|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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
|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.
|Perfect spot for a raised bed garden!|
|Passion fruit vines anyone? |
Vertical garden heaven right here, yet nobody plants anything - why?
|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.|
|Local kids, well Lebanese - Egyptian, but local|
|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).