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ZAHLE, Lebanon – Families with children who have been displaced by the fighting in Syria are streaming into the refugee center here at the rate of more than 1,500 a day, according to Joseph Farah’s G2 Bulletin.
At that rate, there will be some 400,000 Syrian and another 42,000 Palestinian refugees by the end of the year in a country whose resources are overstretched and whose operating budget is only a fraction of what is needed.
They come with only the clothes on their backs to the center for United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on Rihab Highway on the outskirts of Zahle, one of the first weigh stations for refugees after leaving Syria.
The families, however, had a comfortable life in Syria before the fighting – homes, possessions, cars and property. Now, they have nothing. Many of them are professionals.
It takes a month at least to process each family as they first register at the hectic UNHCR facility. This observer saw a 2-day-old baby with her mother at the facility waiting for processing. She was among hundreds of other men, women and children who filled the small space of the UNHCR processing center.
Each family coming mostly with the clothes on their backs must pay $100 to register. UNHCR then attempts to locate a place for the family to live and provide some living expenses once processed.
On a particularly hot day in Zahle, children looked bewildered as they waited with their parents in what seemed like endless lines inside the non-air-conditioned facility, although the 52-person UNHCR staff was very patient and accommodating, with security provided by a private security company, Protecton.
UNHCR Senior Field Coordinator Maeve Murphy said her staff must take care of 100,000 Syrian and Palestinian refugees who have come to her facility in the first three months of this year alone. The families have been streaming into the facility since 2011.
A very intelligent but tired young Irish woman, Murphy, said UNHCR’s financial resources have been decreased, prompting further cuts especially in badly needed health care. Some come with gunshot and stab wounds requiring immediate medical attention.
Her facility alone requires a minimum of $5 million every two months just for health care resources but needs another $100 million to meet the refugees’ other needs for the rest of the year.
In all, Lebanon has a population of some 4 million. There already are 1 million Syrian and 600,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon as a result of the civil war in Syria.
In effect, refugees constitute more than a quarter of Lebanon’s population already.
Murphy has appealed for $1.1 billion to deal with the expected surge of 400,000 Syrian and 45,000 Palestinian refugees that are expected by the end of the year – possibly twice as many should the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fall.
She’s still waiting for a response and suggested that she may receive only a fraction of what she has requested.
The number of Syrian refugees, however, is far greater than what UNHCR officially says flees to Lebanon.
At one of a several dozen tented Syrian refugee camps on the outskirts of town, there are many more thousands who go unregistered and stay with friends and relatives.
The tent cities are on land rented by the U.N. from landlords who continuously raise the rent.
Each family must pay $2,000 a year in rent to stay in the camps, a fee which is very difficult to pay because of the lack of jobs.
At one of these tented cities, which reflected the others in the area, there was no sanitation.
Many of the children, whose clothes are hand-me-downs and torn, had sores around their eyes and were dirty from the dusty ground around them. When it rains, the ground turns to mud.
Dysentery was rampant among the children, with raw sewage seen streaming down the middle of the camp’s narrow passage ways between the tents where children often play.
There is no fresh water, no provisions for sanitation and sewage and no means to take showers.
There were three families with a total of 13 children in addition to parents living in one of the hot tents without partitions, making privacy impossible. The bathroom generally was a hole in the ground from which smelly sewage then streamed outside the tents.
The smell of urine and feces constantly lingers, depending on the heat and the way the wind is blowing.
These unregistered Syrians can’t find jobs, and many of the women either have been raped or are forced to resort to prostitution to make some money to feed their children.
Human trafficking also is on the rise. Girls aged 9 to 14 often are sold for $200 to outsiders.
The families who are able to be placed by UNHCR are the lucky ones but come with harrowing stories of killings and rapes at the hands of “outsiders,” identified by one family as Chechens.
The husband of one family, who pleaded not to be identified or have photos taken either of him or his family members, told of the attack in predominantly Christian area outside of Homs in Syria.
Initially, he said, families were attacked by Chechens who burned their homes and then kidnapped and shot family members if they refused to convert to Islam.
In addition to Chechens, the father identified other foreign fighters from Afghanistan, Yemen and Tunisia.
He said they were being paid and equipped by “outside powers,” which he identified as the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Britain and France.
“Why can’t these countries stop giving money and arms to them?” the father asked in a voice of desperation.
He said it isn’t the Syrian opposition that is doing the killing but the outside foreign fighters.
It was Chechens who attacked his village and burned down his home and that of his neighbors, the father said.
The Chechens are Islamic militants from Chechnya in southern Russia, the region neighboring Dagestan and Ingushetia where the recent young Boston marathon bombers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, were born. In Syria, the Chechens have linked up with the al-Nusra Group, which is part of the group Al-Qaida from Iraq, or AQI.
Many of the AQI fighters reside in or near Palestinian camps in and around Damascus and in other areas throughout Syria. Some al-Nusra fighters are thought to be located at some of the Palestinian camps in and around Beirut.
The young father who was with his wife and three young children said the Syrian army attempted to intervene against the Chechen fighters, but soldiers ambushed and killed by the insurgent fighters.
These Christians, who generally back Assad’s Shiite Alawite regime because it has protected them until now, had virtually their entire villages wiped out by the outsiders.
He said the Chechen ravaging of his village was impersonal, killing people in the streets and jumping over their bodies in fighting that lasted for two days before he and his family were able to escape.
He said that Shiites from 12 neighboring villages met a similar fate as the Christians did in his village.
In one grisly example, he said the Chechens a month ago had kidnapped 10 young women and repeatedly raped them for 10 days. Once finished with them, the Chechens slit their throats from ear to ear.
“There are thousands of examples like this,” said Hassan Yaccoub, a Shiite and former member of the Lebanese parliament representing Zahle, who hosted a team to UNHCR and the Syrian refugee camps.
While at the UNHCR processing center, a frail 7-year-old veiled girl left her mother’s side and walked over to Yaccoub, who stands over six feet tall, and tugged on his suit jacket. Yaccoub, who speaks good English, stopped his briefing and looked down as the little girl and asked him in Arabic, “When can we go home?”
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