By Miriam Azar
A UNICEF staff member visits two settlements in Lebanon to distribute some basic supplies to Syrian refugee children.
BEIRUT, Lebanon, 25 March 2013 – Children run barefoot across the sharp rocks, broken glass and dirt, as we offload boxes of donated new shoes in the bitter wind.
Tired from hobbling, 7-year-old Asma sits on the ground, watching. Her right foot, burned by boiling water, is wrapped in a bandage.
While the snow-capped mountain peaks make a picturesque background to this settlement near Baalbeck, in eastern Lebanon, the state of these Syrian children and their makeshift dwellings bears witness to the ugly reality.
Left with nothing
Lebanon is currently hosting the largest number of Syrians of any affected neighbouring country. In the Bekaa region, near the Lebanese–Syrian border, many refugee families are living in informal settlements constructed out of scrap material. They lack basic requirements for dignity: There are no toilets, no areas for showering, washing or cooking, and no sources of clean drinking water.
These families can buy drinking water, but their limited resources are dwindling, while the competition for jobs has increased. When I ask one mother what water they use for washing, she points to a muddy, polluted stream.
Because winter has been exceptionally cold this year, there has been an acute need to provide children with warm clothes, blankets and fuel for heating. And shoes.
Shoes are essential
In this settlement, several children, like Asma, have infected cuts and blisters on their small feet. Asma arrived with her two brothers, grandparents and cousins. “Everything we owned was burnt and destroyed – we came barefoot from Syria,” says her cousin Nahla, 17, who looks after the younger cousins.
Without access to medical supplies, latrines or toilets, and clean water, shoes are essential to protect these children – not only from the cold and respiratory infections, but also from the health hazards linked to running barefoot through waste.
According to Supply Specialist at UNICEF Lebanon Olivier Mulet, “Donors, including in the private sector, have been instrumental in enabling UNICEF and its partners to provide life-saving items such as shoes, winter clothes, blankets and fuel for heating up to 125,692 vulnerable children affected by the crisis.”
“We all get wet”
At another densely populated makeshift settlement on a muddy plain in the Bekaa Valley, UNICEF and a local NGO partner Sawa arrive to distribute winter clothes for the boys and girls.
Among the children waiting for the distribution, a 10-year-old girl with a beaming smile catches my attention. She sits by the truck with her younger siblings cuddled beside her. Hanaa and her family arrived in Lebanon by bus with nothing but some clothes and nuts. “I was very nervous. I was afraid we would get hit by shelling on the way,” she says.
“Sometimes we face difficulties,” she tells us. “When it rains, the whole place becomes muddy, and we get all wet. We need a clinic so that when anyone gets sick they can be cured there. We need a school. That’s the most important thing, the school.”
Funding is vital
The children at this settlement do not go to the public schools, as their parents cannot afford the transportation fees and other costs. Many of the fathers are migrant labourers who have not been able to go back to the Syrian Arab Republic and have brought their families to safety. They have not been able, or are unwilling, to register themselves as refugees, and are therefore not counted among the official 351,683 refugees from the Syrian Arab Republic registered or awaiting registration in the country.
In an emergency that has been so underfunded, the in-kind donations and funding made available for warm clothes, shoes and other items have been vital.
“I was so happy today when I opened the box and found in it the clothes and the boots. I was extremely happy,” Hanaa says, with a broad smile.
As we say goodbye, Hanaa’s 11-year-old brother runs up to bring me half of his piece of the chocolate that we have distributed among the children. I remember the words of a Lebanese colleague: “In emergencies, we see the worst and the best of humankind.”
Today, I saw the best of humankind in these children. They represent a generation that cannot and must not be lost.