I have worked on international issues for a long time. Having travelled widely as a kid with my family, and as an adult on my own, I’ve seen all kinds of unique, interesting, and unsettling places. Although I’ve walked through the tight alleyways and narrow streets of informal settlements in Bangkok, Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Rio de Janeiro and Nairobi, nothing quite prepared me for what life could look like for a Syrian refugee in Lebanon.
The Syrian conflict has been a fixture on the nightly news for 8 years, and we’ve heard about Syrian refugees for a long time. We know that they’ve been the focus of humanitarian organizations since the crisis began, and from far away, it’s easy to forget that these are just people trying to cope with their daily lives, waiting patiently for the opportunity to go home.
Urban contexts are a new challenge for the humanitarian community. In the recent past, displaced people would congregate in camps, making humanitarian response efficient and logistically easier to facilitate. It’s easier to house, feed and count a displaced group of people if their shelter is built from scratch. Today, most Syrian refugees are living in expanding urban and peri-urban informal settlements or in rental accommodation without formal lease agreements. Tenure insecurity – the risk of being forcibly evicted – is a daily reality for most of these refugees.
Since the beginning of the conflict, Lebanon has seen its population increase by nearly a third – nearly 1 million people – with many Syrian’s finding refuge in Beirut and surrounding areas. Lebanon is home to several displaced populations, in part due to its own history of conflict, but also as it has hosted many Palestinian refugees since the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. With increasing inflows of Syrians needing to also access the limited resources for vulnerable Lebanese and Palestinians, including affordable places to live, tensions have risen between the communities. Moreover, most Syrian refugees do not have authorization to work in Syria thus relying on informal or intermittent employment to pay for their rent and basic needs.
As a housing organization, Habitat for Humanity has recognized that there are unique needs that Syrian refugees encounter when trying to secure a decent place to call home. Through improving homes and communities, Habitat is uniquely positioned to help build self-reliance, reduce social tension, and improve poor physical and mental health resulting from sub-standard housing.
In December of 2018, I was able to visit several Habitat projects and see our impact first hand. Despite having worked for so long on humanitarian issues related to the Syrian crisis, it was my first time visiting with refugees in Lebanon. I was looking forward to finally witnessing what I knew to be a difficult reality, but also nervous about what I was about to encounter.
Beirut is a beautiful and vibrant city, a desirable destination for a relaxing holiday on the Mediterranean. Habitat has been in Lebanon since 2001, and specifically working with Syrian refugees since 2016.
I was so proud to meet Habitat’s team on the ground. They’re an incredible group from Lebanon, Syria and other countries across the region, and clearly loved by the families we work with. Comprised of social workers and engineers, our teams identify families in need then working with them and their landlords to determine what upgrades need to be made to their homes. Improvements include new windows, upgraded bathrooms, new hot water heaters, better ventilation, or other safety concerns as well as providing funding, technical oversight and approval of the projects until completion. To ensure tensions between communities aren’t further exacerbated, Habitat also works with vulnerable Lebanese and Palestinian families to ensure host communities receive the same benefits as Syrian refugees.
I met with one Lebanese woman outside of Beirut who was one of the many benefitting from Habitat’s work. Although she had a family helping her pay her rent, her daughter is physically disabled and the condition of their home was limiting for her needs. Habitat upgraded the water heater, improved the working conditions of the kitchen, replaced doors for extra safety, and improved the ventilation throughout the home to make the air more breathable. The elderly mother could not stop expressing her gratitude for these improvements, and the impact that it has had on her and her daughter.
In the Beqaa valley, the agricultural heartland of Lebanon, we met with one family who had been recently identified as beneficiaries. Our teams had just signed the contract with the landlord to begin construction in this 3-room apartment, and were able to negotiate a cap on their rent for the upcoming year. The beneficiary family comprised of 3 women, 5 children, and one disabled man. Their dwelling had unfinished cinder block walls, no railing on the balcony where the children would play, exposed rebar throughout the property, no insulation, and limited ventilation in the tight kitchen. All the children were dressed in fleece layers, which seemed to be the only way to fend off the chill that permeated their home. With only one living male relative to help pay for their needs, this family could not stop expressing their gratitude for Habitat’s commitment to make their house a home.
In the heart of Beirut, we visited the Palestinian refugee camp, Shatila. This one-square kilometer piece of land houses upward of 20,000 people. With the recent influx of Syrian refugees, it’s difficult to know how many people live there now. Shatila started in 1949 with as one level units for Palestinian refugees, but the growing population has incrementally built more and more units on top of one another. Narrow stairways twist up into the sky, obscured by power lines snaking above your head. Water flows from informal water points, as if you turn it off it might never turn on again. Small motorbikes loaded with fruit, water bottles and trays of fresh eggs dart between pedestrians navigating the maze of alleyways. Children shout and play, some with recognizable school backpacks, and some without.
As the outcome of focus group discussions with community groups based in Shatila, including women’s groups, Habitat has engaged in a community-based program to address the web of electrical cables that power the layers of informal apartments. The cables are so thick in some place you can’t see the sky and are the cause for many electrical deaths annually. With community approval and participation, Habitat has collected, reconnected and organized the wires on to trays, along the side the alleyways, safely out of children’s reach. The organized cables bring a new ability to breath for the many inhabitants of a congested space.
We met with a number of families, all of whom were struggling to make ends meet, and doing their best to provide a safe place to call home for their children. As the Syrian conflict continues, there is a shrinking sense of hope for the families to return to their homeland. The efforts by Habitat to work with these families to improve their living conditions has been met with gratitude and immeasurable impact.
Not only have Habitat’s efforts been appreciated by the families we’ve worked with, they have resulted in improved health conditions, improved safety for children and vulnerable adults, and have maybe even provided a bit of hope in a complex and dark time. Personally, it was incredibly difficult to see the hardship so many families endure as they wait for the conflict in Syria to end. With increasing numbers of refugees around the world, Habitat’s efforts in Lebanon and Jordan are a small contribution for a growing population of people with unique needs, all of whom are just looking for a safe place to call home.