"We were in the street" - Syrian refugees in Lebanon struggle after eviction

Abdallah's daughter, a Syrian refugee, plays inside a tyre in front of their informal tent in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, April 20, 2017. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Heba Kanso

The fertile Bekaa Valley is home to more than 300,000 refugees making it the most densely populated area of refugees in all of Lebanon

By Heba Kanso

BEKAA VALLEY, Lebanon, May 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Sitting in a dimly lit room with his three-year-old son on his lap, Taha points to the boy's lips where a rat had bitten him twice while he was sleeping in the night.

With a look of hopelessness, Taha, a refugee from Syria, explains how he and his family of seven now live in a horse barn in the Bekaa Valley after last month they were served eviction notices to leave their camp by the Lebanese army.

Taha and his family are among an estimated 10,500 Syrian refugees ordered to leave the makeshift camp, with the Lebanese military citing security reasons as the refugees were camped near the Rayak air base.

The Bekaa sits in eastern Lebanon bordering Syria. Known for its lush rolling hills of olive groves, vineyards and grand Mediterranean houses, it is now peppered with clusters of tents built from wood, plastic and canvas. Lines of clothing hang out to dry as children play games with discarded tires.

"The (Rayak) eviction is the biggest we have seen so far in the Bekaa with a total of 86 informal tented settlements receiving eviction notices," the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a statement.

Taha, a father of six, who fled from Raqqa, Syria two years ago when Islamic State captured his city, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that he was given two days to leave his tent.

He left with dozens of family members who were in a cluster of tents and ended up finding a plot of land nearby but had difficulties getting approval to reconstruct their tents.

Taha and his family ended up homeless. "We were in the street for three days," Taha said. "No proper food or drink."

They survived off of tea and bread, Taha said, until they found a new home in the Bekaa in a horse barn divided into different rooms by wood and plastic and shared with 50 other people.

The barn floor is covered by pieces of carpet topped with cushions that double as beds. Nearby is the single toilet used by everyone in the barn.

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), a humanitarian aid group that has been helping the refugees in the Bekaa Valley, said many families had been forced to move several times.

"We have been witnesses already (to) a few of these cases where they have been actually forced to move twice or three times," Giovanni Rizzo, NRC area manager in the Bekaa Valley, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "This obviously puts the family in extreme, dire conditions."

The Lebanese army told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a statement the evictions were to "preserve the security of the (military) airport and protect the camps from terrorists attempting to infiltrate inside these camps."

Beyond spending what little money they have to move, Rizzo said moving can also take children out of the classroom, disrupting their already haphazard education.

Three of Taha's daughters all under the age of 10 missed several days of school.

But after fleeing the horrors of Syria's war, Taha is resigned. "We totally lost the ability to fear at all," he said. "We don't get scared."

Abdallah’s youngest children, Syrian refugees, sit on dirt inside their informal tent in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, April 20, 2017. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Heba Kanso

"SLEEPING IN OUR CLOTHES"

Refugees who fled the six-year-old war in neighbouring Syria make up a quarter of Lebanon's population, and most live in severe poverty in makeshift camps across the country as the government opposes the creation of formal ones.

The fertile Bekaa Valley is home to more than 300,000 refugees making it the most densely populated area of refugees in all of Lebanon.

Since the eviction was ordered there has been no designated place where the refugees can relocate to.

"They need an approval from the municipality and many of the municipalities surrounding the evicted area ... are already hosting a big population of refugees," said the NRC's Rizzo.

"They are not willing to receive more refugees in their territory."

According to UNHCR, around 4,300 families have already moved within the Bekaa Valley, but some, like Abdallah's family of 11, have no place to go and have stayed put.

"We are waiting. We are sleeping in our clothes for fear the army will come to us in the morning," Abdallah, who did not want to give his full name, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Adballah and his family fled from Raqqa, Syria to Lebanon in 2012 and have lived in this tent in the Bekaa Valley for four months, having already been moved on twice.

Abdallah's tent is covered in a patchwork of plastic sheets - topped with tires, pieces of wood and metal to give it stability.

Syrian refugee Abdallah (2nd L) sits with four of his children and mother-in-law Mariam (2nd R) in their informal tent in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon after receiving an eviction order by the Lebanese army, April 20, 2017. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Heba Kanso

Inside their clothes are strung up on hooks and the family sits on a dirty carpet. A kitchen is fashioned in one part of the tent with baby formula, tea cups, a broken refrigerator and a pot of yesterday's rice and soup saved for the day's meal.

The 47-year-old said he had been searching for a new spot to rebuild his tent, but can't find anywhere for his family to go.

"Even if the army comes and breaks this (tent) down on our heads we would stay here," said Adballah, who is the only one in his family who has legal residency in Lebanon - meaning the rest of his family are at risk as they move through checkpoints.

While he dreams of taking his family back to Syria one day, Abdallah describes his refugee life as a "tragedy."

"Every day that goes by is worse than the one before," he said.

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