A village in Lebanon that takes more Syrian refugees than Britain

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A village in Lebanon that takes more Syrian refugees than Britain

After 4 years of the Syrian war, 1 in 4 people in Lebanon are Syrian refugees. One village is looking after 5,000 Syrians – more than Britain has promised to take in a year. Michaela Whitton reports.


Simple tents for Syrians in the Ketermaya refugee camp, Lebanon, by Michaela Whitton

‘So you support the Syrians?’ my taxi driver asks me. He’s driving quickly through the streets of Lebanon’s capital. He says Syrians are responsible for all of the many problems in Lebanon.

Lebanon is the same size as North Yorkshire in England. It is a beautiful country, but still recovering from war. They say 6 in 10 families have an automatic weapon and some areas still have problems with no water or electricity.

Living costs are very high. Lebanon can just about look after its own 4 million people. But there are also more than a million registered Syrian refugees. There are probably many more than this. And (unlike Jordan and Turkey) there are no formal refugee camps. Most of the help comes from volunteers.

David Cameron (British Prime Minister) made a short visit to a camp near the Syrian border in September. He said that the $1.55 billion British aid to the region has helped make sure that only 3 per cent of Syria’s 11 million refugees have come to Europe.

If Cameron says how much money Britain has given – this will not help the Syrians sleeping on the streets in Beirut, or the sisters in Shatila refugee camp – they only have one pair of shoes so they have to go to school on alternate days.


Ketermaya is a small mountain village with 15,000 people. It is only 2 hours from the Syrian border. Dr Bilal Kasem is the village dentist and Head of Municipality. He said that there have been many refugees since 2011 - almost 5,000. More than 400 families live in homes of Syrians in the village. And more than 50 live in a camp of simple tents.

Dr Kasem says it is very difficult because the village does not have many resources or jobs. ‘For example, there used to be 3 or 4 barber shops; now there are 7 or 8,’ he says. There are some donations of money, food and clothing for the refugees. But he does not ask for any money from 80 per cent of his patients. They are already on aid; it’s too tragic for me to make them pay,’ he says.

‘We can’t do everything’

Ketermaya refugee camp is on a hill of olive and fig trees. More than 50 families live there from the Syrian war areas of Aleppo, Homs and Damascus. 3 years ago when the village was full, landowner Ali Tafish gave his land to the refugees to live on. But, because of this, the Lebanese authorities investigated him and took away his passport.

Women sit under the olive trees, some feed new babies. Tafish explains that everyone in the camp has lost family, and that there are many children with no parents. Each family (as many as 10 people) has a tent made of wood and plastic. There are 10 toilets for more than 400 people. ‘It’s not enough,’ he says. ‘People stand in line every day.’


Grandmother Iman feeds her orphaned grandchildren rice and vegetables. Michaela Whitton

Tafish would take more refugees if he could. But the camp is full. The winter will be very difficult with not enough money to buy fuel for cooking. He says the UN hasn’t visited for 2 years.

‘The UN have the best cars and buildings. The people get nothing. They are thieves. We trusted them, but they cheat,’ he says.

He gives the camp rice and vegetables, but no meat. Some other people donate. He says that 70 per cent of families don’t get the $13 per month that UN-registered refugees should get for food. The ‘$13 is not even enough for breakfast,’ he says. ‘This is about corruption, and the countries that give money have no control about where it goes.’

Tafish is frustrated but he has no regrets. He does it for humanity: ‘This is something we don’t see in the UN, we don’t see them caring about humanity. Shame on them.’

He says Syrians have many problems getting healthcare. Hospitals do not have enough resources to help and only treat simple cases. ‘The UN has enough money to build separate hospitals for Syrians; they don’t need to use Lebanese hospitals,’ he says.

Tafish wants to say this to the European Union: ‘We Lebanese have 1.6 million refugees, with more who are not registered. Our country has $80 billion of debt and a failed economy. We have no income except tourism. But because of the Syrian war, we don’t even have that now.’

He is sure that, if Syria’s neighbouring countries get support, people will stay in them. And he asks where the European Union (EU) has been for 4 years while Lebanon has been ‘drowning in the crisis’.

He is angry that people do not visit to see the difficulties. And he says: ‘The great EU is arguing about how to share a few thousand refugees.’

Tafish is very worried that this situation might bring serious problems to Lebanon: ‘Imagine you need to feed a baby but you don’t have any money. You have a choice - the baby dies or you steal, to feed him, from the nearest people – the Lebanese. The EU and US must stop this before there are real problems.’

He adds that ‘it’s important for people not to be hungry – this brings problems. We can’t give them everything, we do what God gives us, but we can’t do everything.’

‘Can you help us?’

Sanaa is 35. A government missile destroyed her home in Syria, so she took her family to live with her mother in Beirut. Then her mother died of cancer. The family of 10 had to leave the house. They slept on a beach for 3 days. Then a woman discovered them and took them to Ketermaya.

Sanaa sits on the floor of the 2-room tent and feeds her youngest daughter. She says life in the camp is tragic. ‘In winter it is so hard, with illnesses and no electricity. We don’t even have winter clothes or shoes,’ she says.

They get a box of basic food items from the Red Cross every month. This lasts the family 2 weeks. The biggest problem is getting nappies and milk for her 18-month-old daughter. Some of Sanaa’s 8 children go to the simple school in the camp. But her eldest daughter Noor has had no education since they had to leave Syria.

The children talk about violence all the time. After she saw their home destroyed, Noor’s hair fell out. Sanaa is thankful for the support of other women in the camp, but she is tired and she wants to travel to give the children a better future. ‘Can you help us?’ she asks.

‘We have nothing to go back to’


Hadia and her two sons after they learnt that her son had been killed in a Russian air strike in Syria. Michaela Whitton

When I leave, a group of women say I must take a photograph of Hadia. Someone has just told her that a Russian airstrike killed her son, his wife (they were paramedics taking people to hospital) and their unborn child.

‘The Russians think they are killing terrorists. But they are killing our sons?’ one woman shouts.

Another woman says she had a very good life in Syria. She had to leave everything there. It is terrible for her to live in the camp.

‘If we go back to Syria, we will live in tents. We have nothing there. But it is better to go back to your own country than live as a foreigner,’ one of the women says.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: http://newint.org/features/web-exclusive/2015/10/15/lebanese-village-takes-more-refugees-than-britain/ (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).