources and put so much pressure on the country’s infrastructure that even burying their loved ones is becoming a problem.
Back in Barr Elias, the town’s Mayor Mohammad al-Jammal said his people have nothing against the Syrians, adding that the main cemetery is full and cannot take any more people from outside the town.
He said each family in the town has its own block of land reserved at the cemetery.
Jammal said more than 35,000 Lebanese live in the town, as well as about 60,000 Syrians who are spread among 51 informal camp settlements in Barr Elias.
“We are not against Syrians being buried here,” Jammal said, speaking at his office in the busy town center.
As for Ali Jomaa, he added: “I am not against burying him here but I don’t have a place to bury him.”
Rashid, who lives with his family in two tents in one of Barr Elias’ unofficial refugee camps, said there is almost a death in the camp every day; people just die of natural causes.
“We suffer every time a Syrian dies,” said the 45-year-old father of six girls and seven boys whose ages range between 4 months and 24 years. “What we wish most of all is to go back to our country and die in our country.”