Sunday, 17 August 2014

Documenting displacement: visiting the refugee camps of the Beqaa Valley

Documenting displacement: 
visiting the refugee camps of the Beqaa Valley

Last week, Sarah and I headed to Bar Elias in the Beqaa Valley, the fertile valley that sits between the Mount Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon mountain ranges of eastern Lebanon. The road from Beirut to the Syrian capital of Damascus passes through Bar Elias and remains opens, with various checkpoints en route. Due to the valley's proximity to the Syrian border, the one hundred and twenty kilometers which make up the Beqaa Valley now accommodate hundreds of thousands of Syria's refugees.

We were taken to Bar Elias in the far south of the valley by our Syrian friends, two sisters, and their cousin. One of the sisters knew the camps as she had lived there when she first arrived in Lebanon from Syria two and a half years ago, in August of 2012. Now she lives in Beirut and works with various NGOs, visiting camps and collecting handcrafts made by women to be sold in the cities. 

Sarah and our Syrian friend, who has asked not to be named for security reasons, looking back towards Beirut, situated fifty kilometres east of the Syrian border.

Arriving at a small settlement on the outskirts of Bar Elias, we entered a compound where around sixty tents were lined up alongside each other. These tented terraces were constructed with UNHCR canvas and sometimes even advertising material from billboards. The baking heat of the August sun beat down on the dusty ground, but despite this, a small and fertile vegetable patch made a sort of central square between the first rows of encampments. Children rose shyly to their feet as we entered.

The Syrian sisters asked for the tent of a woman they knew, and we were led to a clean, empty space in one of the homes. This was the living room, used for eating, socializing and sleeping. Long cushions had been laid around the edges of the tent, not unlike the layout of Bedouin tents I had visited years before in the eastern desert of Jordan. The tents in the camp are simple constructions, made with a concrete base and a wooden frame to support the canvas. Rooms are divided by canvas walls. A fan was switched on, and a bottle of cool water was brought from somewhere in the kitchen area of the tent.

We sat down and various children began to file into the living room, hiding behind each other, edging closer and closer to shake hands with us. The older boys and girls stayed at the back of the tent and smiled shyly when invited to come and join us. The sisters explained what Sarah was doing in Arabic and we sat and discussed for a while. The younger children asked 'enti malmeh?' are you a teacher, and 'wayn malhmehna Maya?', where is our teacher Maya? I asked where they knew Maya from and they said she was their teacher in Syria. 

Educational options are limited in the camp. Either the parents send their children on buses back to Syria for the day, a fifteen minute journey across the border, to go to their school there, or they face bullying in Lebanese schools. The solution is often to send them nowhere.

I have never seen children so desperate to learn. When they felt comfortable with us being there, the children sang songs for us and put on plays they had written. One song was beautiful, called 'sabah al khreir sooriah', good morning, Syria. It was all about saying good morning to Syria, not goodnight, and despite religious differences, Syrians were all one and the same. They were very bright and clearly missed being in school. One girl was barely seven and her English was so good, she could translate for me when she took me to visit her grandmother in another tent. When the time came for Sarah to set up her camera, I asked some of the children to draw for me what they missed most from Syria. Here are some of their drawings.

Ahmad missed his home in Palestine and Malak missed her grandfather, Nampi.

Esraa missed her family.

Fadin missed her father and uncle, who were killed in Homs last year.

Obeyda missed her sisters.

Alam missed her Uncle Tarik and baby cousin, Abu, lost in the war.

Mohammad made everyone laugh by announcing what he missed most was his chicken. 


The chicken was a surprising anomaly among the drawings, but when we reached the next settlement, where we learnt that meat was far more expensive to buy in Lebanon than in Syria, Mohammad's chicken made more sense. Meat is something the families can rarely afford to eat in the camps. The traditional kibbeh, a classic Syrian dish made up of sheep mince, pine nuts and bulgar wheat, is impossible to make, and is sorely missed. 

