Syria

Searching for safety: lessons from Syria's refugees

What is life like for Syrian refugees in Lebanon? Oxfam conducted research to find out how safe refugees feel and to understand the challenges they face. For Oxfam researcher Nour Shawaf, it was a humbling process.

I thought I knew it all, I thought I had seen it, I thought I had read about it, I thought I had heard all their stories… After all, I am Lebanese, I have Syrian and Palestinian friends, I have been interacting with refugees on a regular basis for the past four years, I speak their language and I follow the news closely! Why would I not know it all?

Well I was definitely wrong. I knew nothing at all.

“Every time we went to a place the war would follow us.” She personified war and it scared me. My imagination took me beyond the discussion. I dropped my papers and just listened to her. The young woman sitting in front of me was my age. She had experienced multiple displacements and the war was following her. This was not just another research exercise, and this young woman talking to me was not just another story.

While carrying out Participatory Protection Research for Oxfam in Lebanon to explore the perceptions and expectations of refugees from Syria over the past, present and future, my own perceptions and expectations were altered. The stories refugees from Syria told left me completely shocked.

Reality struck me hard, especially when people started describing their routes from Syria to Lebanon. I had heard about the “mountain.” It is the word all refugees from Syria use to indicate they have come into the country through unofficial borders. But never had it occurred to me that the ‘mountain’ was a “death plateau.” People talked about walking for hours and days, being left by smugglers in the middle of nowhere, walking in the snow or under the sweltering sun, and having to leave their belongings en route to carry children and elderly on their backs when they could no longer walk.

Bekaa Valley informal refugee settlement in winter. Credit: Sam Tarling/Oxfam 

They went through the “mountain” looking for safety from the bombings, the shelling and the airstrikes. There are neither bombings nor shelling nor airstrikes where they are now… but they have still not found safety!

The rampant fear and the deteriorating living conditions are obstacles that prevent them from feeling safe. Their inability to meet their basic needs, obtain legal statuses and avoid arrests, deprive them from the sense of safety they are longing for.

Though this came as no surprise to me, experiencing it along with the refugees who volunteered to participate in the research shifted my perspective. They explained to me the range of factors they had to worry about. If they leave home, they have to worry about the checkpoints. If they stay home they have to worry about raids. If they find a job they have to worry about inspectors along with different forms of exploitation. If they don’t find a job they have to worry about meeting their families’ basic needs.

In their own words, their quest to find safety is costing them their dignity: “When you are displaced you start ignoring your dignity to find safety”. When an older Lebanese woman made the aforementioned statement, she summarised everything the refugees were trying to tell me in one sentence. The times may have changed, but the experience of displacement remains the same.

A portrait of Jemaa Al Halayal and his two-year-old daughter, Lebanon. Credit: Sam Tarling/Oxfam

Despite the dire conditions and the lack of better prospects, Ahmad told me: “We won’t lose hope”. Ahmad is a 22-year-old Syrian refugee from Homs. He fled his hometown at the very beginning of the war. He had always dreamt of becoming a Computer Engineer. Although his dreams have not unfolded so far, he is striving to achieve the best given the current circumstances. He says: “Even if you are a refugee, you must have a message, a mission. I want to serve my country, my people. I hope I can spread a positive message.”

As part of our research we invited participants to take photos. The above photo was taken by Ahmad (of his former home), as it reminds him of his past. I sometimes tend to forget that Ahmad was not a refugee before 2013 and that he led a different life. This photo is my constant reminder.

People like Ahmad are what keeps me going, that much I know!

Posted by Nour Shawaf, Protection Research and Policy Advisor for Oxfam in Lebanon

 

The migrants' winter walk: Oxfam calls for safe passage of refugees to Europe

Nearly 60 million people around the world are now officially “displaced” from their homes – the highest figure recorded by the United Nations since the Second World War.

Millions of these refugees are fleeing poverty and conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Some of them are making the difficult journey to Europe in the hope of a better life for them and their children.

In January 2016, the total number of arrivals of refugees to Europe reached 1,167,475 but at least 3,810 women, men and children are dead or missing, lost during the journey at sea or over land.

These are not just numbers, they are real people.

“People are arriving here exhausted, hungry and thirsty and often in need of urgent medical attention.” Riccardo Sansone Oxfam’s Humanitarian Coordinator in Serbia.
 
 
Fatheh, 45, (pictured above) is travelling alone with her 4 children. She had to flee Syria, but her husband stayed to take care of his mother who is too old for such a long and difficult journey. “Mine and my relatives’ homes were totally destroyed. There are no buildings left in my neighbourhood. We started going from one place to another. We were refugees inside our own country until we had nowhere to go. At that point, we had no other option but to leave Syria and become refugees. Even if the war ended, I don‘t think we’d ever come back home”.
 
