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At the UNHCR offices in Beirut

Posted on | August 19, 2013 | No Comments

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There are easily 200 Syrian refugees waiting in the yard opposite the UNHCR offices in Beirut. Maybe 300. Men, women, children, so many children. Old people, young people. Couples, extended family groups. Waiting to register. Waiting to ask about their registration, looking for information.

The space is maybe 80ft by 40ft. A building lot without a building, just a couple of temporary 2-person offices and a construction crew building a platform for another office. The offices are on the north and east sides of the space. The new office will be on the west side. People are waiting under tarp shelters or standing in lines waiting in the central area. There are mostly men in the lines, the women and children wait oh so patiently in the shade. There is not enough shade, not enough plastic lawn chairs, no food and no water.

My friend Karin is doing a survey of pregnant and nursing mothers. She has a translator with her. I’m just tagging along and taking pictures. The kids, like kids everywhere pose, giggle and playact for the camera. It doesn’t take long before people start asking me questions. I feel so useless as I repeatedly hold up my hands helplessly.
One man wants to know if I’m a journalist. Another asks if I can help him reach relatives in the U.S. and Germany. One, speaking English pretty fluently explains that he’s a deserted Syrian Army soldier who just wants to find work – but the Lebanese are no longer respecting his UN registration # as valid ID.

I can feel the frustration sin the people who approach me – the ones that I can understand. The waiting is difficult. It’s very, very hot. It’s noisy and dusty. Those are their wives ineffectually fanning themselves. Those are their children sitting in the dirt.

Karin discovers that none of the women she speaks to know anything about the UNHCR medical services. One woman who is near term doesn’t know where she will have her baby. They all cite cost as an issue for them – UNHCR covers 75% of delivery costs but the family must pay the rest.

There are over 600,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon, swelling the population of this small country of 4 million. A few blocks from the UNHCR offices there’s a Palestinian refugee camp – complete with a Yassir Arafat mural. Lebanon, already host to over 20,000 Palestinian refugees, is dealing with Syrian refugees streaming across the border daily. Some are Palestinian Syrians, complicating an already complicated situation.

We lunch with Karin’s co-workers, a talented multi-ethnic bunch of healthcare professionals. They discuss Karin’s findings and some of the issues they’re dealing with coordinating with Lebanese hospitals. It’s all medical stuff to me. I’m trying to process what I observed outside and what I’ve learned – am learning – about relief work such as theirs.

Later we tourist, just by walking through different neighborhoods in Beirut. The scars of Lebanon’s recent wars visible everywhere as rubble on the sidewalks, bullet-holes in walls or shot up, bricked up buildings. The military presence reminds me of Belfast: patrolling amoured cars, soldiers in fatigues with loaded guns, fortified entrances to governmental buildings. We pass coils of razor wire on the street.
“What’s that for?” I ask Karin.
“So they can close off the streets”.

We keep walking. Now I notice the razor wire at every major intersection.
We pass through the Hamra neighborhood near the American University of Beirut, past Starbucks and H+M, past cafes and bookstores. The streets are busy with Lebanese going about their daily business. Frequently little kids hold out their hands to us, begging.
“Syrians”, Karin says, “they’re everywhere”.

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