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A hard crossing awaits Syrians fleeing into Lebanon

Telling the Human Story, 10 September 2012

© UNHCR/M.Abu Asaker
Three families who fled Syria this month and began looking for accommodation in Lebanon.

ERSAL, Lebanon, September 10 (UNHCR) For Syrians fleeing their homeland, there is never a right time to leave. Zaina,* 24, endured more than a year of fighting in her hometown of Homs before 10 neighbours were killed in a single helicopter attack last month. Nine months pregnant at the time, she decided she had had enough.

"I felt I am going to give birth and that I have to leave this place," she said.

Zaina, her sister and sister-in-law left Homs but did not get far. Before reaching the border, she gave birth to a little girl with blue eyes and porcelain features in a canvas tent, attended by another Syrian fleeing the conflict.

"It is hard to describe giving birth with no mother, husband or family to take care of me," Zaina told UNHCR visitors from an unfinished house where she has sought refuge in neighbouring Lebanon, wiping away tears. The child, Rama, now three months old, dozes fitfully at her side.

For Syrians fleeing violence in their homeland, the journey brings a host of perils. Those arriving in neighbouring Lebanon describe being shot at, turned back, harassed at checkpoints or forced to trek hours through the night across rocky mountain passes with small children. An overwhelming number of those fleeing Syria are women and children, including many who are ill or pregnant. Their men are either lost, fighting or staying in their home areas to protect their neighbourhoods.

UNHCR, together with implementing partners on the ground, is providing assistance to Syrian refugees arriving in Lebanon. This support includes material assistance, such as food and cooking supplies, as well as help with shelter, schooling and medical care. Nearly 200,000 refugees have fled the crisis in Syria, more than 60,000 of them to Lebanon.

Sahar,* 25, fled Qusair as the town came under shellfire. "We felt maybe it's our turn to die," she said. "But we didn't want to die. We wanted to leave." Sahar, her sister and sister-in-law took their six children with them; the oldest was five. The little group set off along a narrow path towards the border, shells bursting around them. The small children cried, but only the five-year-old "understood what the gunfire meant," recalls his mother. He sat down in the road and cried "God is Great."

"I pray to God that you will never see what I saw," says Sahar.

A woman from Homs who had just arrived a day earlier described the trip as "really dangerous." She came with a large group that included nine small children. "When you are travelling by yourself and you have children, the situation is different because children will not bear to stay with no water and no food and they are not patient enough to travel long distances. In the end, I am a woman, I am not a man, and I am not strong enough to carry the children," she said. "I am very tired."

Mohammed, 35,* a farmer, left his village near the border when worsening violence last month took the lives of nine neighbours in a single attack. Through the night for 14 hours, his family hiked with their neighbours, including 10 children, one as young as three. One boy, Nabeel, 9,* had to be carried most of the way because he was born with a defective heart valve.

Mohammed tried to hush the other children from crying out, so as not to alert border patrols. At one point they were fired on, but they could not tell from which direction, and all had to lay still on the ground. Now safe in Lebanon, the children run for cover inside their tent when they hear the roar of planes overhead.

"It's like a scary movie to them," says Manal Ramadan of the Danish Refugee Council, a UNHCR partner in the town of Zahle.

* Names changed for protection reasons.

By Andrew Purvis in Ersal, Lebanon




UNHCR country pages

2008 Nansen Refugee Award

The UN refugee agency has named the British coordinator of a UN-run mine clearance programme in southern Lebanon and his civilian staff, including almost 1,000 Lebanese mine clearers, as the winners of the 2008 Nansen Refugee Award.

Christopher Clark, a former officer with the British armed forces, became manager of the UN Mine Action Coordination Centre-South Lebanon (UNMACC-SL) n 2003. His teams have detected and destroyed tons of unexploded ordnance (UXO) and tens of thousands of mines. This includes almost 145,000 submunitions (bomblets from cluster-bombs) found in southern Lebanon since the five-week war of mid-2006.

Their work helped enable the return home of almost 1 million Lebanese uprooted by the conflict. But there has been a cost – 13 mine clearers have been killed, while a further 38 have suffered cluster-bomb injuries since 2006. Southern Lebanon is once more thriving with life and industry, while the process of reconstruction continues apace thanks, in large part, to the work of the 2008 Nansen Award winners.

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Although 90 percent of the displaced returned within days of the August 14 ceasefire, many Lebanese have been unable to move back into their homes and have been staying with family or in shelters, while a few thousand have remained in Syria.

Since the crisis began in mid-July, UNHCR has moved 1,553 tons of supplies into Syria and Lebanon for the victims of the fighting. That has included nearly 15,000 tents, 154,510 blankets, 53,633 mattresses and 13,474 kitchen sets. The refugee agency has imported five trucks and 15 more are en route.

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