For Syrians escaping war, a muddy Lebanese potato field will have to do for refuge

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 11, 2013 

— The winter rain was pouring down one day this week and it was bitterly cold in the muddy field, but that didn’t stop work for the man who called himself Abu Jassim.

Even as the icy rain pelted him, Abu Jassim pounded nails into boards that he’d pulled from discarded packing crates. He fashioned them into a frame. Then he stretched castoff vinyl banners whose previous purpose had been to advertise a wide range of products across the boards to make a crude shelter. To an onlooker, it was a brutal task whose completion would provide hardly any shelter at all. To Abu Jassim, a refugee from a town near the war-torn city of Aleppo, it offered a little bit of hope that he soon would be able to save his family from Syria’s carnage.

Twenty-six other Syrian families also have settled in the field, testament to the desperation of hundreds of thousands who’ve fled the ongoing violence of a civil war only to find that the countries around them have few resources to house or feed them.

The United Nations Children’s Fund said Friday that it so far had secured only about 10 percent of the more than $200 million in funding it needs to assist Syrian refugees in the first half of this year. Even the harsh winter storm that brought heavy snow and rain to Syria and its neighbors this week did not stop the flow of refugees, many on foot. In total, the U.N. has requested more than $1 billion to aid Syrians inside and outside the country in the first half of this year, and it is preparing for the number of Syrians who have left the country to rise from more than 600,000 to 1 million.

“I left my children in Syria,” said Abu Jassim, a father of seven who used a nickname that in Arabic means “father of Jassim” instead of his real name out of fear for the safety of his family, who remain in Syria.

Abu Jassim and his family have been displaced twice by the war. The first time was two months ago when a Syrian air force bomb destroyed their house in the rebel-held town of Manbaj, near Aleppo.

“We went to Raqqa,” he said, referring to a city east of Aleppo that until recently had been relatively untouched by violence. But rebels have taken over a number of towns around the city in recent weeks, leading to clashes with troops loyal to President Bashar Assad and a cessation of basic services. Civilians regularly are killed in crossfire and by the shelling and airstrikes intended to dislodge the rebels, he said.

“There’s no gas, no food and no electricity,” Abu Jassim said. “You see 2,000 people standing in line for bread, and at the same time, they are afraid to stand in line.”

Abu Jassim said he had arrived in Lebanon a week ago after paying $200 to a pro-government militia that in turn used some of the money to bribe Syrian soldiers into letting Abu Jassim cross the border. He hoped to bring his wife and children as soon as he had completed building his lean-to, but he admitted that he had run out of money and didn’t know where he would find the funds to do so.

“I don’t know how I will afford to pay the smugglers to bring them,” he said.

Abu Jassim also said he didn’t know how long he would be able to stay where he was. The tent he was erecting is in a potato field. He and others said that the Lebanese farmer who owned the field had given them the wood to build tents and had said the refugees could remain there for two months without paying rent. At the end of that period, Abu Jassim said, he would seek shelter elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the families camped in the field are receiving aid from local people who let them fill jugs of water and use their showers. Women in the camp use an irrigation canal to launder the few clothes the families had brought, and some children walked around barefoot, despite the rainstorms and ankle-deep mud. At night, temperatures are near freezing.

“A man brought us bread and said we could pay him at the end of the month,” Abu Jassim said. “I don’t know how we will.”

The people in the camp said they didn’t know where to go to register for assistance with the U.N., which is providing aid to refugees in Lebanon along with other groups. Informed they would have to travel to the city of Tripoli, about 20 miles away, to register, they said they had no means to do so.

Winter also has made life more difficult for those displaced inside Syria, who the U.N. has said might number more than 2 million. Another 2 million are in critical need of aid, according to the U.N.

At the Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan, which is administered by the United Nations and other groups and is home to more than 50,000 Syrians, flooding led to riots this week.

Adrian Edwards, the spokesman for the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees, said at press conference in Geneva on Friday that the UNHCR had delivered gravel and installed culverts on Thursday in an attempt to prevent future flooding.

The shortage of resources for refugees has prompted some to return to Syria. In the rebel-held city of Qusayr, about seven miles from the Lebanese border, most of the population of about 35,000 fled last year as fighting ravaged the city. Now some are returning, even though to reach Qusayr without passing through government or hostile militia checkpoints can mean hours of traversing rugged terrain on foot.

“About 60 percent of the residents of Qusayr have returned because they ran out of money,” said Abdel Raheem Sayar, an opposition leader from Qusayr.

Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: denders@mcclatchydc.com, Twitter @davidjenders

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