Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Shelter, jobs and social stability in Lebanon

Last month I went to Northern Lebanon, on a short mission with CARE International, to help them figure out a strategy to deal with the dire housing problems faced by Syrian refugees.  To short cut to this presentation (more pictures than words, go here).  Almost immediately I was blown away by the scale of the crisis in Lebanon: a country of just over 4.2 million people is hosting almost 1.5 million refugees.  That's around a third of the population! Meaning that Lebanon now has the highest per capital concentration of refugees in the world.

Tripoli, looking East over the mountains towards Syria

Imagine Britain or France taking in 20 million people, and the kind of impact that would have on public services that people often complain aren't good enough as it is.  Well, it's not really any different for Lebanon, except that their public services have been in worse shape than those in rich European countries.  Talking of Europe, it appears that the entire EU block has offered asylum to a grand total of 134,000 Syrian refugees, so around 10% that Lebanon has taken.  Yet the population difference  is so great it means that Europe is offering refuge to 1,000 times fewer refugees compared to Lebanon.

And let's not forget Lebanon's 15 year civil war, ending in 1990 - not that long ago.  In fact it's quite incredible that the country seems relatively "normal" and quite organised, considering the deep sectarian and political divides that burned the country for so long.  Or that over 300,000 Palestinian refugees live here, some for generations, others recently displaced again from Syrian, who have built entire urban neighbourhoods of their own (called "camps"), supported by UNRWA, an agency created specifically for this community, but constantly in financial crisis.

But Tripoli, Lebanon's second largest city, with a rich history dating back to almost 1,500 years BC as an important trading and education centre, has been embroiled in what some call a "spill-over" of the Syrian conflict.  As usual, it's complicated, but in essence Tripoli is home to what some call the most conservative Sunni Muslims, which continue to enjoy Saudi Arabian funding, and some Shia Allawite Muslims, aligned to the Syrian regime, but resident in Tripoli and Northern Lebanon for generations.

 Meanwhile, I kept hearing that the Government in Beirut has marginalised Tripoli for years which has led to economic decline, unemployment and failing public services.  A recent UN study found that 77% of local residents are economically "deprived" (aka: the poverty line) and 35% have miserable accommodation (OK they used different language but that's the gist).

Here I'm checking out roofing options to stop the constant
leaking in the dwelling of refugees below. With Ahmad
Al-Ayyoubi of LRC
So it is this precarious social eggshell that the 180,000 or so Syrian refugees in Tripoli and surrounding areas found themselves. (For more info see this enormous information bank on the refugee crisis in Lebanon.    I heard from a lot of people how welcoming local communities had been at first. Empathy is a powerful emotion and I think it's universal.  But after a while, it wears thin, especially if the new guests are putting additional strain on things that matter to everyone, like spaces in classrooms and clinics (refugees are supported, to some degree, by the UN to access both these public services).  But also jobs: Syrians traditionally take low paid work like moving stuff in markets, construction, agriculture.  But with there being so little other work around I heard from some locals their feeling of being "smothered", needing to find work themselves, and struggling.  And food, power, rent is EXPENSIVE in Lebanon...

The vast majority of refugees in Lebanon rent a place to live, that's just the norm. There are quite a few small informal settlements around, but not really in or around Tripoli, where most rent really basic flats in overcrowded blocks. Refugees pay between $200 and $400 a month which sometimes includes electricity and water, but not always.  We visited quite a few such places and they were pretty basic, though they did include small kitchens and toilet.  Actually I was quite impressed at the extensive sewerage piping network that has been built, often retrofitted to temporary shacks. OK, there's no such thing as sewage treatment: it all flows into the closest water course which is of course completely contaminated, as will be the ocean where it all ends up.  But still, compared to the open sewers across South Asia...

In a typical damp refugee dwelling, costing $200 a month, with
Rayan El-Fawal, project coordinator of Lebanon Relief Council
one of CARE's partner NGOs.
CARE had already partnered up with a local NGO called the Lebanon Relief Council (LRC) to do a survey of accommodation standards. They found lots of examples of really bad conditions, like damp - in some cases leaking down the walls, lack of windows and gaps at the top of walls where mice and rats entered.  On my visits I noticed really dodgy wiring, lack of ventilation, insulation, heating facilities. Overall, really unhealthy and depressing places to live.  But what choice do they have? Risk death on the Mediterranean to reach Fortress Europe? Go home and be incarcerated by the Regime?

