Syrian refugees in Lebanon
More scared of starving than of coronavirus

With social distancing impossible in tents, a coronavirus outbreak in one of Lebanon's Syrian refugee camps would quickly turn catastrophic. Yet, many Syrians have more existential fears than those posed by the virus. Diana Hodali reports

Approaching Lebanon's Beqaa Valley, one sees hundreds of Syrian refugee camps. There, improvised shelters, often covered with plastic tarps, are perched between fields and bushes. That is also the case in Bar Elias, where the never-ending civil war in neighbouring Syria is not as distant as elsewhere – Bar Elias is just 15 km from the Syrian border.

Bar Elias is also the home of the Medyen refugee camp. Named after its founder, Medyen al-Ahmed, the unofficial camp has been operating in Bar Elias since 2013. Currently, nine families occupy eight tents in the camp. They all come from Al-Qusayr, a western Syrian city belonging to the Homs Governorate. The families all live in shelters built right on the ground. That means they live in a muddy swamp that is impossible to heat in the winter and one that is unbearably hard and hot in the summer. "Nine of us live in this tent," says Medyan al-Ahmed. Beyond looking after his own wife and children, al-Ahmed has also had to take care of his sister and her children since her husband was killed in the war.

Extra lockdown measures for Syrians

Speaking by telephone, Medyen says of course he and the others have obeyed all of the curfew and lockdown rules put in place by the Lebanese government in an attempt to stop the spread of the coronavirus, but he says it is impossible to observe social distancing in a tent. 

Syrians are used to having limited mobility in Lebanon, where refugees were often subjected to arbitrary curfews long before the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Medyen al-Ahmed (photo: Medyen al-Ahmed)
Unbearable living conditions: nine families from Al-Qusayr inhabit eight tents in the small, informal refugee camp Medyen. They all live in dwellings that are difficult to heat, becoming unbearably hot in summer, and that stand on a floor that softens in winter and turns into a swamp, reports refugee camp founder Medyen al-Ahmed.

But when the coronavirus pandemic began in mid-March, the Lebanese government announced further limits in which only one person would be allowed to conduct all of a given camp's shopping. In Bar Elias the job fell to Medyen. Maybe that is why he sounds so exhausted on the phone.

"Life wasn't easy before," he says, "but now I have lost my jobs, too, and everything is four times as expensive." The normally relaxed 43-year-old sounds unusually distraught. 

No more school, no more work

Medyen was a merchant in Syria, but then the war came and took everything. When he first arrived in Lebanon he was only concerned with one thing: the well-being of the children. He soon began participating in workshops put on by organisations aiding Syrian refugees, and then he began working for those same organisations. Eventually, with financial assistance from a small German organisation called Shams (sun), Medyen started a school in the camp. Originally based in a tent, the school has now moved into a real two-storey building outside the camp, and the state of Lebanon has even said it will recognise diplomas earned there. 

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