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Ashraf was born the very day the Syria conflict began: March 15, 2011. He is the seventh child in a family from Homs. Within a week of his birth, the conflict arrived in his neighbourhood. For months his family rarely left the house. Some days there was non-stop bombing, others were eerily quiet. On the quiet days, Ashraf's mother made a run with him to the local health clinic for vaccinations and check-ups.
When Ashraf was about 18 months old, his aunt, uncle and cousin were murdered - their throats slit - as the boy slept nearby in his family's home. Terrified that they were next, Ashraf's family crammed into their car, taking a few precious belongings, and drove to the border.
They left behind their home, built by Ashraf's father and uncle. Within days the house was looted and destroyed. Photographer Andrew McConnell visited the family at their new home, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, which was also built by Ashraf's father and uncle. Located on the edge of a muddy field, it is a patchwork of plastic sheeting, canvas and scrap metal. The floor is covered with blankets and mattresses from UNHCR. They now face new challenges such as the daily battle to keep the children warm, dry and protected from rats. Ashraf still starts at sudden loud noises, but the doctor told his mother that the boy would get used to it.
Mahmoud,15, hasn't been to school in 3 years. In his native Syria, his parents were afraid to send him because of the civil war. They ended up fleeing a year ago when, in the early morning hours, a bomb fell on a nearby house. The family, still groggy from being jolted awake, grabbed what they could and fled to Lebanon. Their home and the local school have since been destroyed.
In Lebanon, Mahmoud's father is unable to find work and now the family can barely afford rent.
A month ago, Mahmoud started working for tips cleaning fish at a small shop next to his home. He makes about $60 USD a month. With this money he helps pay rent on his family's tiny underground room, shared between his parents and eight brothers and sisters. Mahmoud is proud to help his family but with the fish shop located in the same subterranean structure as his home, he barely goes out into the sunshine.
Children like Mahmoud, some as young as seven, often work long hours for little pay, and in some cases in dangerous conditions. These children forfeit their future by missing out on an education and the carefree years of childhood. Many are also traumatized by what they witnessed back in Syria.
UNHCR and its partners together with local governments are providing financial assistance to help vulnerable Syrian refugee families cover expenses like rent and medical care, which means there is less need to pull children out of school and put them to work. UN agencies and their partners have also established case management and referral systems in Jordan and Lebanon to identify children at risk and refer them to the appropriate services.
Fresh fighting in Syria has driven thousands of refugees across the border into eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley over the past week. An estimated 6,000 people were forced from their homes by the fighting around Qarah and the Qalamoun region of western Syria. The desperate civilians crossed the mountains and made their way to the town of Arsal in Lebanon. Most of the refugees were already internally displaced in Syria, some as many as half a dozen times, before finally being forced out of the country. Some 80 per cent of the new arrivals were originally from the Syrian city of Homs. The refugees are arriving in a desolate and impoverished part of Lebanon that has seen its peacetime population grow by 50 per cent since the Syria crisis began in March 2011. Harsh early winter conditions are making matters worse. UNHCR and its partners have found temporary shelter in Arsal for the new arrivals in a wedding hall and a mosque. They are handing out blankets, food packages as well as kitchen and hygiene sets. A new transit site is also being built until better shelter can be found elsewhere in the country. The following images were taken in Arsal by Marc Hofer.