 
Smart phones are a life-line to migrants and refugees. They help them to plan their journeys and stay in touch with their families. 
 
At Oxfam we recognise the importance of information sharing. We are working on the ground to provide refugees with information on safe roads, places, and their human and asylum rights.
 
 
Between October 2015 and January 2016, 985,600 arrivals were documented in Serbia and Macedonia. Many of the refugees along this route come from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
 
To cross Serbia refugees must be granted a travel pass which gives them 72 hours to cross the border out of the country. Most refugees, who are mostly women, children and elderly people, make this journey on buses, trains and on foot.
 
For most of the route there are no, or inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene facilities.
 
We believe that everyone has a right to safe water, sanitation and hygiene as a basic essential service.
 
So far we have supplied vulnerable people with portable latrines, sanitary and waste containers and sanitation equipment such as soap and toilet paper in three areas of Serbia.
 
 
Khalid (pictured above) has wrapped his children in a blanket to protect them from the cold as he carries them towards the Serbian border. He and his family, like millions of others, have fled the ongoing war in Syria.
 
People are only able to take the possessions that they can carry and are not prepared for the winter conditions that they face along the Balkans route, where temperatures drop below -16°C (3°F). 
 
Oxfam has supplied around 100,000 refugees and migrants with urgently needed winter items (such as jackets, underwear, gloves, cups, blankets and scarves) during the cold winter months in Dimitrovgrad, Sid, Preševo (Serbia).
 
 
The opening and closing of borders only adds to the challenges that refugees face. As routes change so do the needs in each location, even the train stations become temporary camps.
 
The Serbian government and NGOs on the ground are warning that the situation will only get worse throughout winter as the heavy snow will make the journey harder and more dangerous.

 

What Oxfam is doing

Working with local organisations in Serbia and Macedonia to protect new arrivals
 
 
Many of the migrants and refugees arriving in Europe along the Balkan route face daily uncertainty and practical challenges such as the route to take on their journey, from basic information about aid points and available services to the increasing risk posed by human trafficking and migrant smuggling. Most of them are women, children and elderly people. Through close interaction and monitoring of local authorities we support them, by ensuring that local organisations can provide adequate assistance and protection to new arrivals.
 
Besides our protection programme, we are also installing toilets, showers and water points and will be distributing hygiene and sanitary packs, as well as socks, coats and blankets to about 100,000 people in Serbia and in Macedonia. With the Balkan winter here, refugees not only face dropping temperatures, but food and water shortages, poor sanitation, and few winter clothes. The opening and closing of borders only adds to their struggle as routes change and so do the needs in each location. The Serbian government and NGOs on the ground are warning that the situation will only get worse in the coming months: the heavy snow will make the journey harder and more dangerous and people may be unable to continue.
 
We have been working in partnership with UN women to support the distribution of urgently needed items in Serbia and Macedonia following a UN Women gender assessment that shows women and girls' specific needs and vulnerabilities are not being adequately addressed. In partnership, we are also poised to deliver a targeted information campaign to women, capacity-building training to local counterparts and advocacy activities raising the voice of women migrants and refugees.
 
Providing emergency, legal and psychological support in Italy
 
We are helping those arriving in Italy by providing food, clothes, shoes, and personal hygiene kits as well as longer term psychological and legal support. We are supporting asylum seekers to find accommodation, and with cash so that they can meet their basic needs in Sicily and around Florence.
 
Distributing hot meals and winter kits in Lesbos, Greece
 
 
Above: Sanitation facilities at Kara Tepe camp, Greece. Photo: Jodi Hilton/Oxfam
 
We are providing hot meals to people on the Greek island of Lesbos.Thanks to the help of volunteers we are distributing meals of rice, lentils and vegetables once a day in co-operation with Save the Children.
 
We are also preparing winter kits and clothes for distribution on Lesbos and Kos and improving water and sanitation facilities in Moria Camp, Lesbos.
 
Border access is restricted between Greece and Macedonia: only Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans are allowed to cross, while thousands of asylum seekers from other nationalities are stuck in Greece.
 
Life-saving emergency support for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan
 
More than 4 million people have had to flee Syria to escape its civil war. In 2014 we reached nearly half a million refugees in Jordan and Lebanon with clean drinking water or cash and relief supplies, such as blankets and stoves and vouchers for hygiene supplies. We are helping families get the information they need about their legal and human rights and connecting them to medical, legal and support services.
 
We have built shower and toilet blocks in refugee camps, informal settlements and on deserted routes used by people fleeing Syria and have installed or repaired toilets in communities hosting refugees. Piped water schemes are being developed for Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp and in host communities in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.
 
