воскресенье, 5 октября 2014 г.
Syrian refugees: ‘We want to go home. That is our dream’
By Giles Duley
Sometimes the photographs you don’t take are as important as those you take. I’ve just been introduced to Aya, who sits in front of me on a concrete floor, small and lost, and although I’m here to photograph her it feels like the wrong thing to do. As far as possible in my work I try and see the people beyond their injuries, illness or situation; to respect them as the individuals they are. This time, I’m struggling to do that: Aya is four years old, has spina bifida and is homeless.
I came to Lebanon with the charity Handicap International (HI) to document the lives of some of Syria’s most vulnerable refugees; most especially people with disabilities, many of whom are going without essential needs. It has been a difficult and harrowing trip; I’ve met many refugees throughout my career, but here I am hearing some of the worst stories I can remember.
The statistics of the Syrian refugee crisis are hard to comprehend. More than 3 million Syrians have now fled the country, with Lebanon alone taking in nearly 1.5 million. In this small country of just 4 million, that equates to the population growing by more than 25% in just a few years. And that number is increasing daily.
In Lebanon refugees are faced with unique problems. The government is yet to allow the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) to build an official refuge camp. As a result, those fleeing to the country are forced to rent whatever space they can, from substandard flats to garages and even cowsheds. That’s if they can afford to pay rent; many are left to build their own shelter on whatever ground they can find. There are now more than 1,600 informal tented settlements (ITS) across the country, making the distribution of support a logistical nightmare.
Khalida lives in a makeshift tent in an ITS in the Bekaa Valley, just a few miles from the Syrian border. The tents here are made from whatever materials the refugees can find: tarpaulin, cardboard, even posters advertising Hollywood blockbusters ripped down from billboards. Inside the air is stale, the heat oppressive. Khalida lies on her bed, her husband sits next to her, holding her hand. She was hit by a sniper’s bullet in the back, leaving her paralysed from the neck down.
“I had tried to plant a small area of land near our house as it wasn’t possible to get vegetables like before,” she explains. “I was going to take care of the plants with my four children and suddenly a bullet hit my neck and I fell down and lost sensation. I could not move any more. The children started shouting and yelling.”
The doctors gave her a 1% chance of survival, but she made it. As soon as they could, she and her family left Syria because the country’s hospitals, overwhelmed with war-wounded and lacking supplies, could offer her neither medication nor physiotherapy. They’ve been living in this tent for five months.
The UNHCR provides food coupons, but the family is struggling. Khalida’s husband now has to provide 24-hour care for his wife. As we talk, he gently strokes her hand. I ask her what hopes she has for the future, she replies simply: to be a mother again.
“I need a miracle to happen,” she says. “I wish I could move my fingers because sometimes my son hurts himself outside and he comes in next to me. He moves my hand and he puts my fingers on the wound. I wish I could move my fingers to touch the wound and make him feel like I am feeling it with him.”
Nearby lives a 38-year-old woman called Reem. She fled here from the Syrian city of Idlib two years ago when her house was bombed. Her husband and daughter were killed and Reem lost her leg. Initially she was overcome by what had happened; her hair fell out, she suffered from anxiety and depression. Her other three children went to live somewhere else; she didn’t want them to see her. In the end, though, it was the thought of her children that gave her the focus to pull through. One day she said to her Handicap International physiotherapist, Abeer, “I want a prosthesis fast because I want to see my kids. I don’t want them to see my amputation. I don’t want them to think that I can’t help them or do things well in front of them.”
HI was able to provide a prosthetic leg and from that moment, Abeer tells me, she was determined to be reunited with her children, who now surround her.
Reem’s story is hard to hear but I am also disturbed by the location of her new home: she and her family are living in a tent on the rooftop of an unfinished three-storey building. I struggle to climb the bare, unsupported concrete stairs to the rooftop, negotiating the exposed metal poles protruding all around me. For Reem the task is too much and she is effectively stranded on the rooftop. It has become her prison.
For many, finding shelter isn’t the end of their nightmare. I visit Noor in a tiny apartment on the sixth floor of a building in Tripoli. Like all the Syrians I meet, her hospitality comes first; seeing I’m exhausted from the stairs and heat, she fetches me a chair and cool water. Sitting opposite me, she cradles her daughter, Iman; judging by the dark, exhausted circles that shroud their eyes, neither has slept properly for weeks. On a sofa her 10-year-old son, Khalil, winces in pain as he tries to shift position. Noor reaches over to stroke his hair.
