Syria’s lost generation: a glimpse of growing up refugee in Lebanon

Bekaa Informal Tented Settlement in Lebanon. (Photo by Karin Huster)

The Syrian Refugee crisis has reached massive dimensions.

The statistics easily overwhelm. As of February 2014, there were 6.5 million internally displaced people within Syria (almost a third of Syria’s population). Over 2.4 million Syrians — half of them children—have sought to escape the living hell of war by fleeing to bordering nations like Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon.

To put this into perspective, this Syrian tragedy is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee’s largest operation. Ever.

And it shows no sign of slowing down.

Bekaa Informal Tented Settlement in Lebanon. (Photo by Karin Huster)

Inspired to action by the scope and intensity of the crisis, last summer I abandoned my husband and children, and traveled to Lebanon to volunteer. First I worked as a nurse in a mobile medical unit, and then as a public health intern for UNHCR.

Sitting in the sweltering heat inside a dark tent filled with Syrian refugees seeking medical care, I couldn’t imagine how the situation for Syrian refugees could become any more desperate.

And so this winter, I traveled back to Lebanon’s Bekaa valley with Medical Teams International to find out.

The author entertains young refugees with some surgical glove tricks. (Photo by David Mrad)

With over 930,000 Syrian refugees officially in Lebanon, a fifth of Lebanon’s population is now a Syrian refugee. Really, this is a testament to the Lebanese people’s generosity and the complicated historical and political ties that intricately have connected these two countries over time.

The mass Syrian exodus has been relentless, and Lebanon, one of the smallest countries in the Middle East (it is about the size of Connecticut), has been economically and socially stretched very thin — its long fought-for stability now at risk.

As if this weren’t enough, add to the mix a sectarian strife within Lebanon over who backs who in this Syrian debacle. The Sunnis in Lebanon are mostly supporters of the Syrian rebels and the Shi’a traditionally support the Assad government — Hezbollah is even sending troops to Syria to fight alongside the government troops. This constant “stew” inevitably spills over – with deadly explosions at mosques in Tripoli, a mostly Sunni city, bombings in South Beirut, where Hezbollah’s headquarters are located, as well as the increase in suicide-bombers, kidnappings and firing of rockets.

Just recently, Israeli warplanes struck near the border of Syria and Lebanon — adding yet another dimension to this regional conflict.

Volunteers from Humedica, a German NGO, provide medical care for young refugees in Lebanon. (Photo by Karin Huster)

It’s been difficult however to get a good feel for the situation within Lebanon because things appear relatively normal (aside from the tanks randomly patrolling the streets and the military checkpoints, which are as common as Starbucks stores in Seattle.)

But things change on a dime here: one moment all is fine, and ten minutes later, the roads are blocked and your security adviser tells you to stay home or evacuate the area you are in.

Lebanon has become volatile, and Beirut’s yearning to reclaim its past status of “Paris of the Middle East” has become even more elusive. The Lebanese are increasingly worried about the Syrian crisis spilling over and destabilizing their fragile internal peace — and understandably so.

I have witnessed marked changes since I have arrived: buildings are now cordoned off to limit the chances of a parked car explosion; guards open trunks and slide mirrors under cars to check for the presence of bombs; the military no longer dozes off at checkpoints. I find myself increasing my pace as I pass by a crowded place of worship.

Winter brings rain, mud and cold to the Bekaa Informal Tented Settlement in Lebanon. (Photo by Karin Huster)

Unlike Turkey and Jordan, the government of Lebanon hasn’t setup an organized camp structure for its Syrian guests.

Rather, refugees have independently settled along Lebanon’s poorest rural areas in what are called “Informal Tented Settlements” — clusters of flimsy tarp structures precariously held together that contain little of the basic comforts of home.

The settlements are crowded — mud, dirty water, garbage and pit latrines fill the spaces between them. Families, often ten to fifteen members strong, are all crammed in this single room shelter where privacy is a word of the past. Hygiene is marginal. Summer’s litany of medical complaints included lice, scabies, diarrhea and dehydration. Winter brought the torment of rasheh – or “cold.”

A refugee in Bekaa ITS discusses care for her malnourished child with a volunteer. (Photo by Karin Huster)

Under challenging living conditions, and with over-stretched support from the international community, refugees often end up having to make heartbreaking choices: a family will only buy one of the two types of insulin their child needs to manage their Type I diabetes — a decision of assured catastrophic consequence.

The radiation therapy that must be continued for a child’s curable cancer will simply not happen. The fatalism of those refugees is evident, yet unacceptable somehow. We find ourselves buying the needed Tamoxifen for this one woman, or the insulin for this one kid.

Mothers waiting for their turn at the Bekaa clinic get nutrition counseling. (Photo by Karin Huster)

Most tragically maybe, the settlements harbor an entire lost generation in the making. Despite efforts from the Lebanese government to open more existing schools to Syrian refugees (through a two-shift system), most kids roam their settlements with absolutely nothing to do – they have no toys to play with, no books to read, no crayons to draw with, no schools to go to.

Winters are cold, wet and miserable here. The dirt fields where the tents are have turned to mud. Unlike the refugee camp in Turkey, there is no manicure salon here, nor a free barber to be found. No running water. No grocery store nearby. No playgrounds for the kids to go.

Children in the Bekaa ITS rarely have a chance to go to school. (Photo by Karin Huster) Shivering inside the cold, dark and damp tent, dressed up in my high-tech winter gear, my headlamp pauses on these faces begging for a moment of kindness and attention.

Well in its third year now, the Syrian crisis is here to stay, and the refugees will stay put for many years to come. Lebanon’s open-door policy to Syrian refugees has been remarkable, but it is not sustainable without support from the international community.

So please donate. The best place to send funds is to UNHCR, which is in charge of coordinating the response, and works alongside the Lebanese government to help the Syrian refugees obtain protection, shelter, water, sanitation, education, and access to health and social services.

It is our obligation.

You can make a donation to aid Syrian refugees in Lebanon at:

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  1. This is a well-written and heart-wrenching story, my friend. Well done and many blessings on your work!

  2. Karin, what about clothes donations? Is that still happening in Seattle? How can we get clothes to refugee camps? Thank you!

    1. Hi Rita — sorry about answering so late. i do not know about clothes donations in Seattle for the Syrian refugees. Maybe an online search would reveal something? Else, monetary donations to your favorite charity (e.g. Save the Children, UNHCR, Medical Teams International, Doctors Without borders, etc…) is the way to go. Best, Karin

  3. This story made me cry. I can relate to this situation when there was an earthquake in Nepal and people were displaced. I traveled to IDP camps for work and saw the sufferings there. I hope this world will be a better place for everyone to live.

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