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Syrian refugees in Lebanon lose everything in a fire but just rebuild

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Syrian refugees in Lebanon lose everything in a fire but just rebuild

Forced to choose between a safer location or work, the refugees felt they had to stay in the place where they could support themselves
15 April 2014 Also available in:
Syrian refugees live in the Ras al Ein collective settlement and informal tent camp in Tyre. Syrians continue to struggle to find adequate shelter in Lebanon.

RAS EL EIN, Lebanon, 15 April (UNHCR) - A wind was blowing strongly off the sea when the candle fell over in the "tent" Amar El Oman had constructed to shelter his family. Fire swept through the makeshift structure of wooden poles and roof slats covered in plastic sheeting.

Within minutes that January fire had consumed 10 other tents housing refugees from Syria. Amar and his family lost everything: their savings, their documents, their furnishings. Most importantly, they lost Amar's 10-month-old son Abdul.

UNHCR officials came that evening and rehoused the families in a shelter five minutes by car from their burnt-out tents. The families then faced a difficult decision: they could stay in a safer location or they could be near a place where they could earn the money to support themselves.

The next morning all the families moved back to the embers of their burnt-out tents. With the decision of the families to return, UNHCR again supplied them with materials to build their tents, along with stoves and kitchen utensils.

"We knew no one there," said Amar, who led the return. "It was too far away from the fields where we can find work." He was leaning on his hoe after a day in one of those fields that earned him $7.

The Syrian refugees here are relatively lucky. There is work available but their low wages - a third or a quarter of what Lebanese labour costs - is now having a knock-on effect.

The flood of arrivals - there are more than a million Syrian refugees in Lebanon -- has created an over-supply of cheap labour. The World Bank says Lebanese unemployment has doubled to above 20 percent and pushed 170,000 more Lebanese below the poverty line.

Amar has two wives and 10 surviving children. He and his second wife Wajiha cried over the loss of their baby but sorrow had to be contained. Feeding the large family is the priority. Wajiha works too in the fields even though she is pregnant with another child. Her seeding, planting and harvesting earns her just $5 a day.

"It's still better here than in Syria," she said. "There's work here and school for the children. It's just 10 minutes away and the bus takes them."

The key to their work - another refugee named Abdul Jabar El Mansour -- lives next to the tents, in a disused apartment building that shelters 20 other families. Before the conflict in Syria men like Abdul lived in the building when they came each year as migrant workers.

Now he, his brother and his cousin have also become refugees, and relatives and fellow villagers from near Aleppo have joined them. Abdul Jabar knows the Lebanese owners of the farms nearby and can find work for the other refugees.

Abdul Jabar is 46 and fled the bombing in Syria with his seven children. But the war remains with them. His two eldest daughters, 13 and 15, suffer post-traumatic stress attacks and can't go to school. Yet they and the rest of his family desperately want to go home.

"The conflict is constantly on our mind. We're stuck between the present and the future, and we're also caught between here and everything we worked to build up."

While they wait to return, life goes on in Lebanon. Yassia is an old woman and midwife whose family of seven came from Syria a year ago. They live in a garage beside the tents and took in seven members of Mohammed Araf Al Hussein's family - whom they had known in Syria -- when the fire swept through the camp.

Mohammed's wife went into labour the day after the fire and helped deliver their baby. God's mercy, Yassia said with a smile, is great.

By Don Murray in Ras el Ein, Lebanon