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The hellish camps that Syria's lost children call home


Syrian refugees

Syrian refugees

for The New York Times

BBC - Spotlight - Declan Lawn

BBC - Spotlight - Declan Lawn

BBC - Spotlight - Declan Lawn

BBC - Spotlight - Declan Lawn


Syrian refugees

The day before I'm due to travel to Lebanon, I'm playing football in the back garden with my son. I explain that I'm going to be away for a few days, and where I'm going. I tell him that I'm probably going to meet children his age, who have been through a very difficult time and who now have to live in tents and who don't have anything.

The next day, just as I'm getting in the taxi to the airport, he runs out and gives me the ball in case I meet a child who needs one. I put the ball in the bag. Two days later, I'm in the town of Halba in Lebanon, not far from the Syrian border. As soon as you arrive here, you can feel a certain amount of tension.

The Syrian civil war, raging just a few miles away, casts a long and ominous shadow. This is a town where you can't drive or walk too far without being stopped by the Lebanese army. They're on high alert because the nearby border is porous and they want to know exactly who is crossing it.

In many ways, the huge military presence and general sense of tension reminds me of growing up in Northern Ireland during the 1980s.

But in north Lebanon, security isn't the biggest issue for the Lebanese government. In fact, it's not even close. That's because Halba and other towns like it along Lebanon's northern border with Syria are on the frontline of a refugee crisis that dwarfs anything we have seen in Europe, or are ever likely to see.

The statistics are staggering. Some 1.2 million Syrian refugees have crossed the border into Lebanon - a country that had fewer than six million people to begin with. I've travelled here with Peter Anderson, from Concern in Northern Ireland, who points out that this is the equivalent of 400,000 people arriving in Northern Ireland in just four years - and yet the Lebanese people have welcomed them.

That's despite the fact that even before the influx of refugees, nearly a third of Lebanese people were living below the poverty line. The problem is that despite best intentions, Lebanon simply doesn't have the resources to cope.

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That means it's up to international aid agencies to help as best they can. Here in the Akkar district of Lebanon alone, Concern is trying to support 150,000 Syrian refugees.

And the problem doesn't just lie in the sheer numbers. The Lebanese people have done an incredible job of supporting the Syrian refugees, but the government here doesn't allow large semi-permanent refugee camps.

It's perhaps an understandable decision in a country that provided such camps for Palestinian refugees and that now supports nearly half a million Palestinians over the long term.

That means that the Syrian refugees simply have to find, or build, shelter where they can, in small ad-hoc camps built on waste ground or out in the countryside on land provided by farmers.

It's a chaotic and mind-boggling situation - you might be in the city centre, but behind an apartment block, on a small patch of waste ground, you might find a little encampment housing 20 families with ramshackle shelters made of plywood and cardboard and old UN food sacks.

Or you might be driving down an isolated dirt road in the countryside when suddenly, looming up in front of you, is a settlement with a thousand residents.

The first camp I visit with the Concern staff is on the edge of Halba town, on a tiny patch of ground with about 30 structures that are somewhere between tents and shacks.

Each one houses a family, most of them with young children. Immediately, it is a surreal and deeply unsettling experience. The absolute poverty crashes over you like a wave. Barefoot children stand around with blisters on their feet.

The people approach us, happy to tell their story, surprised that someone seems interested in listening. I speak to Osama, who was a successful builder in Syria and who has been here with his young family for two years. I ask him what life is like. "It is so hard," he says. "It is the most difficult life".

He and his wife invite me into their shelter, where they live with their two children. The first thing that strikes me is the heat. Outside, it's about 35 degrees Celsius. In here, it's much hotter.

The family tell me that they find this as difficult as I do - they came from a nice home in Syria with air-conditioning. They find the heat intolerable, and there is nowhere to escape it.

Back outside again, I speak to Corkman Pat O'Halloran. He's a civil engineer who works for Concern, and over the last few months he has been hard at work in this camp.

He and his team have installed a drinking water tank and basic sanitation, but he says that for the people here, life is about to get a lot more difficult and there will be little that he can do about it.

That's because winter is on the way. First, in November, will come downpours and flooding. A month later, this part of Lebanon will experience heavy snow, which will last until March. "The conditions you're experiencing now are actually good conditions," Pat says.

I wander around and get talking to various families. One man tells me he was a lawyer back in Syria. Now, some of his children are going barefoot. He exudes total frustration - a man who once provided the best for his family but who can no longer provide anything except his presence.

But at least they have that. There are many widows here, the wives of men who went out of their houses to try and get food, candles or fuel, and who simply never came back.

I speak to one woman whose husband disappeared three years ago. A few days later, she walked with her children to Lebanon. They were stopped at the border by the Lebanese army and simply stood at a checkpoint, in the blazing sun, for two days and nights until the soldiers relented and let them pass.

She says that every day the children tell her they think their father is still alive, that he is searching for them, and that one day he will walk into the camp to look after them once again.

Her husband was a dentist who owned his own clinic and was a wealthy man. Today, the family can only eat because her two sons, aged 11 and 13, go out to work picking vegetables.

Back in Syria, they might have been dentists, too, or doctors or teachers. But now they too are part of Syria's lost generation of children, who are unlikely ever again to see the inside of a classroom.

In a camp in Halba, I meet nine-year-old Kassim. He wants to show me around. Kassim and I don't share a common language, but in this place, we don't need one. He points at the places where the rats come in and shows me the cardboard walls of his shelter. I'm struck by the thought that in my time here I haven't seen any toys. There are no luxuries of any kind, only the artefacts of survival.

Then I discover that Kassim and I share one word in common. "You like football?" I ask, and he repeats the word with great enthusiasm. I go to the car and get him the ball - he boils over with excitement.

Immediately, Kassim is surrounded by 20 children and an impromptu and vigorous football match begins, even though there is no space between the tents to properly play. Nowhere to play - and nowhere to go.

As I watch the game, I'm reminded that it's from camps like these that the UK will accept a quota of Syrian refugees. David Cameron has pledged to take in 20,000 over five years. Some of these people could end up in Northern Ireland.

The next day, by the mundane miracle of air travel, I'm back there myself, walking into my house. It feels surreal.

My son comes running in from the garden, and asks me: "Did you give them my ball?"

"Yes," I reply. "I gave them your ball."

North Lebanon, Spotlight, tonight, BBC One NI, 10.35pm

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