BEKAA VALLEY, Lebanon: YEHYA Fayad did not want to speak to anyone from any non-governmental organisation (NGO).
“They came, they took videos and photos. They said they will help me, but nothing happens. I don’t really want to talk,” he said from behind a flimsy tent door.
Ahmed Kayed, who is our coordinator here, translated those words for me. We were standing outside a tent in Al-Abrar refugee camp. It was 3.30pm and the winter season meant the light was already getting low and the temperature dropping, too.
“Tell him we may be able to help if he shares his story with us. Tell him you know us and you have been working with Mercy (Medical Relief Society) Malaysia, we are an established organisation.
“InsyaAllah we will try our best to help,” I said to Ahmed, stumbling over my sentences, looking for the right words to say to convince this man.
A few minutes later, a well-built 30-year-old man opened the tent door and sat down on the plastic chair he had lugged along with him.
He tied up the end of his track bottoms, where he had lost his left leg from the knee down. He had been hit by a shrapnel from a bomb in Syria two years ago. He came over to Bekaa Valley here with his wife and baby girl.
Ahmed translated our conversation. Yehya showed me the plastic shell for his thigh, which was fixed to a model of thin metal and sponge for the lower leg. He said the badly-made false leg cost him US$2,000 (RM8,900), but he uses it when he takes his daughter for walks around the campsite.
I told him I am with Mercy Malaysia UK, and our current project is to help refugees with chronic illnesses and disabilities.
I was in Beirut and Bekaa Valley as part of Mercy Malaysia’s assessment mission. The Kuala Lumpur team included a senior project leader and a psychosocial consultant.
Among others, we visited refugees camps and medical centres. We spoke to doctors, held focus group discussions with beneficiaries at different camps, and conducted psychosocial awareness sessions among the social workers to identify the gaps and the current refugee needs.
Mercy Malaysia also monitored the distribution of food, fuel and medicine, as well as meeting their local partners involved in helping the refugees.
I joined the team in Lebanon both as a trustee for Mercy Malaysia UK and as their embedded media personnel.
Last year, Mercy Malaysia UK took up Syrian refugees as our project, both in the United Kingdom and Lebanon.
For the UK programme, we helped fund weekly English lessons for a group of 80 Syrian refugees in Nottingham, including providing a laptop and projector.
For Lebanon, we helped set up a rehabilitation unit for refugees with chronic illnesses and disabilities.
Because having a physical clinic takes time, we begin our project by providing a service to look after those with severe medical problems and working together with local NGOs.
Dr Majdi Krayem from Al Shifaa, a medical and humanitarian services, said the refugees’ serious illnesses did not receive a lot of support.
“In Lebanon, medicine and surgery are very expensive. Patients with chronic diseases, for example asthma or diabetes, need a lot of medication. Disabled refugees need equipment like wheelchairs and walkers.”
In November 2016, Mercy Malaysia UK organised a fundraising event at the prestigious House of Lords in London.
We highlighted the plight of the Syrians fleeing the crisis, published our objectives and shared photos taken by the Mercy Malaysia team, which had previously visited Lebanon.
And yet, it couldn’t have prepared me for the stark truth of what I experienced when I visited the camps.
The stunning view of the snow-capped mountains in Bekaa Valley has very little impact on the hundreds and thousands of refugees who no longer have homes in Syria.
They escaped from a civil conflict, now in its sixth year. They are facing pressing matters, such as heating and clean water.
Over a million Syrians have travelled here, half of them children. It is no surprise that this influx has created an enormous strain for a country with a population of just four million. There are over 40 camps of various sizes in Bekaa Valley housing these refugees, either in tents or converted freight containers. Most of the campsites belong to local landlords.
Mercy Malaysia has been providing food parcels, fuel and blankets to over 500 families in four camps.
It is also providing medicine and clinic supplies via two medical centres.
Since 2012, there have been numerous NGOs who came to Lebanon. While most refugees received medical and humanitarian support, some who live on the hillside of Majdel Anjar, not far from the Lebanon-Syria mountainous border, have to deal with problems such as high rent.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provides aid to refugees who are registered with them.
Khalil Dagher, Associate Inter-Agency Coordination Officer at UNHCR in Beirut, said some families were still approaching them even though they had stopped registering the displaced people.
“If they are eligible for assistance or have specific needs, maybe for winter assistance, and they have proof of economic vulnerability, then we can assist them. They don’t get their refugee certificates because the whole registration process has stopped.
“But, we still take basic information and if there is a further need that we can fulfil with our partners or something that UNHCR can do directly, then this is usually how we can assist.”
Roula, who looks a lot older than her age of 22, said she didn’t know what would happen to her four children under the age of 8. Her husband died of cancer eight months ago.
“Four of us are registered with UNHCR, so we receive US$19 a month. My baby is not registered. All our money goes to paying rent.
“There is no school nearby and I can’t afford to pay for the bus fare so the children are here every day.
“I used to do some cleaning work but now, how can I ? I can’t just leave them here.”
They are renting a dimly-lit room that they use to sit, sleep and eat in. There is no furniture and only four small mattresses on the floor. Blankets and clothes are piled in one corner.
The tiny kitchen has only a sink and stove. I saw a rusty water heater hang dangerously from an old electricity socket.
While she spoke to me, outside the room by the washing line, the children ran around , tripping over the uneven cemented pavement in front of their rented “home”.
“Life is hard. I want my children to have better lives, but I am not sure how,” she said tearfully.
We visited a few more families with equally sad stories. We were consumed by the suffering of these people and could only pray that a box of dry food, fuel and blankets could ease a fraction of their burden during the cold months.
A PICTURE OF DESPAIR
Back in Al-Abrar camp, we were introduced to 11-year-old Marwan Bakkour, who lost his left foot to shrapnel while playing outside his home in Syria. The incident happened two years ago.
He told me some people came to help him after the rocket attack by wrapping his foot with a cloth.
Their town was badly bombed, so Marwan travelled to Lebanon with his family.
By the time he arrived in Bekaa Valley, his foot had developed gangrene and had to be amputated.
Since then, he has managed to walk by tying a shin pad to his leg, sticking the shin pad into a shoe and stuffing the shoe with socks.
“Look at him. He walks with a terrible gait. He wants to run around and play like other kids,” sighed his mother.
Prior to our visit to the refugee camps, we went to visit Balsama Centre in the city of Saida, where they make prosthetic limbs and arrange physiotherapy.
Manager Dr Ramzi Zeidan told us of a 7-year-old Syrian girl named Fatima Abdella, who has scoliosis of her spinal cord and needs a special corset to straighten her bones.
I listed down all our potential patients. Mercy Malaysia UK will have to assess them accordingly.
Before we left the camp, a man asked if I could help his wife, who lost her hearing due to a bombing.
Another man pointed to his daughter sitting on the ground. She looked about two years old. She has Down’s Syndrome.
I wished I could help everyone, but I couldn’t. They looked disappointed, and so was I. It was overwhelming. Such was the extent of desperation for these people who place their hopes on NGOs to change their lives. But can we?
The temperature dropped even further as we drove away from the camps. After a week, we were lucky to be flying back to the warmth of our homes, our family and friends.
I wonder what will be next for the refugees.
For how long more will they have to live in tents and converted freight container in Bekaa Valley?
With hardly any work for the grown-ups or schools to go to for the young ones, they rely on aid to survive.
Their hometowns bombed, their family and friends missing, could 2017 bring a little more help and
hope for this unfortunate population?
Back in the UK, we will continue to raise funds and share our cause.
Our new year resolutions must begin with helping people like Yehya, Marwan and Fatima. InsyaAllah.