We are also providing clean water to Syrians inside their country through rehabilitation of infrastructure, water trucking and repairing of wells.
 
Calling for safe passage 
 
Many refugees face brutality and poor treatment. Every day, approximately 50 boats with refugees or migrants, fleeing war or poverty, arrive off the coast of the small island of Lesbos, Greece. 
 
Desperately seeking safety in a new country, refugees pay traffickers amounts of around €1,000 per person (€800 if you're over 60 or if the weather is bad), to risk their lives on dangerous journeys.
 
 
Some are lucky enough to get to beaches where they face volunteer groups across Europe, others are not so lucky. More than 4,000 people fleeing for their lives, failed to reach the coast in 2015.
 
Our call for safe passage is founded in the belief that all people have the right to a life of dignity.
 
The EU must urgently provide safe and legal passage for migrants and refugees coming to Europe.
 
Refugees and migrants must not be forced to risk their lives or resort to extremely dangerous measures to continue their journey.
 

All photos by Pablo Tosco/Oxfam.

First impressions mask difficult reality of life in a Syrian refugee camp

Before I arrived in Jordan, Zaatari Refugee Camp in my mind had taken on almost mythical proportions. I had heard that it was initially constructed to accommodate a population of 35,000 but was now rumoured to have a registered population of more than 130,000. And frighteningly, not the largest refugee camp in the world.

As I approached by car, it seems strange to say but I was disappointed by first impressions. Zaatari refugee camp sits atop a relatively flat landscape not far from the Syrian border and without an aerial view the sense of scale I had imagined was impossible to view.

 

Above: The Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan is a sprawling city with rows of tents as far as the eye can see. Anastasia Taylor-Lind/Oxfam

Surrounded by a high wire fence for security, it appears orderly with its seemingly evenly spaced rows of regulation refugee tents. It is solid underfoot too with crushed stone to prevent muddying caused by vehicles and human traffic in winter rain. And either side of the road that leads from the main entrance is a remarkable array of market stalls selling everything from fruit, vegetables and cooked food to clothes and toys and household basics sourced from local traders outside the camp. The refugees from Syria have proven themselves to be remarkably self-reliant and resourceful.

“It doesn’t seem that bad,” a companion commented. Indeed there is much about Zaatari that on first appearances “doesn’t seem that bad”…if the alternative is to be trapped in a bitter conflict that has left an estimated 70,000 dead and forced another 6 million (yes, million) people to flee their homes.

First impressions too of course can be deceptive and as the morning and hours passed, the realities of life in the refugee camp became more apparent…more than anything else the sense of confinement, the restricted space, the lack of opportunity to escape even for just a short time from the heaving bustling hive of activity. 

Clockwise from top:  Clothes drying on a high-wire fence in the camp. Caroline Gluck/Oxfam. Oxfam public health staff put the finishing touches to 95,000 litre water tanks that will considerably increase the water storage capacity in the refugee camp. Karl Schembri/Oxfam. A woman and child gather water in the camp where Oxfam has installed tap stands and towers, latrines, bathing areas, laundry areas, water collection points and wash blocks. Caroline Gluck/Oxfam. Syrian children in the camp share a smile. Karl Schembri/Oxfam. Syrian refugees arrive at the camp, originally built for 35,000 but now accommodating more than 130,000. Caroline Gluck/Oxfam.

And as we moved beyond the road that once formed the main axis of the camp, it is with regret that I say my expectations of scale were finally met. Row upon row upon row of tents dominated the horizon as far as the eye could see. This was no camp. This was a sprawling city, ironically the significance of which is only best understood when you see the enormity of the blank canvas of land that has been cleared to accommodate still more tents and, more recently, prefabs.

Later, faces pressed against the fence outside a health clinic where lines of mothers and young children queued served only again to re-enforce the sense of claustrophobia and suggesting that, despite best efforts, supply of services had outstripped demand. It could hardly be otherwise. 

Organisations like Oxfam are working closely with the refugee population to provide access to the most basic of human needs such as clean water and washing facilities but the scale of need is frankly overwhelming…1,500 people arrive on average each day. I wondered how we in Ireland would cope with such an influx. More importantly still, how do the Syrian refugees cope?

Refugee camps are rarely constructed as homes but places of temporary refuge until it is safe to go home or some alternative option is found. Almost as though lives can be put on hold while diplomats, like economists, trade options...and futures...of those whose recent past, and perhaps even lives, have been comprised of choices few of us could ever even conceive.

As I write now amidst a flurry of international activity to bring about a resolution to the conflict, I hear that the influx of refugees across the border into Jordan has almost ceased. And then the question, why? And quickly the realisation that those in Zaatari are the lucky ones...they were able to flee. And it is then you understand the true meaning of “it doesn’t seem that bad”.