“We don’t have anything. We just left as we are,” she said. “It was terrifying.”
A life as a refugee, with its indignity and uncertainty, is a last resort. After his house south of Damascus crumbled around him when hit by a shell in November, Abu Ahmed, 52, moved twice to other neighborhoods. But shellfire drove him out of those areas, too.
“There isn’t a single place in Syria you can feel safe anymore,” he said as he, his wife and his mother joined the throngs of people crossing the border into Lebanon last week.
‘We have a lot of debates’
For reasons of history and politics, Lebanon is also perhaps the least equipped of Syria’s neighbors to deal with a burgeoning refugee population. Lebanon’s fraught sectarian balance, roughly divided between Christians, Sunnis and Shiites, is at risk of being disrupted by the mostly Sunni newcomers. Memories are raw of the influx of Sunni Palestinian refugees after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the role their presence played in triggering the 1975-90 civil war.
Alone among Syria’s neighbors, Lebanon has refused to allow the construction of refugee camps that may become permanent, as the Palestinian ones have. The setting up of tents is outlawed, though some refugees have pitched their own out of desperation.
Moreover, Lebanon’s Hezbollah-aligned government backs the Syrian regime, further complicating the effort to help the refugees, who tend to come from communities that support the uprising. There has been no official Lebanese help for them, and some Christian politicians have called for Syrian refugees to be barred entry, earning the wrath of Sunnis who sympathize with the rebel cause.
“We have a lot of debates, and there are a lot of conflicts,” said Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour, describing the tensions within the government. “Some people want to deny there is anything going on in Syria, and they think by doing this they are supporting the Syrian regime. But, now, I think they are convinced that we can’t ignore this anymore.”
The government has drawn up a plan to help the refugees and has appealed to the international community for $180 million to fund it. Soon it is also likely to be forced to bow to the inevitability of allowing camps, said Faour, who has long campaigned for greater government assistance for the refugees. The appeal will be promoted at a U.N. conference in Kuwait on Jan. 30, at which the United Nations also hopes to secure pledges for its wider effort.
Fending for themselves
Meanwhile, the refugees in Lebanon are left largely to fend for themselves, finding whatever shelter they can and relying on the generosity of local communities. Bar Elias, seven miles east of the Syrian border, has seen its population swell by nearly a third in recent months as the refugees drift into the first town they find, sending prices and rents soaring, Mayor Naji al-Mayis said .
“It’s more than a crisis. It’s a tragedy,” he said. “The number of refugees is increasing rapidly, especially these days, to the point where we can’t provide them with their basic needs anymore.”
Conditions are bleak. Abu Hussam, his wife and his six children are living in two rooms in a half-finished building on the edge of Bar Elias. The floor is sodden. The children have colds. But there is gratitude, too, for safety and the stillness of nights without war.
“This is the most miserable life that there could be, except that there are no missiles,” said Umm Hussam, his wife, recounting the nightly bombardments the family members endured in Idlib until a shell ripped the roof off their house and they decided to run.
“There we couldn’t even close our eyes,” she said. “At least here we can sleep. Thank God.”
Ahmed Ramadan contributed to this report.