A year in and the conflict in Syria shows no signs of abating. Despite calls from Arab countries to arm rebel forces fighting against President Bashar al-Assad, global powers are undecided about how to end the conflict that so far has claimed over 10,000 lives.
Over 4,000 of these deaths occurred during a recent government offensive to oust rebels from their strongholds in the western city of Homs. Escaping the bombardment is dangerous and dozens have been killed attempting to leave the city under cover of night.
Despite the risks, over 15,000 people have travelled the 100 kilometer journey west to the mountains of north-eastern Lebanon to seek shelter. In the villages of Wadi Khaled and Bekka Wadi, Danish aid agencies say locals have taken refugees into their homes. As a result, 90 percent of the refugees in the region are privately hosted rather than placed in camps.
“We have seen about 15,000 people open their arms and take in refugees,” Lone Bildsøe Lassen, head of the Middle East desk at the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), told The Copenhagen Post. “It was really touching to see in such underdeveloped areas that they have been so kind and let people into their homes.”
Lassen was recently in Lebanon to ensure that the DRC was offering enough support to the host families and the refugees. The conflict has had deep implications for Lebanese people, many of whom worked and traded over the border with Syria. Many have lost their jobs as a result of the conflict, while the prices for basic commodities are rising sharply.
“It’s a poor area of Lebanon that is becoming even poorer because of the conflict in Syria,” Lassen said. “They are in the mountains and it’s snowing and freezing cold. They aren’t living in large houses but they are still taking people in and caring for them.”
In Lebanon the DRC consults with individual communities to find out their needs. Communities have asked for help rebuilding schools and social centers while the DRC has also distributed food and other items such as toys and kitchen equipment. They also have an outreach programme that offers support to children who need schooling as well as care to individuals suffering psychological trauma as a result of the conflict.
The mood in the villages was tense, Lassen said, arising from the uncertain futures many of the people face.
“You can see in people’s eyes that they have seen and experienced things that no one wants to see,” Lassen said. “What you often see is hostility in refugee camps but you don’t see that at all. It’s very opened-armed and friendly. But there is also a desperation to find work and a pressure created by all the refugees on resources. It’s also stressful because they really don’t know how long they’re going to be staying there either.”
While aid agencies can help refugees once they have made it out of the country, the Syrian authorities have been blocking access to areas most in need of help. The Red Cross was unable to enter the heavily bombarded district of Baba Amr in Homs until this Wednesday, though by that time almost all of the residents had fled.
The Syrian volunteer organisation, the Red Crescent, is still operating inside the county, however, evacuating wounded civilians and fighters to hospital, often while under fire. In the last three months three of the organisation's volunteers have been killed.
But they are not alone. The Red Cross is playing a major role in providing medical supplies to the Syrian volunteers who are responsible for the majority of the aid work in the country. Speaking to The Copenhagen Post from Beirut, Bjarke Skaanning, of the Danish Red Cross, said that the Red Crescent’s role was vital given that most foreign aid agencies were blocked from the worst affected regions.
“We are very proud of these young people who are mostly young students who have been trained by the Red Cross and then sent out by ambulances,” Skaanning said adding that the volunteers have been responsible for caring for Iraqi refugees in the country. “But now instead of doing social work they are now distributing food to their own community and evacuating family and friends.”
Skaanning is on a fact finding mission to determine the best way to spend Red Cross funding, which includes five million kroner allocated to it last Wednesday by DANIDA, the foreign ministry's aid agency. Hewas thankful for the donations, but added that the aid is useless unless it actually makes its way to the people in need.
“The biggest need at the moment is for a cease fire in order to let aid come through. There is fighting right now in a number of cities all over the country. We need to negotiate and put pressure on the groups that are fighting so that we can have a ceasefire for two hours a day to make it safe,” Skaanning said.
The Red Cross has food and water, blankets and medical aid to distribute. They also help refugees find their families if they became separated during the fighting. But as aid continues to be blocked, Skaanning fears that many residents could face starvation.
“A lot of people aren’t working so they aren't making money, and that means that people don’t have money to buy food. If this continues we will start seeing people without access to food.”
Lebanon is far from the only country hosting Syrian refugees. Some 20,000 refugees have arrived in Turkey, 75,000 in Jordan and over 10,000 in Lebanon. There are also hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians within their own country. With president Assad vowing to continue fighting as long as there were “terrorists” operating within his country, no one is sure when the refugees will be able to go home, if they still have homes to return to.