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Mary Kenny: How my visit to a Syrian refugee camp put life in perspective

By Mary Kenny

Published 28/12/2015

Difficult time: Syrian refugees are having to endure great hardships in their search for safety
Difficult time: Syrian refugees are having to endure great hardships in their search for safety

So much of everyday life is composed of petty chores and trivial frustrations. Get the car taxed. Pay the water bill. Don't forget the dry cleaners. Oh, no. The dishwasher is on the blink. Catastrophe.

I watched a young woman recently on a train, attempting to charge up one of her gadgets. "Where do they put these sockets?" she cried. "It's a nightmare."

I've heard "it's a nightmare" when the traffic is somewhat congested; when there's difficulty reaching a utility company by telephone; when shopping becomes somewhat stressful; when a parked car attracts a penalty charge. I've often uttered the words myself, swearing over some temporary glitch or inconvenience.

Then, it takes a serious tragedy or affliction to put matters into perspective. A fatal accident. A homicidal assault. A suicide that you believe was preventable. A dismaying diagnosis of cancer, or other serious illness. The birth of a child who has little chance of surviving. The flooding of a home. Then we see how petty the everyday trivialities often are, and how very little they matter.

Such thoughts were brought home to me when I visited a refugee camp in the Lebanon recently. Almost all of the refugees were Syrian women and children: the men were either working, looking for work or disabled.

Daria, from Damascus, is a Muslim woman with seven children, and her husband is afflicted with a brain illness and in a hospital. She lives in a makeshift one-room home in the Zahle camp - which is about 100 kilometres from the Syrian border. The home itself is put together with tenting and some outer concrete walls. A TV is rigged up somehow. Daria is in her 40s but looks older. Like everyone else in the camp, the family had to leave their home in Syria because of bombing and shelling.

They have almost nothing, and Daria's main worry is that there won't be enough warm clothes for the children during the coming winter. The children attended school in Syria, but it is much harder for Syrian refugees, she says, to get into schools in the Lebanon. The schools are full, but Daria feels that Syrian refugee children aren't always welcome, as they are poor and homeless.

Despite having almost no possessions, and no money, Daria insists on hospitality, and one of her teenage daughters pours a Turkish-style coffee for our visiting group.

Most of the refugees in the camp are Muslims, and among the small possessions, which they have trundled from the neighbouring country, are religious scrolls. Nagdela, a handsome mother of four children, left Aleppo because she was made homeless by the bombing, and like the other refugees, lives in a one-room camp dwelling, in which the framed words of the Prophet and a verse from the Koran take pride of place. Nagdela says she can't think about the future; she can only hope and pray that Allah will sustain them. All the women refugees want to return to Syria. It is their homeland.

The refugees rent their small dwellings for $100 a month (the Lebanon uses American dollars as a parallel working currency). They get some help from NGOs (non-governmental organisations) affiliated with the UN, but it is very little.

"Sometimes the men get some agricultural work," another mother, Nada, told me. She has four children, and her little residence is immaculate and organised. But again, her main concern is that there is no education. Her daughters miss their friends in Aleppo, but how can the family return when their home has been destroyed, and there has been no electricity and no water?

Another woman, Fatima, came to the Lebanon with her eight children - seven girls and a boy - and her mother-in-law, who seemed very old, and limped from a bad hip that clearly needed the hip replacement operation that is common in our societies. The children, though numerous, and the little ones sometimes in the arms of the older girls, are shy and polite, and much pleased by small gifts of sweets or a ballpoint pen which clicks on and off.

Again, the family had nothing, but they did their best to make us welcome, providing extra cushions as we sat in the harem-styled pallets, covered in Moorish designs. The grandmother could have benefited from a support walking stick, but there was no one who could provide such a gift.

To complain about trivialities is only human. Hamlet outlines some of the frustrations which could drive him to ending his own life: "The whips and scorns of time … the proud man's contumely … the law's delay, the insolence of office".

But I returned from that Lebanese refugee camp humbled at the thought of my own petty grumbles, in contrast to the plight of these mothers, who have nothing; who live in one makeshift room and can only hope and pray that a benign deity will comfort them.

Apart from a few trinkets and small cash sums, there was nothing I could do for them, but paradoxically, I came to see that they had done an awful lot for me, in putting the important things of life into proportion.

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