For nine years, the people of Syria have known hardship and suffering brought on by a protracted civil war. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees announced earlier this year that the war has now produced 6.2 million internally displaced persons in Syria and 5.6 million registered refugees who fled to other countries to escape the violence and destruction. Among refugees, 41% are children and 21% are women. Lebanon hosts close to a million refugees from Syria today, and Jordan, about 650,000. The Syrian situation is one of the largest humanitarian and displacement crises in the world.
The UNHCR will co-lead a Regional Refugee Response Plan in 2020-2021 with the United Nations Development Program, coordinating the work of more than 270 partners. Meanwhile, the United Methodist Committee on Relief has coordinated work with four partners, three in Lebanon and one in Jordan, to support Syrian refugees, other refugees, and host communities. While these programs reach specific, targeted communities, the work makes a significant difference in the lives of families that have lost so much in the war.
As one example, Awad and Thouraya were forced to leave Syria with their four young children and found shelter in the Al Chouf Area in Tripoli, Lebanon. Even though Awad co-owned a plastering and house painting business back in Syria, he’s found few opportunities in Lebanon to continue this work, and he waits under bridges with other Syrian migrants, hoping to get a construction job for a day’s wage.
Awad owed three months in back rent for the family’s apartment. The refugees often end up making verbal deals with landlords on substandard housing, which then are not subject to the residential tenant laws. What this family received from American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA), an UMCOR partner in the region, was a series of cash grants, equivalent to $174 each.
This assistance meant the family could pay the rent, but more importantly, it meant their four children could finally be enrolled in school. The inability to pay the bus fees and buy school supplies had kept them home, but now they attend school and meet children their ages in the Lebanese school system. In addition, Thouraya went shopping and bought her children new clothes, something she hadn’t been able to do in two years.
Meeting common but necessary family needs like these make a big difference in a family’s ability to provide for themselves, find security and integrate successfully into new communities. Two hundred fifty such families were served by ANERA with UMCOR support last year.
“Finally, I am able to use my land.”
In Southern Lebanon, along a disputed border with Israel, UMCOR works with another partner to open farmland that has remained uncultivated for decades. This project, implemented by the Mines Advisory Group, returns land to Lebanese farmers, creating space for agricultural livelihood and increased income, and in doing so, an opportunity for resident and refugee communities to gain access to fresh and nutritious food.
The village of Meiss El Jabal lies on the edge of this area, laced with landmines and other unexploded ordnance left behind during the Israeli occupation, 1982-2000. Villagers returning in 2000 discovered the land was not safe after losing limbs, neighbors, children and livestock to mines and other dangerous devices that explode on contact. They could not return to their fields.
Last year, UMCOR support made it possible for MAG to clear 2,386 of the dangerous devices, freeing up 32,000 sq. meters (almost 20 sq. miles) for cultivation once again.
MAG’s community liaison team met with the village clerk, Faysal Hujazi, who confirmed: “Most of the landowners are farmers, and the soil in Meiss El Jabal is fertile. Land will be cultivated with tobacco, wheat and olive trees after clearance is complete.”
Hussam, one of those farmers, has already planted olive trees. “Finally, I am able to use my land,” he said.
The municipality has developed a plan to rebuild the village’s infrastructure with roads, electricity, water supply and sanitation.
Like the Syrian refugees, the people of Southern Lebanon have also endured years of conflict. The return of their land, now safe for cultivation, is a great gift.
Mental health and psychosocial support
Both Lebanon and Jordan in the Middle East are host to many refugee populations. In addition to Syrian refugees, Palestinian refugees from as far back as 1949 reside in camps in both countries. Iranians and Iraqis fled to Lebanon to escape fighting between their countries, and later, Iraqis fled U.S. and ISIS fighting in Iraq. In addition, Lebanese migrants living in Syria returned in great numbers, and they also require assistance.
The cash assistance programs that help refugees gain a little control over their lives and a measure of dignity are a tool within more comprehensive relief programs that include vulnerable groups in the local population too. The Middle East Council of Churches, another UMCOR partner in Lebanon, like ANERA, sends out teams into targeted communities to conduct interviews. They search for the families who struggle the most. Cash goes a long way to solve some concerns, but the teams also find people with even fewer resources, straining to make ends meet, breaking under the mental stress.
One of the teams met a woman named Basima from Iraq. She, her husband and her three children were internally displaced from Baghdad to Mosol during the Iraq War. When Mosol was engulfed with fighting, they fled to Lebanon. Only her eldest is working, but the family can barely provide for its needs. Basima’s husband suffers from epilepsy and does not leave the apartment.
Basima was chosen to participate in the cash program, which helped with her rent, and the MECC team also recommended the family for medical help, so they could receive the medicines they needed. When Basima was first informed of her selection, she asked, “someone is actually thinking about us?” Most Iraqis do not receive assistance from the local government, United Nations programs or nongovernmental organizations.
Another beneficiary, a Syrian refugee named Amira, was recommended by the MECC team for psychosocial support. She lost her husband and two brothers in Syria and fled to Lebanon with five children. The money she received allowed her to pay rent and buy food, but she saved some each time and finally bought a television, which brought joy and relieved tension for the whole family.
In Jordan, UMCOR partners with the International Orthodox Christian Charities to try to keep Syrian refugees from being evicted from their homes. IOCC offers shelter programs in East Amman, Irbid and Mafraq. About 220 households were assisted last year, receiving cash grants for rent and mediation assistance with landlords. Most of the households reached were headed by women or were families that included members with special needs.
This assistance is important for these families. Awad, in Lebanon, talking with an ANERA team member during a home visit, summed up his response: “I hope that one day, I lead a life in which I no longer need cash assistance, but one hand cannot clap on its own, and one broken human cannot always pull his own weight and support his family. These cash transfers are a motivation, a break from worry and fear. Thank you for trusting us with these donations. Thank you for supporting us.”
A gift to UMCOR’s International Disaster Response program (Advance # 982450) will reach more refugee and displaced families and the local communities that host them with the help they need to survive.
Christie R. House is a consultant writer and editor with Global Ministries.