We also heard from quite a lot of refugees how they can't afford to send their children to school - despite international donors providing upwards of $60m so far to support local schools to accommodate some refugee kids (to pay registration fees, staff, etc.).  But even so Syrians have found it really hard, stigmatised and academically challenged as subjects are taught in English and French in Lebanon, rather than Arabic they were used to back home.  Some reports indicated a 70% drop out rate while in some areas of the country it works better.  Of the refugees I met, about half said they couldn't afford the fees for schools or hadn't been accepted into the UN/NGO school support programme.  And when you meet kids who have no choice but to spend all day at home - a dingy room with nothing to do, is when the desperation of the situation really hits home.

Widad Sharan and her three children from Homs in Syria.
Hiba Daher, her daughter, far left, is 13 (my daughter Kira's age!) is polite, intelligent, really friendly - hasn't been to school since leaving Syria in 2013. Her siblings neither.  

I asked if anyone within the Syrian community had organised some kind of community school, within these very rooms, or outside, or wherever.  After all there must be teachers among the refugees and other adults who can teach kids literacy and maths and all that.  Apparantly not, so far anyway.  Why? because any adult who isn't home looking after kids has to be out trying to find work - to pay for rent and food and living.

Ahmad Al-Ayyoubi, Chief of LRC, chatting with one of the
most academically inspired kids I've ever seen.
She was thrilled with the attention and the time he gave her
and it just shows how much difference some kind of
community education project could make.  Also really
appreciated how Ahmad took the time in our meeting
to just hang out with her, rather than getting involved
in the chatter; shows real humanity and confidence.
Right there, in that room we had a big discussion on the potential for a project to support this kind of community education (it may well be happening in other parts of the country, but that means little to Hiba, her siblings and so many like her in Tripoli).  Friends from LRC said they could find some young people from the local community to volunteer, some teaching materials could be bought, or donated by UNICEF, which leads on education in emergencies, but the most important impact would be just engaging with these kids - doing something positive, keeping up with some classes and having a bit of fun.

Our mission was not education however, it was shelter, or rather proposing a strategy for housing. But soon enough I realised that it's wrong to separate out the accommodation woes from all the other ills of local society.

Local hero - this serious dude had dedicated countless hours
to fixing problems in loads of refugee homes. A refugee
himself and a talented handyman, he could be linked up with
a mixed team of Lebanese & Syrian tradesmen to undertake
the most pressing maintenance problems in their community.
For refugees and locals alike.  
Outside every home piles of garbage litter the streets, no doubt causing public health problems (and outstanding rodent territory). Meanwhile huge areas between the concrete blocks were denuded and destitute, where community farms or gardens or play-parks could be erected.

Together with Daniel Delati, my Tripoli guide and programme coordinator at CARE who had recruited me for this job, we realised that this was much more an integrated strategy.  We needed to re-frame this problem as one of social stability for the entire area.  We'd visited quite a few Lebanese families living in equally dire accommodation across the city. Meanwhile refugee and locals alike suffered from the lack of any kind of meaningful and sustained employment.  We had to find donors that would support a kind of social-economic recovery programme for the entire area.  In fact given the recent "troubles" between Sunni and Shia communities, one could argue that investment in livelihoods, business, public services and urban regeneration could mitigate future conflict.  And the refugee community could be part of this regeneration. Much better than focusing entirely on the refugees and ignoring the equally needy local people who had already done so much to host these war-affected people.

A typical scene in Tripoli, garbage and a wasted opportunity for community
farm or gardens.  
Looking at the city with my "green" or environmental design lens I saw countless opportunities for urban farming, household gardens, waste management (Daniel knows a company in Beirut that processes waste plastic into new products, who could be urged to start a plant in Tripoli?).

For solar lighting in the often black-out neighbourhoods. For a new industry of lime-based building materials, given that the entire country appears to be built on limestone.  For ecological treatment of sewage through constructed wetlands and smart design - a practice barely understood by the global WASH community, local Governments or donors anywhere, but with potential to re-green denuded cities and landscapes and to generate new and sustained income streams.  Yes it means thinking quite far out of the box, and challenging quite a lot of preset models and ideas, but these are desperate times and fairly radical solutions are needed.

Almost a garden. With the right design help these people
could direct their grey water (or even post septic-tank water)
into constructed wetlands (for black water) and gardens for
grey water.  

