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Fiona Hodgson: Pitched from dreams of University to the squalor of a refugee camp

Fiona Hodgson is a former President of the National Convention.  She visited Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, with Oxfam.

Screen shot 2013-05-04 at 15.49.08Talking to women refugees and others in Lebanon last month, it is clear that urgent help is needed now as the enormous numbers of refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria threaten to destabilize the region.

We had gone to talk to the women refugees there, because conflict affects men and women differently.   Too often war impacts worse on the women, and time and again in the aftermath they are not consulted and their needs are overlooked.

Although 424,000 refugees have registered in Lebanon, many estimate that the true figure is already a million.  Even before this crisis, Lebanon already had over 400,000 Palestinian refugees living in permanent camps.  Being a small country this means that the official number of refugees in Lebanon is now equivalent to nearly 10% of its population, with more streaming in every day.

The Lebanese haven’t set up conventional camps, partly because of this the majority of refugees live in informal settlements, rented housing or, where they can, with the poorer host communities who can ill afford to help them.

Lebanon is the most religiously mixed country of the Middle East, maintaining a delicate balance between Sunni, Shia, Christian, Druze and others. with political office being allocated between them. Any influx thus potentially poses a threat to the religious equilibrium of the country, which is why, I understand, there has been no chance of integration for the Palestinians.

All these refugees are shocked and traumatized.  The women have the extra burden of keeping a family together in very tough conditions, and are experiencing harassment and increased risks of violence in refugee communities. The men feel angry and anxious, and this contributes to rising levels of domestic violence.

Some of the refugees from Syria are Palestinians and they flee to the Palestinian camps, such as Shatila, that we visited in Beirut. This intolerably overcrowded, urban ghetto has recently received 600 families from Syria, and many of the families have more relatives following. Accommodation is prohibitively expensive and the conditions shocking.  Twenty people per room is common, cooking where they are sleeping, with insects, lack of privacy and one lavatory per six or seven households.

The women we met there told us their heart-rending stories. Dalal, a recent arrival from Syria, has a 16-year-old son suffering from shrapnel head wounds. She borrowed taxi money to take him to hospital but was unable to pay for the needed operations.  Rana, a young woman, has reluctantly had to marry off her 16-year-old daughter because she could not afford to pay for her food.   Manal, a 19-year-old girl who dreamed of going to university, cried as she told us “Everything is gone, we have no rights here”.

In the Bekaa Valley, home to an estimated 300,000 refugees already, we visited Al Fayda, an informal tented camp. On a cold rainy day the sight of a young mother huddled with her seven barefoot children in one small tent was pitiful. Eva, an 11-year-old girl, told us that food was most needed as she hadn’t eaten that day. Another mother with a baby asked if we had a doctor amongst us – her baby was very sick and there was no medical care. Water is inadequate, and the outbreaks of scabies and diahorrea are impossible to contain. With the heat of the coming summer months comes the threat of cholera.

This crisis is now spiralling and although the UN has appealed for $1.5 billion to help this crisis, only just over half the money has come in.   So money is urgently needed to enable our aid agencies to deliver vital humanitarian support on the ground.

The longer the fighting continues, the worse the situation is going to be, both in Syria and in the neighbouring countries such as Lebanon. It is therefore imperative that the UN Security Council uses all its influence to end this conflict as soon as possible and, together with the international community, helps to find a long term political solution.   And in doing so, I hope they will remember to consult the women!

Meanwhile, the best that we can do is to contribute to our aid agencies so that they can ease conditions on the ground for those who have managed to escape.


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