Aisha Ahmed and Suzanne Abdulhadi recount their third and final day of their trip to Lebanon and contemplate the difference their work has made to the lives of the Syrian refugees.
At the time of writing this blog, we have returned to London and the comfort of our homes. It is a strange feeling to be back, surrounded by comforts that those we have left behind in Lebanon can only dream of. We both feel a mixture of gratefulness, sadness and guilt.
On our third and last day of our trip we set off at 8am. Although ACA had been trying all night to resolve the issue we encountered the day before, where we were refused entry at the army checkpoint; they still had no confirmation from the authorities as to whether we could return to Aarsal camp. ACA decide that it is best for us to keep to the itinerary they had planned for Ketermaya.
After around an hour’s drive, we arrived in a mountainous region to the south-east of Beirut. Our first stop was at the ACA headquarters. Here we were shown around the centre and what we saw gave us hope that the situation will change and that things will get better. We were shown medical consultation rooms, a dental surgery, an auditorium with a stage known as a theatre room, a community centre, and more. We were then shown to the basement’s wood and sewing workshops where skilful Syrians were hard at work. We marvelled at the talent of these people and saw the beautiful furniture they had created. We could finally see some hope. Hope for their future.
The dental surgery at ACA headquarters
Skilful Syrians produce fine carpentry
Next we visited the main Syrian refugee camp in Ketermaya. First we visited the school (two makeshift tents in the camp) and gave the children school bags with notebooks and stationary. We sang with them and saw the excitement in their eyes as they rifled through their new bags. Singing songs with the children reminded us of our own childhood. Every child was smiling and happy.
The children were excited to receive their school bags
Suzanne sits with the children in their lesson
As we began transporting the boxes of aid from the vans up the narrow rocky muddy streets, the children began to laugh and joke with us. They tell Suzanne that she is too weak to carry the boxes. She laughs and tells them she is Superman. The laughter and jokes are for the children but in our hearts we carried a feeling of helplessness brought on by how little we were able to do. The boxes were heavy, but we were determined to deliver the aid and carry them all from the van to the camp. The happy, joyful children were our motivation.
The team deliver the boxes of aid
We then distributed winter food packs to each family. As they lined up we were struck by how many women stood in the queue. The same strict procedure is used as the previous day; this time however, the Landlord assists. His name is Ali and he clearly cared deeply about the people living on his land. Again, we saw hope.
Each family receives a winter food pack
After playing with the children, visiting families and talking to the people in the camp, the ACA representative took us to meet a grandmother, known as Grandma. She welcomed us into her home and we sat around her as she recounted her story. Her four grandchildren, T, A, I and X surround her, some are drawing, some are enamoured by us and want to talk and take selfies. Once they quieten them down, the grandmother begins to speak.
Grandma welcomed Suzanne and Aisha
Grandma had three sons and two daughters in Syria. Her three sons were killed in the war leaving behind two children each. One daughter was killed when she was eight months pregnant. The other was widowed and lives in the house next door with her children.
T and A’s mother remarried, but her husband abused the children and so she sent them to live with their grandmother. When she herself tried to leave, her husband's family killed her. I and X's mother remarried and lives in Beirut. Grandma saves up money so that every month she can take a taxi to Beirut for the children to see their mother. As she speaks, I looks up and says; ‘I love my mum. I love seeing her.’
Grandma smiles at him before continuing her story.
After her sons were killed, Grandma was taken and interrogated for 17 days. Once released, she left Syria with her grandchildren and travelled to Lebanon. She tells us she would put the children to sleep in carton boxes to keep warm.
When she arrived in Lebanon she sold tissues in order to pay rent. She tells us that she gave up on that when she almost lost two of her grandchildren when they followed her out of the house into the streets without her knowing. As she tells us this, A looks up from the pictures he is drawing. He laughs shyly and covers his face. The ACA representative who is acting as our interpreter jokingly tell him he is the culprit and he laughs some more.
