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Published on March 24th, 2014 | by EJC


The Human Side Of Aid: A Story of Syrian Refugee

By Boštjan Videmšek, Bekaa Valley

Isra al Hosny is twenty one years old. Seven months ago, she and her parents fled the ransacked city of Homs. Her mother and father were the ones who persuaded Isra to leave the city; her own choice would have been to stay. By then, Homs had been turned into a ghost town, or better yet Syria’s own Vukovar. Isra’s family had spent their last two years there living in a quarter that saw everyday fighting in the streets. This was nothing unusual, it was simply par for the course. By then, entire blocks had been turned into a war zone. Everyone was running out of food, fuel and water. On some days, it felt like almost everyone was going mad with fear.

Roughly four months after their wedding, the fighting claimed the life of Isra’s husband. That was the moment her two older brothers decided to join the rebel forces. As of the time of writing, they are still fighting in Homs. Now and then, Isra tells me, they manage to get in touch by phone. They recently mentioned that many of her acquaintances who had remained are now starving. They make meals out of leaves, they are burning up the wooden tiles from their bathrooms for heat. There is no help in sight.

It is a terrible tragedy, so many children stripped of their education. It is a horrendous thing for the entire society, and also for its future.

“They are doomed,” Isra whimpers tiredly: “The government got them surrounded from all sides. They keep throwing bombs on them from the air. I know I’ll never forget the sound of those planes. I know exactly which bomb killed my husband, please believe me! Ten days ago, my brothers and a crowd of other people tried to break out of the city ‒ they found a secret underground tunnel leading to the liberated territories! The plan was to ultimately get here to Lebanon, somehow. Oh, I couldn’t wait to see them!” But the whole thing went horribly wrong. While the people trying to escape were using the tunnel, a plane flew over and dropped a bomb exactly on target. 65 people were killed. “Luckily,” Isra winces: “my brothers’ unit stayed back to guard the rear. They both managed to survive. They are now hiding in basements. All I can do is pray.”

I am talking to this brave young girl in an officially non-existent camp on the outskirts of the city of Zahle in Bekaa Valley. In there, Lebanon had rounded up most of what now amounts to a million refugees from Syria. “Us refugees,” Isra explains to me: “I’m told we now make almost one quarter of Lebanon’s population.” In under a second, her piercing dark eyes are brimming with tears and she slouches back down again. Embarrassed, she averts her head and tries to apologise.

Isra is one of the six teachers volunteering to tutor Syrian children in the camp. Because of what the less-than-delicate call ‘the Palestinian question’, Lebanese laws prohibit both the setting up of refugee camps and the issuing of official refugee status. In reality, this is a horrendous detriment to the refugees’ situation, and it also severely limits the effectiveness of various humanitarian organisations.

When the war broke out, Isra had just started her senior year in college. Her major subject had been English literature. She had always adored books, she tells me ‒ especially poetry. The written word is something she feels quite willing to die for. In her case, this is not simply another high-flying turn of phrase, the kind you’d expect from teenage European intellectuals after three beers in some trendy café. No: with Isra, it is a proven fact. On account of the war, her college had been closed for quite a while. But three months ago, she got word that it was temporary reopened. So she made a few quick calculations that almost immediately turned into a plan, a plan she didn’t share with anyone. No matter what the cost, she would make her way back to Homs and pass her English Poetry exam.

She finally informed her parents of her crazy venture ‒ “I’ve always been a crazy girl!” she tells me with a shy grin ‒ just before she left. Her parents were smitten with fear, but there was no realistic way for them to prevent their daughter from returning to hell. The sort of will this tall and slender girl has was simply unstoppable. “It was really awful. So many checkpoints. The government soldiers tried to arrest me many times. At one point, they were dragging me out of the car. But in the end, I managed to reach Homs. I really couldn’t tell you how. I stayed there for four weeks. I studied by candlelight. I was hungry, and there was shooting all around. But I did pass the exam ‒ that part wasn’t difficult at all. As soon as I passed, I returned to Lebanon. The return trip was much easier. Now, it would no longer have been possible,” Isra says standing in front of the camp’s two small classrooms. Her voice strikes me as somewhat distracted ‒ it was as if she was describing some boring TV show and not the story that should have brought tears to the eyes of the most blasé listener. From inside, we can hear children’s patter and a loud, almost rhythmic cough.

Each of the two cramped classrooms provides a reasonably upbeat and stable environment for 35 children, both boys and girls between the ages of four and fourteen. It is obvious that the teachers ‒ all of them young Syrian refugees ‒ share a close bond with the children. The facilities have been provided by a well-standing local company; Unicef took care of the little plastic chairs, schoolbags, notebooks and pens. At the time of my visit, this was the only school for refugees in Lebanon operating under a solid roof. Like all the others, this one started out in the open, depending solely on the goodwill and the initiative of the teachers, who kept visiting the neighbouring camps to recruit children. Depressingly, they discovered that while the vast majority of the children was eager to come, their parents didn’t feel that schooling was a particularly high priority right then. In the words of Roberta Russo, the UNHCR’s spokeswoman in Beirut: “It is hardest on the children. Back in Syria, most of them had been in school. Over here, this is simply not an option for so many of them. Many of the mothers, for example, have been forced to send their sons to look for work. It is the only way for the family to survive. And at the moment, there isn’t much that can be done. It is a terrible tragedy, so many children stripped of their education. It is a horrendous thing for the entire society, and also for its future. The Syrian children themselves tell me how fond they had been of school, and how terribly they miss it. For them, their school days represent security, peace, stability, optimism, hope, joy and friendship. Did you know that 70 percent of the children her in these camps fail to leave their new lodgings even once a week? It’s a shocking statistic, isn’t it? And in this respect, things are especially hard on the girls. Most of these children have been deeply traumatised. They need a whole lot of help, not least of all some proper psychological assistance.”

Isra, too, would surely qualify for that sort of assistance. Her every move speaks of profound trauma and a long string of losses too painful to contemplate. But instead of receiving aid, she and her peers are doing their best to offer it to the children. “I write a lot,” she confides: “I keep a diary. I write down many of these stories all around me. Who knows, maybe someday somebody will want to read them…” She tells me this in the dusty courtyard of one of the world’s smallest schools, as a sudden if not entirely unexpected peal of children’s laughter rings out from inside, a loud and defiant cry of hope.

About the author:

Boštjan Videmšek is award-winning journalist and a foreign correspondent of biggest Slovenian daily DELO. He’s a contributor to several American and European magazines and author of two books – 21st Century Conflicts: Remnants of War(s) and REVOLT: Arab Spring and European Fall.

Cover photo: Isra al Hosny, a Syrian refugee and an English teacher in one of the refugee camps in Zahle, Lebanon. © Boštjan Videmšek

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