Opportunities for employment exist, that's for sure.  But there are certainly challenges too.  For example the Lebanese Government has come out with increasingly draconian regulations on the rights of Syrians to work - or rather that they are not allowed to work. In fact to stay in Lebanon, officially, every Syrian must pay $200 a year and sign a declaration that they will not work, or face detention.  I think every Government anywhere would have to do the same thing, given the pressure from voters and taxpayers on jobs; many local municipal Governments have shown enormous flexibility and understanding anyway and have not enforced these regulations.  But to move forward, the international community will have to negotiate shared benefits of new investment in economic regeneration.

A presentation on the strategy I drafted for CARE is given here.

For now, the international community has one of its finest humanitarian leaders running the show on behalf of the UN - the indomitable Ross Mountain, now the UN Humanitarian Coordinator (who I first encountered in 2004 doing a stirling job in post-war Liberia).  Ross appears to have quickly grasped the need to address the fragility of the crisis as can be seen in this really well drafted Lebanon Crisis Response Plan (this link takes you to the 8 page brochure and highlights).   In fact I'll leave you with a quote from this document, this appeal for a little over $2bn, to address this crisis.  I suppose it's fair to assume that if we fail to support Lebanon in this hour of need, the consequent crisis could cost much more, and it would be a humanitarian nightmare without precedent.

The number of poor currently in Lebanon has risen by nearly two-thirds since 2011, and Lebanese unemployment has doubled. Children and youth are most affected after four years of economic hardship and limited access to essential services. Lebanese national health, education and infrastructure services are overstretched and a third of Lebanon’s young labour force cannot find work. For many of the poorest and most vulnerable communities, including displaced Syrian families and Lebanon’s long-term Palestine refugees, daily life is increasingly dominated by poverty and debt, fewer cooked meals, rising waste and pollution, long queues at health centers, over-full classrooms, disease outbreaks, falling water quality, and increased competition for work. 
(LCRP, Dec. 2014)

And some more photos from the trip in Tripoli:

Urban sprawl. Overlooking the river, this must have been
a splendid vista back in the day of the Ottomans, or the Persian
empire or further back.

It's amazing how there's almost nothing left of the old
architecture left, perhaps giving way to more profitable
buildings (more people = more money)

Looks like a typica refugee rented property
but could just as well be a Lebanese family in there. 

Near the old souk, market area, signs of the vernacular
architecture, mostly from Ottoman period, which lasted
about 500 years. 

Part of the old market (souk).  Now there's only one shop there, selling locally made soap.
Nice, but where are the other traders? How could such a place buzz with business for over a thousands years, then nothing... Lebanon now imports around 90% of its food, invests almost nothing in agriculture development, or new businesses, maybe that's why.  Or has globalisation got something to do with it? 

A self-build, on some rented land.  A refugee family from
just outside Damascus.  Quite nice inside too, and delicious
coffee.. The point is they are used to quite high standards,
came from a paid job, was able to sell property before leaving,
has a brother working in the Gulf.  Not all families are
completely destitute, we need to remember that. 
Perfect spot for a raised bed garden!

Follow the trees: look where things want to grow.  Right where
we thrown our garbage.  With a small investment and some training
this whole area could be a garden of abundance and productivity.
Space left for social gatherings and playing.
Instead only the rats play here and the kids stay at home.
 And everyone pays a fortune for
imported vegetables and fruits.  

Passion fruit vines anyone?
Vertical garden heaven right here, yet nobody plants anything - why?  

Those sewerage connections I spoke about
earlier. It would make it easy to tap into this
nutrient-rich waste that could fertilise some
small urban forestry project. Or not, we could
just let it pour un-treated bacteriological contamination
into the communal water course.
Yeh, that sounds like a much better idea...

The kitchen - bathroom set up in a rented property 

The infamous garages - upgraded from mechanics workshops or shops to rent out to refugee families. Miserable, dark, cold and unventilated.  

Diesel-fed heating stoves.
First time I've seen these.  Quite impressive
despite the use of the fossil fuels. These
people said that 2 litres keeps it hot for
about 24 hours! wow. UNHCR
has distributed them to many "most vulnerable"
refugees, but huge gaps remain.  

Local kids, well Lebanese - Egyptian, but local

Daniel Delati, from CARE in Lebanon, from the US at one point, but also from Tripoli and a passionate citizen he is, with so much hope, passion for the city history and optimism for the future.  A great asset for CARE, and a superb guide to local cuisine too!

How the fossils fall.  Plastic waste below a block. The inevitable
result of a dysfunctional city waste management system.  

The scars of war in Tebennay district of Tripoli
where things are slowly returning to some kind
of normality (albeit with well armed military checkpoints
on most corners). 

Tebennay locals


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