News / Middle East

Syrian Refugees Struggle in Squalid Conditions on Lebanese Border

Henry Ridgwell

A report from the United Nations says there has been a spike in the number of Syrian refugees registering in Lebanon. In the frontier town of Wadi Khaled, hundreds of refugees are sleeping in abandoned buildings close to the Syrian border and surviving with only the most basic facilities.

The abandoned Aabra School on the Lebanon-Syria border, home to 80 Syrian refugees.
The abandoned Aabra School on the Lebanon-Syria border, home to 80 Syrian refugees.

Aabra School sits on a windswept hill overlooking the mountainous border. It is home to 80 refugees from Syria. The building was abandoned years ago. Each dark, damp room is home to one family. Outside it’s often below freezing. Diesel heaters hold off the chill, but pump out choking fumes.

In the day, the men gather to talk about the uprising back home. All have tales of terror and torture. Merha Ibrahim said he escaped with his family after being held for several weeks for attending anti-government protests.

“They would hang us by our arms so our legs were off the ground and we would be swinging in the air. They would also electrocute us all over our bodies,” he said. “I still have marks and scars from that. They also had a method where they made us lie down on a kind of plank of wood. It was in two pieces,” he said, “hinged in the middle, and we were tied to it, our feet and our arms tied together. And then the plank was folded so that our feet were in the air. Then they would start hitting us.”

In the next room, women and infants sit around the diesel stove. Since the refugees arrived last summer, 15 babies have been born inside this school. The mother of a two-week-old boy said it’s too cold and they have no medicine. Charities like The Red Crescent provide food, milk, and drinking water.

The men say they want to earn money to survive and look after their families - but can’t.

“Papers - we have no papers. We want to work but we don’t have papers. We can’t come and go,” said one father.

Map showing flow of refugees into Lebanon and Turkey
Map showing flow of refugees into Lebanon and Turkey

Another man said the Syrian government tries to take revenge on the refugees.

“The only way we can help our people is by talking to journalists and making our stories known,” he said. “And, of course, the regime watches the television, sees what we are doing… two days ago my house got trashed for the second time. Sometimes they threaten to attack our families, our elderly parents.”

A few thousand refugees have made it over from Syria into Lebanon, most of them finding shelter with families or friends. So far the Lebanese government is staying quiet on the issue. But the danger for them is if that trickle turns into a torrent.

With the violence in Syria seemingly worsening by the week, the United Nations’ refugee agency said it’s prepared for more arrivals.

"We have hired a shelter expert from our headquarters to come and assess the current situation and check whether there are more abandoned schools," said Dana Sleiman, who is from the UNHCR. "We have some, there are more common shelters where we could host more people should there be a need.”

Nightfall brings a dull quiet to Aabra School. The car batteries powering the lights soon will run out. The refugees here have escaped the violence. But like Syria, their future seems precarious.

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