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Lebanon: the Syrian refugee camp in Zahle, torn between the yearning to leave and to return

The visit of a delegation of Italian Caritas dioceses to a Syrian refugee camp in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon.  The meeting with Ibrahim, refugee from Raqqa, torn between the wish to leave and to return. “It breaks my heart to look at these mountains that are so close, knowing that my Country is at a few kilometres’ distance. So I tell myself that maybe one day… I always hope to return, ‘Inshallah’, if God wills”

Veduta del campo rifugiati a Zahle, Libano

(from Zahle) The mounts of Anti-Lebanon, covered by clouds, are so close it seems that our hands could touch them. Ibrahim often observes them from his tent in the “Cesar 1” refugee camp in Zahle, capital of the Governorate of Bekaa, in the valley bearing the same name, some 45km east of Beirut.

The fourth largest city in Lebanon is also known as “the city of poetry and wine” owing to its good wine and to the many poets that were born here. But there is no glimpse of poetry in the camp. Syria is located behind those mounts. Ibrahim is one of many Syrian refugees – some 1.5 million according to estimates, corresponding to 30% of the Lebanese population – that took shelter in Lebanon to flee the war that has now entered its eighth year (March 15 2011). Before the conflict broke out “arriving from Zahle to Damascus by car was a brief ride. Now it’s impossible to reach: the road is blocked”, he said. Marked by the experience of Palestinian refugee camps opened in 1948, after the proclamation of the State of Israel, still active, Lebanon did not authorize the creation of legal camps for Syrian refugees who instead put up makeshift encampments, which Libyan authorities define “informal” camps. According to organizations such as Red Cross and Caritas Lebanon, 1900 “informal” camps have been put up across the valley, home to a total of 800 thousand refugees. For these refugees Bekaa has become “nobody’s land”, one of those human peripheries that experience the clash between good and evil, where hope can be born or it can die.

“Informal camps – said Ramzi Abou Zeid, coordinator of Caritas Lebanon refugee service – are set up on lands rented by the same refugees. Many of them worked on these lands before the outbreak of the war. In a short time they put up the first tents and shacks, thereby creating an encampment that gradually turned into a communitarian shelter that brings together extended families or refugees from the same area. The ‘chawich’, a term of Ottoman origin that stands for leader, is chosen among the residents: he has the responsibility of acting as mediator between refugees, NGOs and UN, to maintain contacts with local Lebanese authorities, monitor and communicate the number of refugees to law enforcement authorities and keep an updated register of those sheltered in the camp.”

Ibrahim comes from Raqqa, the Syrian city that before being liberated was the capital of the Islamic State. He is the “chawich” of “Cesar 1” camp, consisting of approximately 60 tents occupied on average by one or two families, with a total of 600 refugees from Syria, many of whom are women and children. Married, with three children, he arrived in Zahle at the end of 2013 “to escape poverty and war”, he said. “Here in the camp there is no drinking water amidst bad hygiene and poor sanitation.” Electricity is somewhat provided by makeshift cables that power the many antennas overhanging from sheet metal roofs. “Unstable refugee conditions are better than death”, remarked Ibrahim. The rainfall of the previous days turned the alleys of the camp into mud rivulets that the cars coming and going from the camp skid on, scattering it all around. Temperatures have dropped, and the women in the camp try to warm up the tents with small heaters or with fire. Outside, some are trying to make the most of the sunrays seated on make-do chairs. Anything can turn useful for the small bonfire, there is little money to buy wood.


In spite of everything, at the “Cesar 1” camp amid their curious glances the elderly walk towards us to shake our hands while children laugh and play near us. They spend their free time from school playing with anything that can be made into a toy or following the chickens inside the tents. Many of them are very young. The luckiest ones wear old shoes but most of them walk around in slippers or barefoot. “Ahlân wasahlân!”, Welcome!, “sħukrân”, thank you!, they repeat continuously. Ibrahim invites us to sit down and describes the life in the camp that continues “at a very slow pace. In the morning, men and young adults go out to work. Most of them work in farms and in the building sector, (the only two sectors, along with the environmental one, where refugees are allowed to work legally – ed.’s note). They all return before dusk.” Also Ibrahim used to work as bricklayer but he was forced to leave his job for health reasons. Today he makes end meet as collaborator of Caritas Lebanon and of other NGOs inside the camp. But with which future prospects…

“The greatest hope for those living in the camp – Ibrahim said – is to leave for the US, Canada, Australia or Europe. The alternative would be to remain in Lebanon.” Return to Syria? “To do what? Everything was destroyed, there is no reason to return”, he says with a desolate tone while walking towards the camp’s exit. He stops and turns around. That’s when his voice regains vigour. “It breaks my heart to look at these mountains that are so close and to know that my Country is at a few kilometres’ distance. So I tell myself that maybe one day… I always hope to return, ‘Inshallah’, if God wills”.

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