Syrians escaping the violence and chaos of civil war have been pouring into Lebanon in ever increasing numbers since March of 2011. The small country now hosts at least 675,000 refugees according to UN reports, the highest number in the region. Government estimates are even higher, including unregistered refugees in the count of 1,000,000 — a quarter of the country's population.
There are no refugee camps in Lebanon, so Syrians are scattered throughout the country. The majority of those who have been registered are concentrated in and around Tripoli, Akkar and Helba in the north, and Baalbeck, Zahle and Hermel in the eastern Bekaa Valley. In addition, there are thousands of refugees living in the south and in Beirut who have not yet been registered.
Host communities are trying to meet the needs of their Syrian guests, but they are struggling as scarce resources are stretched to the limit. New competition for jobs, rising food and fuel prices, increased housing costs and a strained municipal system have become tension points.
Mercy Corps has worked in Lebanon since 1993, leveraging its thriving network of local development organizations and working very closely with local entities to implement programs that focus on youth participation and education, national policy reform toward better governance, reconciliation across faiths and factions, and the social inclusion of marginalized people and communities.
Mercy Corps has maintained readiness to respond to emergencies like this one. We are providing psychosocial support for Syrian refugee children and their families across the country and distributing necessities like clothing, hygiene and baby kits, and household supplies.
Psychosocial support for children and teens
In the Bekaa Valley, Mercy Corps is working with four very capable and innovative local partners to build child-friendly spaces — essentially, safe playgrounds — that are funded by UNICEF. The program is offering psychosocial support to 2,548 young Syrian and Lebanese children and adolescents in a safe environment, while also engaging Syrian mentors to guide children’s activities and helping parents identify and address child trauma. Through these interventions we are bringing people together in new and emerging communities.
Mercy Corps also is applying our proven Comfort for Kids and Moving Forward methodologies and training volunteers, local caregivers and university graduates to deliver them. Most of these activities are taking place in and around the central Bekaa
Valley. For refugees and hosts living in rural areas, our partner travels to remote villages and neighborhoods to work with children and adults.
In addition to offering guided activities to help children and youth express themselves in healthy ways and develop trusting relationships with their peers, Mercy Corps helps parents and families identify and respond to post-traumatic stress symptoms in their children and connects them with health resources in their communities. We also hire local psychologists, teachers and coaches from the refugee community to serve as program mentors.
After completing leadership, team-building and assessment trainings, 21 young Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians have identified various needs in their communities and developed responsive interventions. For instance, they have installed waste disposal receptacles in the crowded Wavel Palestinian Camp to cope with strained capacity due to the influx of refugees. Young people also installed benches in six schools that host Syrian refugee students so new students don’t have to stand during class. And, they spearheaded the replacement of old water tanks. This cohort of youth has also been trained as Comfort for Kids mentors and Moving Forward coaches.
Providing desperately-needed supplies
Refugee families arrive in Lebanon with only the few belongings they can carry. We are currently providing Syrians with a "basket" of non-food items, depending on their specific needs. Necessities include blankets, mattresses, kitchen sets, hygiene kits, baby supplies and cooking fuel coupons.
With its small population, weakened economy and aging national infrastructure, Lebanon is struggling to incorporate of the massive influx of refugees. The resources necessary to meet the increased needs are simply not available — and that scarcity has uncovered volatile tensions. Additionally, the crisis in Syria risks upsetting the delicate balance of political power among Lebanon's various religious groups.
While we work to alleviate some of the stresses by providing basic supplies, we are focused on long-term community support. With funding from the European Commission, Mercy Corps is working with local groups to strengthen their capacity to resolve conflicts, manage emerging tensions peacefully, and promote cooperation among refugees and their host communities.
Plans for expansion
Mercy Corps recognizes that there are needs across the country that are not being met due to lack of awareness and appropriately resourced civil society. We have also observed places where local civil society has reached the limit of its ability to respond. That’s why we are poised to expand our psychosocial support programs into the north, around Tripoli, and the south, in the cities of Nabatiyeh and Saida, where tens of thousands of refugees have suffered extreme trauma and lack the resources and support to manage the crisis in healthy ways and to recover.
Mercy Corps continues to assess the situation and work very closely with local partners in every corner of Lebanon to keep a careful eye on the evolving needs of Syrian refugees and respond as needed.