The children had something they wanted to show me, so I left the interviews to go and meet a special friend of theirs. A small ginger cat was purring on the lap of a little boy who stroked her tenderly in the shadowy entrance of his tent. The cat seemed truly beloved in the camp. The children took it in turns to stroke her ears and fought passionately over what her name was. After showing me the cat, they wanted to show me something else, so we went to the vegetable patch where the small, striped ball of a baby watermelon was beginning to grow alongside other leafs and vegetables. It was really quite remarkable that anything grew there, given the aridity of the land. The next secret was in a tent far across the camp. We went to visit the newborn baby brother of one of the children. The mother welcomed me in to her tent and the baby was passed around and taken next door, where two elderly ladies rested in the shade of their tent and asked if I could take a coffee with them, but I was already late for coffee in our first tent, where Sarah was conducting interviews.

We were so moved by the hospitality and kindness shown by the families we met in the camps, families who were so quick to offer what little they had to share. 

After a few hours we drove to the next camp, further into the valley, where we were invited to a new home that had recently been erected. It was a slightly more complex structure. This tent had two living rooms, one for each of the two families who lived there. Three generations of a family sat around us: a grandmother with her daughter, her daughter's husband, their children, girls of varying ages and a young son. They told us the story of how the Lebanese landlord of the house they had been renting nearby had raised the rent so high that they had been forced to leave and construct this tent. It was quite a feat of engineering. The family had dug a well behind the tent to bring up water, and a complex system of wires and generators connected the tent to electricity. It was the closest they could come to reconstructing their home. This exploitation of refugees can be seen throughout Lebanon, to varying degrees. Some landowners raise rents to impossible heights because they know they can, without judgement from their neighbours, forcing the Syrians to either pay more or leave. Some give land in exchange for a daughter's hand in marriage. The stories of exploitation and adapting to hardship go on and on.

The oldest daughter of the family had a sadness in her eyes. As the interviews continue I have started to wonder if knowing only a certain extent of a language gives way to more instinctive ways of gathering and exchanging information. I could tell she was upset, just from the brief moments of eye contact we had. When we left I asked the sisters about her and was told that girl was fourteen and had been recently married to her cousin. She had been married so her father would not have to be financially responsible for her any longer. 

The hardest visit for me was going into the house of a friend of the sisters, in Bar Elias town. This friend had six children. My mother also has six children, and as the fourth of six daughters, I know what it means to share space, time and resources. This family lived in one room, with another family. It was an unimaginably small space. I told the mother she had a beautiful family. Yes, she said, but their lives are not beautiful. Lebanese families living nearby have asked the parents to keep their children inside, and the cost of the autobus to take the children to the school fifteen kilometres away is beyond their means. So six children are out of school and living in this space. 

Their small home was full of canaries in cages, birds that are as cheap to buy in the markets as tomatoes. It was hard not to sense an analogy in the caged birds and the humans who lived such a limited existence alongside them. When the mother spoke of losing her father, tears welled in her eyes for a moment, but she pulled a child to her and adopted the same cheerful smile she had welcomed us with, thinking no one had seen. Her father had died in Syria and her family had not told her for many months as they knew she would want to return. Returning to Syria is what these families pray for, more than anything. The thought of returning is what makes their temporary poverty livable. My biggest fear is that what they long for most of all, peace in Syria, is still so many years away, and what happens in the interim is so damaging to their lives, especially the lives of children. The concept of a lost generation has never seemed more real.

When we turned back to wave goodbye to the family, we saw  the smile they have learned from their mother, who is without doubt one of the strongest women I have ever met.

Our visit to Beqaa has made me more determined than ever to put a plan into action after these next two levels of Arabic. I will write more about it later, but come November I plan to teach English and write bilingual children's reading material, stories set in locations specific to the camps and the region. These will be stories about friendship, peace building and courage. Meetings with organizations at work here in Lebanon creating child friendly spaces have been really positive, and conversations with teachers and visual artists in Beirut have given me confidence that this is a method of teaching and storytelling that could thrive in the camps.

Meanwhile, Sarah is returning to Belgium this week before coming back to Lebanon in November, so we will be processing the material we have collected this past month.  

Thanks for reading.

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