Lebanon News

As the Lebanese economy crumbles, Syrian refugees face their toughest winter

ARSAL, Lebanon: Before she can finish introducing her family, Hind Nassif breaks down in tears. Her two adult daughters Bdour and Nazha also begin to cry but try their best to hide it from the four young children sitting quietly in the corner.

There are no men in the Nassif household. Hind, 60, has two sons. One is the children’s father, but he abandoned them after his wife was killed in Syria’s civil war and he remarried. The other was sent to a regime prison in Syria nearly 10 years ago and has not been heard from since.

His only surviving daughter, 12-year-old Shaymaa, sits in a wheelchair next to the tent’s entrance. Owing to the psychological trauma caused by the relentless airstrikes she experienced back in Syria, Shaymaa lives with severe disabilities. The rest of her immediate family have not been found since a rocket hit their house nearly nine years ago.

All eight women and children live in this dark, cramped space, one of hundreds of tents in a sprawling refugee settlement on the hills surrounding Arsal, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. The family has been in the country for eight years; however, this winter has been their toughest yet.

Lebanon is facing its worst economic and financial crisis in decades. The country’s public debt has swollen to around 150 percent of GDP, dollar shortages are threatening essential imports, and tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs.

As in any economic downturn, the country’s most vulnerable communities have been the hardest hit. With the Lebanese economy on the brink of collapse, Syrian refugees across the country have been seriously affected by rising costs, a decrease in vital services, and an aid sector that is struggling to keep up.

“Everything has become so expensive,” Nazha told The Daily Star. “Shaymaa takes medicine for her nerves and her seizures. But the center that provides it is struggling to cope. We are having to decrease the dosage of some medication, and skip others altogether.”

Rising poverty among refugee communities has made this and other drastic measures commonplace.

“There are reportedly an increased number of children working in the streets, working conditions have deteriorated and signs of neglect increased,” said Josep Zapater, head of the Bekaa suboffice for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.

Some refugees have even resorted to burning shoes and plastic tarpaulins to keep warm, Zapater told The Daily Star.

A recently published U.N. survey found that in 2019 around 73 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon were living below the poverty line – up from 69 percent the year before.

“While we are working hard to further expand assistance, we remain severely constrained by funding limitations. This is forcing us and other humanitarian agencies to prioritize only the most vulnerable refugees,” Mireille Girard, UNHCR’s representative in Lebanon, said in a statement published in January.

The interagency humanitarian appeal, the Lebanon Crisis Response Plan, only received 50 percent of the money it needed from international donors last year, she added.

UNHCR cash assistance for refugees is transferred monthly to ATM cards issued to recipients. Now the organization has to constantly assess and reassess who is eligible for payments and how much they should receive. Despite living in abject poverty, many Syrian refugee families do not qualify.

As it stands, just under half of refugee families in Lebanon currently receive cash assistance from UNHCR or the World Food Programme. Payments from the WFP come in the form of a $27 allowance loaded onto e-cards at the beginning of every month, which is then used to purchase food from local shops or withdrawn in cash from ATMs.

But, because of the country’s dollar shortage, aid payments now have to be withdrawn in Lebanese pounds.

Lebanon’s national currency has lost more than 40 percent of its value in recent months, with unofficial exchange rates soaring far above the official peg of approximately LL1,500 to the U.S. dollar. In order to cope with this rapid devaluation, many shops have been forced to raise prices. As a result, aid payments to families no longer stretch as far as they once did.

Ahmad, 38, originally from rural Damascus, has been paralyzed from the waist down since 2015. He lives with his 35-year-old wife, Fatima, and three children in another tent settlement in Arsal.

“There’s not enough support from the UNHCR and the NGOs,” he told The Daily Star. “We’ve called asking for help but they just don’t have any. We used to do a full lunch every day ... but now we can only cook something hot every two to three days. My son always asks me why there is no food.”

To make circumstances even more dire, the UNHCR this year deemed Ahmad’s family no longer eligible to receive cash assistance. Now, they each have only the $27 per person WFP stipend to survive on.

“I just wish there was more help for people like me who are restricted by disabilities,” Ahmad said. “I can’t go to work or do anything, but there are no longer any real job opportunities, anyway.”

Despite the severity of the family’s situation, Ahmad does not want to send his 15-year-old son out to work. Even if he did, he said, the going rate for a 12-hour day of physical labor is now just LL3,000.

For refugees in Arsal, this winter has only been made harsher by the fact that they are now living in shelters that are much less resistant to the elements than their previous homes.

In April, Lebanon’s Higher Defense Council, ordered that all “semipermanent structures” built by Syrian refugees using materials other than wood and plastic sheeting had to be taken down. Residents were told that they had until the end of June to demolish their homes.

As most of the structures were either partially or fully made of concrete, many refugees did not have the means to dismantle them. This meant that they saw their homes bulldozed by the Lebanese Army, with their belongings still inside.

“The refugees in Arsal have received bad news upon bad news,” Zapater said. “First Daesh [ISIS] invaded the town in 2014 ... then came the demolitions, and now the economic crisis.”

Families suddenly found themselves in increasing debt after the demolitions, as they had to buy materials to build new shelters. But this is a symptom of a much wider issue. Displaced Syrians in 2018 had an average debt of $1,016 per household, according to UNHCR data, an increase from $919 in 2017.

“We are taking on more and more debt,” said Mahdiya, 41, originally from Homs. “We really don’t want to and I hope we can pay [them] back, but we have no choice – nobody in our family has work.”

Mahdiya, lives with her husband, Mohammad, 47, and five children in Arsal. Her eldest daughter Fatima, 19, has two infant daughters, who also share the family’s tent. Fatima took the children to live with her parents when her husband was arrested five months ago.

“We don't know why he is in prison. He was with his uncle one day on a motorbike in Arsal, and they arrested him and took him to Beirut,” said Fatima, holding her baby in her arms. “He hasn’t even met his new daughter yet. No one is telling us anything.”

To make a bad situation worse, because her father Mohammad lost his right leg as a result of a “war wound,” the family has been left without a main breadwinner.

“No one else in the community can really help us, because they are suffering too and have nothing,” said Fatima.

“If the situation continues to deteriorate, then there is no future,” said Mahdiya, sitting with her family huddled around a small gas heater in the center of the room. “But, God willing, it will be OK.”

 

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