By FOX News Radio’s Emily Wither in the southern Lebanese village of Maaroub
A row of black flags flutter in the breeze outside what appears to be an abandoned home in the southern Lebanese village of Maaroub; “It’s a flag of grief, they are in mourning,” I’m told.
With its gaping windows and unfinished staircase, this concrete slab looks more like a building site than someone’s home. Signs of life are found on the first floor where a pile of colorful shoes clutters a doorway.
Behind a creaking door, two rooms are home to 12 people. They share one kitchen and a toilet and have little in the way of furnishings.
Khaled Hassan says his family escaped from Idlib in northwestern Syria, an area that has seen intense fighting in recent years.
“We are happy with the house, but it is too small for us,” he said.
Sitting around on worn carpets drinking Arabic coffee, the family explains that life is tough for them; the children cannot go to school and the parents are unable to work.
But this family considers themselves among the lucky ones. Thousands of refugees across the region have braved the worst winter for decades in little more than makeshift tents.
Nearly two and a half million Syrians have fled their country; around a million have crossed into Lebanon. Unlike other neighboring countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, there are no official camps here. In a recent editorial in a British newspaper, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati says his country cannot cope anymore with the refugee crisis. He explained that as one of the smallest countries in the region, the numbers are the equivalent of 100 million refugees arriving in the U.S. looking for shelter.
The Norwegian Refugee Council is trying to help with the accommodation crisis by refurbishing unfinished or abandoned buildings to a basic living standard for families like the Hassan’s.
“One of the common factors here is that many buildings are started, but families may be waiting for extra money to take them to the next stage, so these are buildings that have probably never been lived in,” explained Niamh Murnaghan, NRC country director.
In return for converting the properties into a livable space, the families are able to live rent-free in the accommodation for one year. Murnaghan says the NRC has fixed up about 10,000 properties housing 50-60,000 people, but it’s a drop in the ocean and can only be part of the solution.
“One of the major factors in Lebanon is how much of an urban crisis this is. So many of the refugees are living in towns and are very invisible to the general public,” she added.
As the conflict enters its fourth year, Murnaghan says shelter will be a major concern for 2014.
“A lot of people are in the private rental market and there’s very little understanding about how people are organizing themselves to pay rent. We are hearing that people’s resources are being exhausted,” she explained.
Lebanon is slowly being dragged into the Syrian conflict. There have been three bombings in the capital Beirut this year alone, coupled with outbreaks of fighting as sectarian tensions force Lebanese to pick a side in a war that’s spilling over their borders.
In some villages in southern Lebanon, posters of young men have started popping up alongside the faded images of martyrs that died in the 80’s and 90’s fighting Israel. These men belong to a new generation of Hezbollah fighters that lost their lives battling alongside the Syrian government.
Back at Hassan’s house, a new generation of Syrian children play on old cushions and a broken crate lying on the floor of the balcony. For the rest of them, Hassan says they pass the time by counting the days until they can return home.
“We are just waiting, that’s all we do. We wait,” Hassan said.
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