By Glenn Miles, Australia’s Ambassador to Lebanon
I met Fadila on a field visit with the World Food Programme (WFP) to an informal settlement in Akkar Lebanon, a stone’s throw from Syria, divided only by a small mountain range.
Akkar is the northern most province in Lebanon. It’s home to 110,000 Syrian refugees, making up forty per cent of the total population in the area. Informal settlements are scattered across the valley on the edge of fields, while other individuals have sought refuge in abandoned buildings or are renting.
The informal settlement where Fadila lives is home to 175 people spread across 35 tents. She invites us into her tent which is made up of two small rooms; the living/sleeping area, and the kitchen – it shelters herself, her husband and their three children. At night they sleep on thin mattresses on the hard concrete floor.
She shows us an old school case that contains her family’s passports and documentation. Amongst the paper work is an old UNHCR card from Syria – numbers one to nine are coloured but the rest remain blank. She tells us that in the early days of the conflict, while still in Syria, her family had received food and shelter assistance from UNHCR, but that stopped after extremists banned the UN from accessing the area. After, food was scarce and people were reliant on UN airdrops, providing them a meal every 3 to 4 days.
Fadila says she used to work at the airport – a job she very much enjoyed. She tells us that her house was in the centre of the city but was destroyed in the early days of the conflict. As she’s saying this the door slams – her son and daughter jump in surprise – stopping mid-sentence, she reaches out to reassure them it’s okay. Even though they know Lebanon is safe, she recounts that just last week when a series of planes flew overhead, the whole family hid inside, terrified, remembering the bombs that dropped on them.
The family left Syria after Fadila was told her daughter of 15 (not that much younger than my own) was to be married to a member of an extremist group. They had little time to prepare and their eldest child who was staying with a relative at the time remains in Syria. Fadila says they haven’t heard from him for some months now. It took them three days to walk across Syria and longer still to cross the mountain range into Lebanon – at times up to their knees in mud. She tells us that the first few nights in Lebanon they slept on cardboard boxes in the rain before being taken to this settlement. The first few weeks they survived on just stale bread and tea.
The assistance Fadila and her family receives from WFP is enough to feed them for two weeks. We’ve visited her at the end of the month though, and food is once again scarce. She brings out a cooking pot filled with potatoes – it’s all she has to feed her family of five for the next week. Her husband is blind and cannot work, and the little money Fadila earns working in the fields helps prop up the family (at $USD1 per hour). But it’s seasonal and she doesn’t know how many hours she’ll get one week to the next.
During my two years serving as Australia’s Ambassador to Lebanon I’ve met so many people like Fadila. Each with a story as dreadful as the next. It’s a constant reminder of how critical the work of Australia, and its likemindeds – the United Nations and the NGO community – is. And how it’s having a real impact on the quality and dignity of these peoples’ lives – particularly when they’ve lost everything. It’s also a reminder of both the generosity of the Lebanese peoples – providing a safe haven for those in desperate need – and why it’s so very important to restore peace in Syria.
Australia has committed $220 million over three years (2017-2019) to the Syria Crisis. Australia’s program provides vital humanitarian assistance to Syria, Jordan and Lebanon as well as resilience programs in neighbouring countries. Lebanon alone hosts over 1.4 million refugees, roughly 25 per cent of the total population.
Glenn Miles is a career officer with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and was most recently Acting High Commissioner to Fiji and High Commissioner to Tuvalu for nearly three years. He has also served as Ambassador to Kuwait and Australia’s Representative in Ramallah, with earlier postings in Amman and Riyadh. Mr Miles was a member of the Baghdad Embassy opening team in 2003 and served with the Peace Monitoring Group in Bougainville.