Chair of World Vision International Donna Shepherd travelled with CEO and President Kevin Jenkins to Jordan and Lebanon in November 2017 to shine a light on the ongoing plight of Syrian refugees as we head towards Christmas and the seventh cold winter since the war began. Here, she reflects on her trip.
Bar Elias is a small rural town in Lebanon’s beautiful Bekaa Valley halfway between Beirut and Damascus.
Known for hot summers and snowy winters, Bar Elias’s population of around 60,000 has almost doubled with Syrians seeking shelter from the war across the border.
Among these thousands are Kaltoum and Mohamad and their five children, who live in one of the flimsy homes constructed of wood and plastic inside the informal refugee settlement less than an hour’s walk from their native Syria.
Mohamad and Kaltoum sit on a plastic mat with their children playing in the corner. They tell us of the night, a few weeks before, when a broken light bulb sparked a flame that set their shelter alight.
The fire claimed the life of their seven-year-old daughter Hajar, despite desperate efforts by family members who saved 22 children from the swift and terrifying inferno.
“I have nothing to live for,” said the girl’s mother, Kaltoum.
“She was a gentle spirit” said Mohamad, wiping tears from his eyes as he recalled picking up the body of his daughter. Outside, winter winds buffet the tent as we listen to their story.
“I did not keep my family safe, I couldn’t save her.”
World Vision’s Bekaa team arrived 30 minutes after the fire broke out.
We later heard from our WASH Operations Coordinator, Lyn, that without the water from the tanks World Vision had installed in the Bar Elias tented settlement the fire may have destroyed the rest of the camp.
Before the fire, Mohammed had saved $400 towards restarting his career as a barber.
“The money we saved was burnt in the fire,” he told us.
It won’t be easy for Mohammed to save that hard-earned money again as the landlord needs the $200 monthly rent for the 20 square metres they occupy – and it’s challenging enough to find enough for that.
Mohamad told us how thankful he was for support his family received from World Vision to rebuild their shelter, and in providing water and sanitation and support for the children’s education. They fled Aleppo to find security for their children and while they are now safe, they have also experienced profound loss and heartache.
“Our only hope now is that our remaining children go to school.” Mohammed said.
Mohammed is like many Syrian refugees who recognise that education is a means of achieving stability, higher education and a secure livelihood.
Educating her children is an absolute priority for Futeim, whom Kevin and I were also privileged to meet at the Bar Elias settlement. She fled Syria with her family four year ago.
After living in a spacious apartment in Aleppo, Futeim told us she feels suffocated in a tent with her four children, but she does what she can to make her family’s life comfortable. She made us welcome in a room where the plastic walls are covered in fabric and the floor decorated with cushions.
“I want my children to be happy and comfortable here and for this to be a nice place for them to bring their friends,” she said.
Schooling for her children is her highest priority. Futeim is very thankful to World Vision for the support they have provided in preparing her youngest children for school at the local preschools, but she had to make a difficult choice of sending only the twins – Bashar and Walaa, as they were most in need.
“My 14 year old daughter, Amal, already knows how to read and write thanks to World Vision,’ says Futeim.
“We can’t afford to pay for transportation for everyone, so I had to choose.”
On the day we visited the landlord had asked Amal to pick potatoes along with the other girls of the settlement. Although Futeim’s husband works the money that Amal earns will make a welcome contribution when it comes covering the rent.
Witnessing firsthand the ongoing plight of Syrians refugees highlights the importance of our work with refugees. Seven years after the war began, millions of Syrians still live in limbo. Many want to go home, some have lost their homes, and all are seeking a safe place to rebuild their lives.
While they wait, they courageously meet the challenges of each day as they seek to provide for their families and make something of their children’s lives. And our World Vision teams are there, walking shoulder to shoulder with them, bringing them hope.
It was a great privilege to meet Kaltoum, Mohamad, Futeim and their families, they motivate me to ensure the world remembers that they deserve a safe place to live and thrive. Christmas brings this message of hope, promising a world where we all come together as a human family in love and peace.
World Vision’s programs in the Bekaa Valley are providing WASH (Clean Water, Sanitation and Hygiene), assistance with shelter, preschool education, psychosocial support to families living in informal settlements.
World Vision’s Syria Response has assisted more than 240,000 in Lebanon, including 144,000 children, towards dignity, normality and mental well-being and to improve financial and educational opportunities.