“Sarah! Sarah!” they call out at me. “Sarah! Hold my hand! Pick me up!”
“Sarah, where are you from? Are you from Syria?”
Their faces are so eager; their eyes inquisitive, they want – demand – my full attention.
“I’m from Australia,” I tell them. “But yes, like you, my family is from Syria.”
They jump around in youthful enthusiasm. They laugh at my broken Arabic and bad accent. But they keep asking me questions, perhaps they’re teasing me?
I was quickly caught up in their energy, holding their hands, trying to remember my Arabic vocabulary.
Listen to our conversation on about Asma al-Assad, Syria’s “First Lady of Hell”. (Post continues after audio.)
“How long have you been living here?” I ask. But most of these children barely know how old they are, let alone when they left Syria, or when they arrived at this refugee camp in Lebanon. Most of them are school age, but instead of a classroom and playground, they have these dusty paths between tarpaulin tents.
Lebanon is hosting more refugees per capita than any other nation. Here, there are officially about 1.2 million Syrian refugees. Unofficially, it could be double that. This tiny nation wasn’t prepared. It still isn’t prepared. While in these camps reporting for Dateline, we were given a firsthand glimpse at the sheer lack of resources available for the millions of desperate people fleeing conflict in Syria.
Earlier this year, the Lebanese government appointed a Minister of ‘Refugee Affairs’, a portfolio created in response to this growing humanitarian crisis. But even the minister admits it’s come too late. The official line is they don’t want the refugees to stay. They are temporary guests in their country, and must return to Syria once peace is restored. But when will that be? How long will these refugees linger in limbo? And can Lebanon keep its own borders secure from a neighbouring war, while taking in those fleeing it?
Lebanon is a poor country, with many of its own problems. The signs of its 15-year civil war remain. The Syrian refugees live mainly along the fertile Bekaa Valley, east of Beirut, and merely kilometres from the Syrian border. Their homeland is literally within sight.
Sarah on her trip. Image: supplied.
In the camps there’s rubbish piling up in corners, clothes hanging on the wire fences dividing this makeshift camp from the neighbouring field it was hastily carved from. Fire pits, sometimes fuelled by plastic, are used as hearers and cooking stoves.
The dirt floor is dampened by open sewerage, the waste water turning sections of the camp to mud. Ramshackle camps are dotted all over the place – at the end of a driveway, behind shops, on the side of a highway. Some are small, others much larger, with hundreds of tents. There’s little privacy, and people are vulnerable.
Inside these tents, though, a semblance of dignity remains. The living quarters are neat, tidy. There’s no clutter – their few possessions tucked from view behind curtains made from sheets. One family has recently received a humanitarian visa to Sweden – they’ve scrawled the date of their flight on the tent wall.
What strikes me when visiting, is the warmth and hospitality of the residents. The water is on the boil, chai or Arabic coffee ready to pour by the time our shoes are off and we’re seated. This is a ritual not lost, when almost everything else was, in the rush to leave Syria. While we all sit and share tea, there’s a sense of normality. We are one and the same, sharing each other’s company. It’s a visit just like the many I’ve had in the past. What a relief they haven’t been robbed of their memories and traditions.
A photo of the refugee camp Sarah visited. Image: supplied.
But they have been robbed of their homeland. More camps are being constructed here. Far from keeping refugees away, more are coming, fleeing a war now entering its seventh year.
Like many of the people here, I too started life in Syria. The difference is I’ve been afforded an uninterrupted education and the opportunity to prosper, while many Syrians here haven’t.
The refugees aren’t allowed to work in Lebanon. Schools are limited. Most sit around, each day passing like the last, with no way forward and little hope of returning home.
Communicable conditions are easily transmitted in these environments. Often there’s only a nylon sheet between the waste water and their ‘bed’, which is just a mat on the floor. We met a three year old girl who’d never been vaccinated – she was starting the vaccination course of a two month old. In one area where a Lebanese NGO called ‘Beyond’ is operating, there are 12,000 Lebanese residents, but 42,000 Syrians. It’s hard to keep track of who is and isn’t vaccinated.
When I look around at all these children, my eyes linger. I’m lost as my mind searches for a solution to their woes, for the inevitable hardship they will continue to experience. These children are the innocent victims of war, born into a life that won’t give them the opportunities they deserve.
Robbed of a Homeland - Sarah's account of her visit for SBS. Image: supplied.
When we leave one camp, a gorgeous young girl no older than four is whisked onto her father’s scooter. She waves regally at the other children, with the widest smile on her face, as she and her father zip out of the camp and onto the street. It reminds me of when my uncle did the same with me in Syria. I was carrying on after tripping over his feet, so he reasoned that taking me for a spin on his bike would halt my tears. It worked.
Walking through the camps, it’s hard not to reflect on my own story.
My family left Syria when I was four. We weren’t fleeing a war; there was no hint of it. But Syria was far from perfect, and having lived and studied in the western world, my parents simply wanted a better life for their children. And my sisters and I are forever grateful.
What would have happened to us if my parents had decided to stick it out in Syria, all those years ago, hoping the country would prosper in a way it never did? Will any of these children have the opportunities my sister and I have had? Some, maybe. Perhaps their own children will. For the immediate future though, as the war rages on, there’s sadly little hope in sight.
Watch the full report – Robbed of a Homeland on Dateline, Tuesday 22 August at 9.30pm on SBS.
Join the conversation on Twitter #DatelineSBS
TRAILER FOR ROBBED OF A HOMELAND, here.