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Homeless Syrian families in Lebanon: Exploited and criminalised

According to the UNHCR, the number of Syrian families who migrated to Lebanon is 111 161 families. Many of them are forced to live in public parks, on pavements and under bridges. Or in mosques, like little Aya and her siblings.

The situation for Syrian refugees in Lebanon is precarious. Young children are particularily exposed to exploitation and sexual harassment.   (The situation for Syrian refugees in Lebanon is precarious. Young children are particularily exposed to exploitation and sexual harassment. )

Aya wakes up every morning to the sound of Fajr prayer, she can barely open her blue eyes after few hours of disturbed sleep. She quickly picks up her covers which serve as bed sheets at the same time, before people start entering the mosque that she and her siblings live in since they moved from Syria to Lebanon 2 months ago. This is how the 5 year old’s day begins, to be followed by a long trip with her siblings from one place to another, searching for food or some shade to keep the heat away.

When Isha prayers end and people leave, the small family walks into the small mosque in Port Lebanon, tired from a full day of aimless wandering, and dreading more of the same when they wake up the following day. Youssef Ramdo sat by a tree next to the Ain Maryasa mosque, wiping the sweat off his sun-burned face. In a fatherly tone inconsistent with his young age of 18 he said, “I’ve held the responsibility for my sisters Mariam and Aya and my disabled nephew Mo’ayad asince my mother disappeared when she went shopping in Ashrafeyya in Aleppo about a year ago.”

One million Syrian refugees in Lebanon
Because of the violent outbreak all over Syria and especially in Aleppo, Youssef was forced to move his family to Edlib, Daraa, Damascus and then to the Lebanese borders where they hoped to “find some stability even if it was in a tent in a refugees camp that provides us with some food.”

Their dreams didn’t last for long as they didn’t receive any help and were forced to wander in the streets, homeless and alone, until they came across the opportunity to sleep in a mosque in ‫P‬ort Lebanon.
Meanwhile, Om Abdel Rahman (45) was not as lucky, even though she knocked on the doors of many mosques to find shelter for her and her 3 children instead of the public park they sleep in. She hid her face, while eating some food in Hamra street where she works, along with her youngest daughter Reem, selling roses to earn the bit of money that’s supposed to feed her children for a day. The family hasn’t had a moment of stability since they left their home in Shghour bridge neighbourhood in Syria 2 months ago.

Homelessness is not a problem that these 2 families are facing alone. Tens of other Syrian families are forced to live in public parks, on pavements of side streets, under bridges and mosques. According to the UNHCR, the number of Syrian families who migrated to Lebanon is 111.161 families, with an average of one million Syrian in Lebanon.

Begging and exploitation
Begging in Beirut’s markets and famous streets such as Hamra and Ashrafeyya has become the new address for displaced Syrians since the eruption of violence in their country, especially for young children, exposing them to exploitation and sexual harassment.

15 year old Faiza who sells gum in Kornish Manara street said with an embarrassed face, “I got harassed many times before, and car drivers always tease me as I work.”

It doesn’t stop at harassment and teasing though, a 17 year old girl disappeared in the Kola bridge area according to her uncle Moneer Gomaa who sleeps on the pavement under the bridge. “She was selling paper tissues at the intersection when she suddenly disappeared,” he said. She was never found and there was no trace of her in hospitals or police stations. The dangers of harassment, kidnapping, or falling in the hands of gangs keeps Youssef around his sisters at all times.

 “I’m afraid if I leave them alone, they will be attacked or kidnapped,” explaining furthermore that, “Aya is a young girl so I fear for her safety, and Mariam is 14 now which makes her even more exposed to sexual harassment.”

A large number of children fall in the hands of “mafias” that exploit and force them to beg in the streets or provide other “services” such as cleaning windshields, according to political analyst and social researcher Dr Wafeeq Ibrahim.

Ibrahim pointed out that the image of Syrian women in Lebanon now are usually associated with being beggars or prostitutes.
I attempted to talk to a child who begs in Hamra street. He refused to give any info about his family or where he sleeps or when he started begging. Minutes later, a man appeared and asked me, “what do you want from the child? Let his earn his living.”

As soon as he showed up, the child’s facial expression changed and he disappeared.

An absent state, mosques and organisations with agendas   
Displaced Syrians is a file that has not been given priority by the Lebanese government who’s following the “allow displacement but don’t recognise it” policy.
According to Wafeeq, the first main reason is fear of exploiting Syrian refugees and employing them in violent acts by one party against the other. The second being fear of excessive demographic imbalance in Lebanon.

The unclear rule of the government in managing this file and the weak performance of the UNHCR in comparison to their work in other countries like Iraq and Jordan leaves the displaced at loss.
Some of them get help from mosques and civil society organisations, and others like Youssef managed to get an appointment with the UNHCR, in two months.

His search for help had previously led him to meet Sheikh Ahmed al-Aseer before the violent incidents in Sidon. The sheikh refused to help according to Ramdo who said, “Aseer told me that there was nothing they could do to help me.”

The urgent and unfulfilled needs of the displaced Syrians might lead to their exploitation by armed groups who incite violence between different Lebanese sects according to Wafeeq.
“This has been happening already, since it doesn’t seem natural that half of Sheikh Aseer’s fighters would be Syrians,” he added.

Hopes and needs
Between the state’s reservation to explicitly deal with displaced Syrians, and the weak aids supplied by some mosques and civil society organisations, and the fear of employing them in violent acts, these families’ basic needs from housing to food and medicine remain unfulfilled, pending serious steps taken by international organisations and the Lebanese government.

Despite the daily frustrations and the urgent needs of hundreds of homeless Syrian families including Youssef Ramdo’s, the hope of going back home to their country is a dream that remains.

“I wish all of this would be over without having to endure any more losses,” he said.

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