By Mohamed Shanaa, Engineering graduate from University of Warwick
In August, I hesitantly flew to Lebanon to participate in the AUB Summer volunteering camp organised by AUB’s Civil Engineering Society in collaboration with the Center for Civic Engagement and Community Service. With various areas of interest spread out in the Southern region of Lebanon, projects included renovating the first Christian school in Tyre, fixing and setting up a public garden in Tebnin, a cultural heritage project in Meis el-Jabal, and the Sarafand project which I took part in, where we built an improved tent prototype for the Syrian refugees, whilst members of the Naked Wagon team engaged the children in various projects. This post serves merely to reflect on this initiative, and to take a closer look on the hardships the millions of Syrian refugees now face.
Sarafand is an area between Tyre and Saida, and the Syrian refugees will be staying in an isolated banana plantation until the Syrian crisis comes to an end. This specific refugee camp is relatively small, with only 18 tents and probably just over 60 individuals, half of whom are children. I had heard about the atrocious living conditions refugees tend to live in, I had read descriptions of the tents but, nothing compares to seeing what I saw in person – and believe me when I say ‘atrocious’ doesn’t come close to describing the conditions they live in.
The tents weren’t built on grass fields, as one would’ve imagined; the ground was a mixture of sand, crops, garbage, and feces. There were no toilets, hardly any electricity, and there were all forms of insects crawling in and out of the tents. The tents are made of scrap material, ranging from scrap metal and wood, to cardboard and garbage bags. Most of them have no doors, and are merely a box to give the families some sort of privacy, whilst being under the illusion that they are sheltered. Parents complained that rats breathe over their children as they sleep. The tents are boiling hot in the summer, and freezing in the winter due to the non-existent insulation, and the refugees told us that they constantly leak water in the winter due to incessant rain.
As we arrived to the camp in the morning, children paraded, clapped, and cheered some of the Naked Wagon’s team names, knowing they will be treated like a children for a day. These children have seen more, and lived more than fifty and sixty year olds. They’ve seen parents get killed, family members get killed, and at best they’ve seen their country get destroyed as they fled away by one means or the other. Bushra for instance, is an eleven-year-old girl, who now cares for her brother as if he is an extension of her, after losing her two other brothers. She looks like an eleven year old but, she surely doesn’t act like one. Her child-like behaviour is only seen when another child hits her, or takes something from her. As part of the activities the Naked Wagon team organised, the children had to draw something on an A4 piece of paper. Whilst looking at their drawings, it was hard not to notice that a significant number of the drawings had something to do with a “home”, “Syria”, or “war”. It’s a sad and dark truth but, a real one nonetheless – these children are fully aware of what’s happening to them, as much as we’d like to think they aren’t.
Meanwhile though, all I see is different factions propagating the Syrian Diaspora – be it the opposition or the government. I’m not sure what the solution to this crisis is but, it sure as hell cannot be inflaming the Middle East as a whole. Syria has become the battle ground of the Middle East, with the Gulf and the West arming and supplying the opposition with resources, whilst Iran and Russia support the Bashaar regime. The result? Millions of refugees in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan, all of whom probably face similar conditions to the ones I’ve attempted to describe. The Palestinian Diaspora had been the crisis which has troubled the Middle East for so long, and its sad to see that its no longer the only conflict zone. Arabs for the past fifty years had always complained about the situation in their countries but, its only getting worse and my heart aches from this very thought.
I purposefully used the word ‘hesitantly’ at the beginning of this post. I wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to positively contribute in anyway, or whether I’d find the experience beneficial. But, seeing what I saw was an experience in itself. Taking part in building a proper tent for the real victims of the Syrian crisis was worth it, and I really do hope that AUB succeeds in replacing all the shabby tents in Syrian refugee camps, with more durable tents like the prototype we built in Sarafand. This was truly a great experience, and one that has changed my outlook on several things.