A few miles from Lebanon’s main border crossing with Syria, a small road cuts off the main highway toward an abandoned base that Syrian soldiers used as an interrogation and detention center before they ended their nearly 30-year occupation of Lebanon in 2005.
Known locally as “The Onion Factory,” it’s occupied today by hundreds of Syrian refugees fleeing their country’s civil war.
It’s a symbol of the difficulty Syrian refugees are finding as they flee the conflict. Lebanon, a country of only 4 million people, has taken at least 1 million Syrian refugees. Nobody is sure of the real figure, but the United Nations has registered 1.1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon alone. Yet so far Lebanese officials have refused to allow international aid groups to set up refugee camps, partly out of fear that such a settlement will grow into the kind of semi-permanent presence that Jordan’s Zaatari camp has become – that country’s fourth largest city, with well over 100,000 residents.
That means those who come must make do with what they find in an economy reeling from the collapse of its traditional tourism base.
In the case of the al Ahmad family from Raqqa, Syria, that’s a tent on the edge of a grim industrial-looking complex where Syrians once allegedly tortured and executed Lebanese dissidents. Still, they consider themselves lucky.
“The land for our tents was donated by a nice local businessman,” said Abu Sharif Ahmad, a farmer who lost his home in the far eastern province of Syria. “And the people here have been good to us – they try to help us when they can – but they’re poor, too. Lebanon is not doing well – no jobs or food for many people here – but they’ll help us when they can.”
Their unofficial, and technically illegal, camp is tiny – 10 tents holding about 25 people each – but they say the police and army have yet to bother them despite threats from Lebanon’s interim Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who’s warned that Lebanon might reconsider its open-door policy for its Syrian neighbors.
But a lack of harassment and some local support aren’t helping the Ahmads – who hail from one of the Arab world’s largest tribes, the Shammar – as they try to find work. Two sons, aged 11 and 12, occasionally get day-labor jobs picking or cleaning vegetables, but even those pay only $10 a day for backbreaking farm labor. The 12 other children in the family are too young to work and too far from a school to attend classes.
“Even if you can sign them up for a school, there’s a 90 percent chance they won’t be able to attend,” said Khalif Ahmad, another member of the clan. “And the nearest school is 30 minutes away. My children all love going to school, and they’re very upset. Now all they do is write on the tents to practice.”
Still, the Ahmads say they feel lucky, for people who’ve lost all their possessions to war and now live illegally in a country that’s deeply uncomfortable with their presence. The possibility of returning to their homes seems remote to them as they watch the rebellion they once supported turn into a stalemate in which Islamist rebels tied to al Qaida now control their home province and battle a government force they think must go.
“I was just in Raqqa to try and get my last possessions last week,” said Hajiya Ahmad, the oldest woman present. “It was raining mortars and the regime planes filled the sky like birds. I was there only a day and an airstrike killed 10 children at a school. Ten of these children here are orphans; their mother and father were killed in the fighting. I’m their aunt.”
When they were asked whether they supported the rebellion, all the refugees agreed that they did and argued that they can return only if Syrian President Bashar Assad is deposed. But Abu Sharif Ahmad also stressed that it would only be the beginning of the fighting.
“Many of the rebel groups are now gangsters, and they’ll fight each other for control of Syria after Bashar is out,” he said. “It was a clean revolution before, but these rebels are ruining it.”
He wryly explained that it’s still easy to support the rebellion itself, though.
“We were hungry and oppressed before,” he said, laughing. “Now we’re the same in Lebanon.”