By Lara Kajs
More than 1.2 million refugees have been sheltered in Lebanon during the holiday season.
At least 55,000 of those live in the Burj el-Baranjneh camp in Beirut; more than five times the number the camp was originally intended to house. Designed 70 years ago after the creation of Israel; to say the camp is overcrowded is a gross understatement.
The slum environment includes littered streets, concrete buildings and unsafe, exposed wiring hanging throughout the camp, leading to habitual power outages and dangerous conditions. Known as ‘the wall of death’ is a section at the camp’s center and includes water pipes covered with high voltage exposed wiring. While it has been the result of 48 deaths, mostly children, over a five year span, nothing has been done to change the situation.
Just south of the camp in Beirut city is another area, Saida, at the center of which is a half-finished building that is home to more than 170 Syrian families taking refuge. The smell is horrendous. Raw sewage is openly exposed, and there is no access to clean water. Living conditions are deplorable. As many as ten people live in a tiny room. One look at the faces of the children reveals their life of desolation and their desperate need for help.
At one time, there was a promise of aid offered, however the aid never arrived and the people have been left to make the best of their situation. Another concern is that the Lebanese government discourages repair to camps like Burj el-Baranjneh and Saida because they do not want to encourage permanent refugee settlement. Moreover, the Lebanese government has stated that it will demolish any structures created without prior consent, a vow that it has repeatedly followed through on. “It is a disaster,” one humanitarian aid worker said.
Yet another crisis that must be met is to address the psychological impact of all the refugees have endured. Not only are they desperately living in unsafe and unclean conditions and well below any poverty level, but they are also trying to cope with the trauma they have suffered. Many tell of loved ones lost at the hands of Assad’s men, or from bombing. Others report family members’ killed by the Islamic State and some bear the physical and emotional scars of having been tortured. And if that were not enough there have been numerous reports of violence inside the camps including beatings, rape and forced marriages. “It is a struggle to go on,” replied one woman.
Reportedly, approximately half of the number of refugees, experience some form of PTSD, and one-fifth of those are children. Without adequate psychological support services available to address the mental health needs of refugees, many will find it very difficult – perhaps impossible to heal emotionally. The camps try to address the material needs such as shelter, food and clothing. Psychological care is something that comes much later when asylum is granted. The fact is, as few countries are readily offering asylum, mental health needs are falling through the cracks.
Where does that leave the refugees in Lebanon? The conditions in Burj el-Baranjneh and Saida are a glimpse as to what life is like for the 1.2 million refugees who have made the journey from their hellish nightmare of civil war and bombing in Syria to Lebanon. Without a peaceful resolution in sight, the situation for many will continue to worsen and the region will grow more unstable. Helping those who are trapped in the middle and cannot help themselves must be the goal of everyone on the outside looking in.