Intellectually you and I both know that there are many thousands of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Emotionally we each likely empathize with the plight of these people when, say, we hear a moving news story. Practically in our daily lives we are too far removed from this problem to really do anything to help.
I recently spent a morning with a volunteer medical team at a refugee camp in the Bekaa valley in Lebanon. The social, political and economic problems presented by the current refugee crisis in this area are challenging to understand (which I find interesting) but my practical interest in choosing to spend my vacation time visiting this camp was to learn more about how the response to such refugee situations really works. It was a through-the-looking-glass experience where my house-car-work reality was replaced by a world of dirt and dust and tents made from packing bags.
Firstly, let me introduce you to the medical team who kindly shared their home, their meals and their day with me. The six folks I met came from Germany, U.S. and Belgium. One doctor, one physician’s assistant, two nurses and two public health coordination staff. The medical folks volunteer with Medical Teams International for three weeks mostly using their own vacation time or unpaid leave from their regular jobs. The admin folk stay longer and provide necessary coordination between this team and other organizations working in the area, like the UNHCR.
I’ve never heard a group of people talk about intestinal worms or head lice so much – both, apparently, commonly contracted by people working in refugee camps. At least one person in the group had picked up a tummy bug and wasn’t keeping food down, but she still worked a full day.
Accompanied by three local translators the team rolls into a camp in their minivan and has to negotiate with the residents for use of a tent for the morning. Once that’s sorted they quickly set up portable tables and put out plastic storage tubs as their mobile dispensary and then the “clinic” opens. From pregnant mothers to diabetic grandfathers to sick children to people just needing someone to talk to the patients just keep on coming. During my short visit I think practically every person at the camp came by for attention. I found it exhausting just watching.
It was well past lunchtime when the tent owner started to express his displeasure that his home was still occupied. He was pretty agitated. Patients had to be turned away but you could understand his frustration. Even if your home is a makeshift tent, it’s still your home. Walking back to the van the team was still assisting people and medications were handed out even through the van window before we drove away. These are committed volunteers who take their responsibilities in delivering primary medical care very, very seriously.
There are hundreds of camps like the one I visited. They range in size from 10s to 100s of people. THe UNHCR description is “informal tented settlement”. People arrive (from Syria), they negotiate with a farmer to put up a tent on his land. The women may work in the fields. They likely won’t have running water. Newer tents are cloth bags sewn together over tied wooden poles, sticks really. More established residents have plastic sheeting, metal supports and possibly concrete floors. The tents are typically square with room partitions creating spaces for sleeping, eating and food preparation. There is very little food and people have few belongings so no real need for storage spaces. Pit toilets are shared one for every three to five tents. Grey tanks show that water has been delivered – usually by a relief agency. New camps pop up daily and the team coordinators try to keep track of new settlements and do camp assessments at new camps evaluating population, state and need. The team I visited provides care to about 35 camps and tries to visit each camp at least once every two weeks.
There were about 30 kids at the camp I visited. As a stranger, not actively working in the clinic, the kids were fascinated by me. I took pictures and played around with them. They followed me like the Pied Piper. Most were school-age, full of energy with nothing to do and no access to any education or even books to read.
Some of the kids were neatly dressed looking like they’d just showered. One girl looked like her hair hadn’t seen a comb in a month and her clothes were dirty and ragged. Parents and some older kids watched from a distance and then melted away – maybe figuring that I wasn’t a threat. I couldn’t help wondering how I would cope with my kids if I were in this situation. Would my boys be neat like the kid who came to me with a notebook and pen and inhaled the English letters and words that I drew for him? Or practically feral like the little girl who pushed every other kid out of the way whenever I took out my camera?