Just over a year ago a bomb hit the building where they were living. Khalil was thrown from the third floor and his hip was shattered. The family left for Lebanon, but after six months Noor’s husband had to return to Syria to help his sick mother. Noor has not heard from him since – he has become one of Syria’s countless disappeared, presumed dead. It’s estimated that in Lebanon and Jordan there are now more than 70,000 female-headed households
On her own, with four children to support, Noor became increasingly desperate. Khalil was bed-bound and in urgent need of an operation, but she was told that it would cost $8,000, far more than she could ever afford. Without treatment, his hip is deteriorating due to osteonecrosis, which causes him great pain. With no income, they couldn’t pay rent and soon they found themselves living on the street. Eventually a man took them in and let them live in the apartment where I now visit them.
As she tells me her story, I have a sense that there is something terribly wrong in this situation. Wassila and Abdullah, the Handicap International team I’m with, confirm my fears. “The man she is living with is not good to her,” Wassila tells me. They are desperate to find her protective housing, she says, but have not been able to find anywhere that can take her.
With Khalil’s hip deteriorating and no way of making an income, Noor has few options. As we leave she calls down the stairs, “Abdullah, please don’t forget me!”
“Don’t worry, it’s OK,” he calls back, and his words echo up the empty stairwell.
Handicap International is one of many charities helping the Syrian refugees, but as the only charity solely dedicated to supporting people with disabilities, they see many of the worst cases. When visiting with the teams, I’m impressed by their dedication and professionalism, but they are tired, worn down with the relentlessness of this crisis. All the charities are stretched, their staff pushed to breaking point.
And it’s not just the physical injuries of the Syrian war the charities are having to deal with – there are the less visible wounds. Bana was four years old when she was shot in the chest. It was an accident, a five-year-old boy discovered a gun and while he played it went off. In Syria, weapons have become commonplace and children are exposed to constant violence.
Bana was taken to a small clinic where there was no medication or bandages and was operated on without anaesthetic. All around her lay the bodies of those injured and killed in recent bombings. She was left traumatised. When she saw the bodies in the clinic she started shouting at everyone she knew, “Go, go, go! Get out of here now, you will die in this place!”
By the time she returned home, she had retreated into herself, as her mother described: “She stopped talking. She wasn’t eating, she was aggressive, she was beating her older brother and sister. She was afraid to go out, to open the door, she was always afraid. Also she refused to walk. She always wanted me to carry her. She wasn’t sleeping well, she had nightmares and would wake up suddenly.”
The UNHCR offered to get Bana and her family out of Syria, but before they could, a bomb hit their house. Bana was injured again, as were her sister and mother. They fled immediately for the border.
Now, in Lebanon and with the help of HI’s psychologists, Bana is slowly recovering. It’s a long and painful process; she’s still constantly afraid, shouts every time she hears a plane and still refuses to leave her mother’s side. In some ways, though, she is lucky. Nobody knows how many other children are suffering from such trauma in Syria, but it’s in the tens of thousands and most are receiving no treatment.
According to Save the Children, four out of five Syrian children in Lebanon lack schooling. For some it has been years since they had any education. That, combined with the violence they’ve witnessed and the constant fear they feel, has led charities to refer to them as a “lost generation” of Syrian children. And this is the generation that will be expected to rebuild a shattered country when peace does return.
When people are classed as refugees, for many of us they lose their humanity and individuality. But in these camps I don’t find refugees: I find taxi drivers, mechanics, teachers, doctors, lawyers; I find mothers and fathers, children and grandparents; I find the same hopes and fears that are expressed in households across the world. And when I ask, “What is your dream?”, it’s always the same: to go home, to go home.
Yet with the chances of peace looking further away than ever, it seems unlikely any of them will be going home soon. As the region prepares itself for an intensification of the conflict, the situation is only going to get worse.
At the beginning of the crisis, the Lebanese government had no strategy for dealing with it. Many believed – or hoped – it would not last long and certainly no one predicted the scale of the disaster. No camps were built, ostensibly for historical and political reasons. Whether an “official” camp would have been the answer is open to debate, but at least it might have formed a organised centre for the NGOs’ work.
