A bad business idea could help fill a critical need for Syria's refugees

News Stories, 19 December 2013

© UNHCR/S.Baldwin
A group of Syrian refugee women move into their new home, a former chicken farm, near Qoubaiyat, in northern Lebanon.

QOUBAIYAT, Lebanon, December 19 (UNHCR) One of the biggest challenges facing Syrian refugees is also one of the most fundamental. Finding safe, secure and dignified shelter for the 2.3 million-plus to have fled the country is an enormous task. In Lebanon, where there are no major camps to accommodate the influx, and where each arriving family requires a new solution, the problem is urgent.

Rents are increasing, the capacity of host families to accommodate refugees is being exhausted, and available space is disappearing. In the northern Lebanon town of Qoubaiyat, UNHCR and its partners have hit upon a novel solution. Earlier this month a group of families moved into their brand new home, refurbished with funds from UNHCR and managed by the Danish Refugee Council It's a chicken farm.

"I don't want to leave," said Fatimah, a refugee from the Syrian city of Qusayr, who arrived here last month after being forced to leave her previous home near the Syrian border because of shelling.

The shelter, a three-storey concrete and cement-block building with sweeping views of the surrounding countryside, will ultimately accommodate 60 families. It is one of a dozen such farms in the region that UNHCR hopes to make operational by the middle of next year, with five opening by as early as the end of this month.

The shelters are available thanks to a business idea gone bad. Several years ago, local entrepreneurs took advantage of favourable loans to build multi-storey concrete chicken farms in the rugged countryside along the Syrian border. The cavernous structures, which afforded the birds lots of air and light and a roof over their heads, were intended to serve as suppliers for major poultry distributors.

But a variety of factors, including the global financial crisis, concerns over hygiene and avian flu, and consolidation in the poultry sector, led to many of the new enterprises failing. The result was abandoned buildings scattered across the hillsides of northern Lebanon with no apparent use. Then the Syria crisis erupted.

"We thought that this was a good option," said Vincent Dupin, the senior site planner for UNHCR in Lebanon. "In this country we have to be creative to find shelters," he said. "Otherwise we are stuck."

In other conflicts, such as the Kosovo crisis of 1999, he said, agricultural buildings such as barns were used to house refugees, but this is the first time to his knowledge that chicken farms have been used as shelter by UNHCR.

He conceded that some officials were sceptical that chicken farms could be repurposed in this way. Industrial cleaners had to be brought in to scrub the floors, cement blocks fitted to shut out the bitter winter mountain weather, and power and water delivered from the municipal supplies. The ground around the building has been levelled and gravel laid to keep the dust down. On the up side, rent for the abandoned buildings is negligible; refurbishment cost about US$100,000.

When Fatimah and her family moved in last month, children ran through the corridors and peeked from wire mesh windows. Fatimah said she was particularly relieved to have a room of her own, to share with her husband, for the first time since fleeing Qusayr five months ago. She held up a green key chain with her very own key, and grinned.

The Danish Refugee Council, which is administering the shelters together with a local partner, the Akkar Network for Development, says that it will continue to monitor the refugees' needs at each shelter since the housing is unconventional. The agency is considering transport to schools for the children and helping with access to local food markets. If all goes according to plan, by the middle of 2014, the farms could house as many refugees as a full-fledged transit site. In a country with little useable shelter, this is one bad idea that could turn out to be a very good one.




UNHCR country pages

Iraqi Children Go To School in Syria

UNHCR aims to help 25,000 refugee children go to school in Syria by providing financial assistance to families and donating school uniforms and supplies.

There are some 1.4 million Iraqi refugees living in Syria, most having fled the extreme sectarian violence sparked by the bombing of the Golden Mosque of Samarra in 2006.

Many Iraqi refugee parents regard education as a top priority, equal in importance to security. While in Iraq, violence and displacement made it difficult for refugee children to attend school with any regularity and many fell behind. Although education is free in Syria, fees associated with uniforms, supplies and transportation make attending school impossible. And far too many refugee children have to work to support their families instead of attending school.

To encourage poor Iraqi families to register their children, UNHCR plans to provide financial assistance to at least 25,000 school-age children, and to provide uniforms, books and school supplies to Iraqi refugees registered with UNHCR. The agency will also advise refugees of their right to send their children to school, and will support NGO programmes for working children.

UNHCR's ninemillion campaign aims to provide a healthy and safe learning environment for nine million refugee children by 2010.

Iraqi Children Go To School in Syria

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The UN refugee agency is increasingly alarmed over the continuing violence in Iraq and distressed about the lack of an international humanitarian response to deal with the massive numbers of people being displaced. After an assessment mission in November last year, UNHCR officials warned that the agency was facing an even larger humanitarian crisis than it had prepared for in 2002-03. But UNHCR and other organisations are sorely lacking in funds to cope with the growing numbers of displaced.

In an effort to fill the massive gap in funding, UNHCR in January 2007 launched a US$60 million appeal to cover its protection and assistance programmes for Iraqi refugees in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey, as well as non Iraqi refugees and internally displaced people within strife torn Iraq.

The longer the Iraq conflict goes on, the more difficult it will become for the hundreds of thousands of displaced and the communities that are trying to help them – both inside and outside Iraq. Because the burden on host communities and governments in the region is enormous, it is essential that the international community support humanitarian efforts.

Posted on 5 February 2007

Iraqi Refugees in Syria: 2,000 New Arrivals Daily

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UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie returned to the Syrian capital Damascus on 2 October, 2009 to meet Iraqi refugees two years after her last visit. The award-winning American actress, accompanied by her partner Brad Pitt, took the opportunity to urge the international community not to forget the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees who remain in exile despite a relative improvement in the security situation in their homeland. Jolie said most Iraqi refugees cannot return to Iraq in view of the severe trauma they experienced there, the uncertainty linked to the coming Iraqi elections, the security issues and the lack of basic services. They will need continued support from the international community, she said. The Goodwill Ambassador visited the homes of two vulnerable Iraqi families in the Jaramana district of southern Damascus. She was particularly moved during a meeting with a woman from a religious minority who told Jolie how she was physically abused and her son tortured after being abducted earlier this year in Iraq and held for days. They decided to flee to Syria, which has been a generous host to refugees.

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie meets Iraqi refugees in Syria

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