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Scraps of life

A junkyard camp

Stand here for a moment. Close your eyes.

Hear the screaming roar of the junkyard crane as it picks up the twisted remains of old cars, bikes and refrigerators and smashes them into scrap.

Smell the diesel. Smell the garbage, and sewage.

Feel the crunching beneath your feet as you step on the jagged carpet of glass and crushed bits of metal and concrete.

Imagine the filthy, toxic mess all around you. Feel it on your skin.

Imagine eating here.

Now open your eyes and see all the people who live here.

This back end of a junkyard, an acre or so of roughly cleared space, is home to about 50 Syrian refugees who could not find anywhere better to live. Even this garbage-strewn dump looks good compared with the war back home that has destroyed their houses and killed their families.

So they have settled here, in the Bekaa Valley about five miles from the Syrian border, in some of the worst conditions faced by Syrian refugees anywhere.

They have slapped together 10 crude tents from scrap wood and plastic, including discarded billboard ads. The huge face of a pouting model stares back from the side of one tent.

It is not an official refugee camp. Lebanon has not established any formal camps, largely out of fear of what happened the last time it did so, when Palestinians were relocated here in 1948 following the creation of Israel and the Arab-Israeli War. Nearly 300,000 Palestinian refugees still live in a dozen camps that have become permanent towns.

As the Syrian refugee population swells to about a million in a country of just 4.4 million people, refugees are finding shelter wherever they can. Those with money rent apartments, those without seek out space in empty buildings.

But as Lebanon fills with more refugees every day, there are fewer places for them to go. So the poorest and the newest end up in places like this junkyard, where the landlord charges about $50 a month to live among the garbage.

Look around.

Off in one corner is a hand-dug latrine, just an open pit surrounded by a piece of blue plastic flapping in the wind. Everyone uses it.

The center of activity is a black plastic hose that comes out of the ground, connected to a spigot. It is the only source of water here.

“We don’t know where it comes from, but we drink it, we bathe in it and we cook with it,” one man says. “The kids have diarrhea most of the time.”

Kids play everywhere. Most of them are filthy. Almost everyone wears plastic sandals, though some of the kids are barefoot. Virtually everyone has cuts or scabs on their fingers and toes. Snow will be coming soon, and nobody here has warm clothes or boots.

Over there, next to a 20-foot-high pile of scrap metal, a new tent is taking shape. It has an uneven dirt floor and a flimsy frame of nailed-together 1-by-4 boards. The walls are a ratty orange tarp, and the roof is covered with a second layer of dirty clear plastic.

“There is no place else to go,” says the man building it, a father of four small children who fled the shelling in his home town of Homs a few weeks ago. “We don’t have money, clothes, nothing. I just left with my children. I had $500, but I spent it to get here.”

No one here wants to be identified by name. Most are brand-new arrivals, and the fear of war is still fresh. They are scared of retribution from President Bashar al-Assad’s government if they are identified publicly.

The father from Homs ran a clothing store and lived a comfortable middle-class life before his house was destroyed. He fled to Lebanon and ended up here.

WE DON'T EVEN FEEL LIKE WE'RE AWAKE. I ASK MYSELF IF WE'RE REALLY HERE.

“We’ve all had a shock,” he says. “We don’t even feel like we’re awake. I ask myself if we’re really here.”

While he builds his tent, his family is bunking in the tent of another man who came here six weeks ago after his parents, his three brothers, his wife and their 1-year-old son were wiped out in a government bombing in Homs.

“I can’t find a job here,” he says with a hollow look in his eyes. “I can’t do anything. But these people helped me.”

Over by the water hose, a woman stands holding her 3-year-old daughter in her arms. The little girl has ugly burn scars up and down her right arm from a bomb attack on their house in Homs.

The mother is now nine months pregnant, with a huge bump under her long purple robe. She says she has no idea where she will deliver the baby. She shrugs and says maybe she will just end up having the baby on the carpeted dirt floor of her tent.

Outside the camp gate, which is just a hole in the corrugated metal fence, Ahmed Bougi, a big Lebanese man in a crew cut and a sweatsuit, says his family owns the lot, plus another one across the road where another 50 Syrians live. He says he cleared away the junk cars and opened the place to refugees three months ago.

“They make it hard for me to collect,” he says. “Some of them don’t pay. But what can I do? Kick them out? I feel sorry for them. They have families.”

He says he never considered letting the refugees have the land for free. He wants his rent.

Every day, about 3,000 Syrians leave the country.

Since you started reading, roughly ## Syrians have left the country.