Even the most developed country’s infrastructure would struggle to cope with the sheer number of refugees that are arriving in Lebanon. Its infrastructure, which was already weak, is now overwhelmed. Water, sanitation, electricity, accommodation, schools, hospitals – none are able to meet the 25% increased demand created by the refugee crisis.
It’s easy to point the finger at the UNHCR as the central organisation dealing with refugees and it is true that in some cases it isn’t meeting its own targets. But it has received only 30% of the funding it sees as vital to operate on even an emergency level. Without that funding it simply can’t do all it needs to. “It’s easy to blame the UNHCR,” a Red Cross representative said to me, “but I’d like to see anybody do a better job.”
It’s not just the UNHCR that is struggling. Most of the charities operating in the region are failing to reach even 50% of their funding needs and many vital projects are being cut back. Housing, medical support, education, specialist care for disabled people, vulnerable women and the elderly – all are under threat. And every day more people arrive.
So what can be done to reduce the risk of Lebanon’s collapse and to safeguard the wellbeing of the refugees most in need? Most agree that there has to be a clear vision, one that moves on from temporary solutions and views the problem for what it is: a long-term issue. Second, there needs to be far more support from the rest of the world: donors must be found that can bridge the funding gap. Ask the refugees or the NGOs in Lebanon what they think is the best way to deal with this crisis, they all give the same answer: “Simple, we need to find peace in Syria.”
Aya lives in a small makeshift camp by the sea, a few miles from Tripoli, with her two sisters, two brothers and parents. A handful of refugees have settled here, on wasteland by a cement factory. There is little protection from the elements, the children get sores from insect bites and every day there is the threat of eviction.
There are no schools, there are no jobs, and they can’t afford medical treatment. The UNHCR provides Aya’s family with food coupons, but there is no support for accommodation or shelter. Each week the family gets further in debt.
Just a few months earlier, their lives were so different. The family had their own business in Idlib. Aya’s mother, Sihan, worked as a kindergarten teacher, the kids were doing well at school. Aya’s condition, though bad, was being well monitored, with trips to the doctor every two weeks. They were, according to Sihan, very happy.
Then in March this year their home was destroyed. For 10 days they hid in a basement while the bombing continued. They had no electricity, water or toilet. When the bombing stopped, they escaped and headed to a cousin’s house in a nearby village. The journey to Lebanon, and relative safety, took a further two months.
Sihan suddenly stops recounting their story. “It shouldn’t be me telling you this, it is Iman who saved Aya. She should tell you. She held her. Iman carried Aya all the way from Syria.”
Iman is sitting on the floor next to Aya; she’s just nine years old. “You carried her?” I ask.
“Yes, I have been carrying her since she was one year old. I can’t hold her like a baby any more, so I hold her on my hip.
“When the war came,” Iman takes up the story, “we hid in a store underground. I was looking after my sister. All the time we were afraid because we could hear the bombing. I was keeping Aya on my lap all the time, she was so scared.”
“She did everything for her,” Sihan interjects. “She changed her dressings and changed her clothes, she did everything for her. It took us two months to get here and Iman carried her.”
I try to imagine that journey. The risks and challenges for anyone fleeing though a war-torn country are so great; but with a child in a wheelchair, a paralysed partner or frail grandparent those challenges become near impossible.
Similarly, being a carer is difficult and often overwhelming in the best of situations. However, trying to provide 24-hour care for somebody with a disability in a makeshift tent, with no running water, sanitation or easy access to medical care is unthinkable. Yet many are having to do just that.
Later that day, as the sun drops and the temperatures become bearable, the children go out to play. As always, Iman is carrying Aya. As I’ve spent more time with the family I’ve noticed Aya’s feisty nature and how, being so full of life, she brings happiness to those around her despite their terrible circumstances. Now, as they start a game of hopscotch with the other children, Aya screams with laughter and I finally see the photograph I’ve been searching for.
Raising my camera I shoot a few frames and I’m done. I walk over to Aya, who’s now in her wheelchair, and ask her, “You must love your sister very much?”
She pulls a funny, quizzical face, then smiles as she stretches out her arms as wide as she can. “This much,” she says. “I love her as much as the sea.”