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June 12, 2012

Syrian Refugees Seek Help in Lebanon

by Scott Bobb

SAADNAYEL, BEKAA VALLEY, Lebanon - The conflict in Syria continues to displace thousands of people each week.  As many as 100,000 have fled to neighboring countries.  About 25,000 of that number are in Lebanon, where local residents struggle to help them survive.  

Saadnayel, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, has a population of about 30,000 people. The small town is hosting more than 5,000 refugees from Syria's violence, now entering its 15th month.

Ziad al-Ali arrived two weeks ago. He covers his face because he fears for the safety of relatives back home. He says the Syrian army shelled his neighborhood in the central city of Homs. He came here because he heard there was help.

"They are giving us aid, rice, grain, lettuce, cooking oil, butter, toothpaste, some things for the home, bedding,” al-Ali said.

Mayor Khalil al-Chehimi says local residents initially provided most of the supplies and even money to the refugees. Since donor aid began arriving, his office is helping to assess needs and distribute aid.

“We are helping the United Nations to get to those people," he said. "So we are the connection to be close and make them [donors] understand what they [refugees] want, find a place to live and deliver the food or whatever they supply.”

A few kilometers away, 33-year-old Mariam, not her real name, lives with her four children and several other families in a shack provided by a local resident.  She says she fled Homs after gunmen killed her three brothers and several others.

“They raided all the houses. They took them [my brothers] out of the house with my cousins, neighbors, old men, children," she said. "They put them into a fruit truck and blew it up.”

Wissam Tarif is the local head of Avaaz, a human rights group that works with the refugees. He says Syrian forces have destroyed entire neighborhoods in opposition areas. The Syrian government says these attacks are by terrorists.

“We think there has been a pattern of taking people out of their places, out of their cities," Tarif said. "It's not a mistake. It's a state policy.”

Tarif says more than one million people have been displaced inside Syria, where there is little humanitarian aid.

Most Syrian refugees say they want to return home but will only do so if there is a change of government.