Grandma then tells us she was referred to Ali, the landowner who set her and the children up in a camp. She says that this makeshift home is a castle to her. She doesn’t pay rent or bills. She just looks after her grandchildren. She just wants them to do well.
When Grandma goes quiet, T sees her chance to talk. She knows only four sentences in English and she proudly recites them;
"My name is T. I am seven years old. I am from Syria. I have no baba and I have no mama."
This moves us to tears. How many times has this story been told and T recited these lines? What will it take before the world actually listens?
When Grandma finishes her story she tells us that we have given her strength by visiting her. We tell her that her determination and patience is an inspiration. It is she who has given us strength and we admire her.
When an ACA representative announces it is time to leave, nobody wants to go. As we walked out of the camp the children started to follow us. We left trying our best to keep our emotions intact. Each day is more difficult than the last. As we drove away, we sat in silence. Leaving the camp feels like abandonment.
We returned to the ACA headquarters for an event organised for the orphans. As we entered we were greeted by the children holding up a welcome sign. There were party games and music and we distributed gifts before having a lovely lunch with the children. They spoke to us in English and French and were polite and well-mannered. When we tried to communicate in our broken Arabic, they laughed at us. Their laughter and happiness was contagious. They are an inspiration, smiling despite everything they have been through.
The orphans held up a welcome sign
On our way back to Beirut we visited two more camps. The first was on a mountain with beautiful views of the forests. It was a twelve tent camp housing an entire family who had been there for six years. Before we entered we were told that all the children have a skin condition. The children were all malnourished. There was a girl of four who looked much younger due to her height and weight.
We distributed mattresses, blankets and winter food packs and were shown around the camp. The conditions were dire. The head of the family told us that their landlord wants them gone so he has increased the rent which they are struggling to pay. An elderly lady showed buckets she placed outside the tents to collect rain as they had no water.
We still can’t understand how this is happening. How people are left to live like this. We know that there is enough wealth in the world to eliminate poverty. So why are so many people still living like this?
Our final stop is to a small camp on the coast. The landlord grows avocado in the camp. Here there were more solid structures, but they were small damp and cold. We distributed winter aid and spoke to a lady who had opened her home to us to wash up and pray. We apologised for taking up her time but she smiled and told us we are welcome and that we bring blessings to her home.
When we leave we stop to take in the view of the sun setting. It is an apt reminder that our trip has come to an end. None of us want to leave. We looked out at the sea and realised that the work we have done in the last few days has made a difference and that we may have lifted the hearts of the people we visited, so that they know that the world sees and hears them and that people care. But we also realised that the money we have raised and the work we have done is but a drop in the ocean of what is needed to truly change the lives of those most in need.
The sun sets on the final day
Back in the UK we contemplate our experience. As we tell and re-tell our stories, it hits us what we have left behind.
We hope that one day humanity prevails. We hope that one day every person will have the basic essentials and live with dignity. It is our duty to do what we can to help make this happen.
This is not the end of our story. Our trip may have ended but our journey has just begun. We invite you to join us on it. To learn about the Syrian refugees whose crisis is not over, to dedicate what you can, whether it be money, time, effort or prayers. To advocate for those who need a voice and to take forward what you have read here so that others may know.
Solicitor Aisha Ahmed
and trainee solicitor Suzanne Abdulhadi
both from Duncan Lewis’ Immigration Department travelled to Lebanon with the UK charity; Muslim Charity
to take part in the One Ummah Tour, visiting Syrian refugee camps.
The conflict in Syria has seen millions of refugees displaced in Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Greece, Jordan and other European countries. Muslim Charity has been supporting Syrian refugees through emergency food, medical aid, supporting orphans, widows, schools and hospitals ever since the conflict began.
If you would like to make a donation, please visit Aisha and Suzanne’s page at https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/aisha-and-suzanne
. Any donation, of any amount, will go a long way to helping those in need.