MY EXPERIENCES WORKING IN A SYRIAN REFUGEE CAMP
WORDS || Carolin Gissbil
A young girl stands awkwardly by the refugee tents. Her small hands play with one of her two plaits. She toddles into the tent, and seems confused by the hustle and bustle inside. The dusty tent is crammed with people. On her left, three brown plastic tables are set up. Behind each table is a doctor sitting on a chair, examining the condition of the refugees. Her eyes follow the patients over to the right, where two pharmacists distribute medicine to those who have already been treated by the doctors.
Humedica, a German aid organisation, has orchestrated free medical care for the people living inside this Syrian refugee camp. To set up the tent, a Syrian family has given up their living space, which consists of roughly ten square metres of wooden poles and white plastic foils. Dozens of refugees queue outside in bone dry heat. They are mostly mothers looking after five, six, sometimes up to fifteen children.
The young girl smiles my way and runs towards me. We already know each other from a game of football we played a few minutes ago with the other children. A German doctor and I decided to bring a ball into each of the refugee camps. It’s the first toy we’ve seen anywhere so far. The ball probably won’t last very long, but at least the children are busy and enjoying themselves.
I crouch down to the little girl’s level. “What’s your name?” I ask in my broken Arabic. I look for her mother, who is probably waiting close by. The girl answers with a shy smile, which means she can’t understand me. A Humedica field officer, who is responsible for regulating the rush of the “doctors’ tent” and registering in patients, sees my efforts to communicate with the little girl. He kneels down and translates from the Arabic.
I take her hand and tell her my name is Carolin. I ask her name and age. Her name is Elise and she is five years old. Then I inquire the whereabouts of her mother. She tells me her mother is dead. I watched how she died, she adds in a firm voice.
For a moment this knocks the breath from me. I am stunned; I hadn’t anticipated an answer like that one. At the same time I am angry about my tactlessness for asking a war child about her parents. Elise continues talking, not missing a beat. Her fine voice touches me and I admire her strength and frankness as he tells me how men entered their house and tore away her mother, ignoring little Elise’s desperate pleas.
They dragged her mother to the door, then shot her in the head. The last thing she saw them doing was seizing her mother’s legs and dragging her across the tarmac. The field officer and I kneel in front of her, frozen still. What’s the best thing to do now? What can we say? Apparently children have a better feeling for these things. She takes my hand and puts it on her head. When she fell down playing football, I stroked her head. I suppose this is a sign to continue. She smiles and asks, “Do you want to become my new mum?”
Because of the civil war in Syria, stories like Elise’s have become a sad, everyday reality. For many people the misery continues, as the ersatz construction of the camps can’t monitor or protect against sexual and violent assaults. Currently there are 1.2 million refugees registered in Lebanon, a country with 4.8 million residents. That’s not even factoring in 300,000 Palestinian refugees. The estimated number of unregistered Syrians is probably even higher than that figure. Half of the refugees are children.
In the refugee camps, the children are left to their own devices. Many rummage through rubbish and waste, looking for anything to divert their playful minds, if only for a moment. That way they can forget about all the terrible memories: the cries of people pleading for their lives; others quivering with agony when they’re kicked; the time they were so hungry that they had to cook their cat. We had to listen to all these different accounts during the last days.
For the children, escaping from Syria means there isn’t a school to attend. The Lebanese Government, as well as international institutions throughout the country, struggle to provide school education to refugee children. Moreover, it’s hard overcoming the language barrier, since Syrian children have been taught Arabic while in Lebanon classes are given in English.
According to the children’s help association UNICEF, 7.5 million Syrian children depend on humanitarian aid. Followers of IS are aware of this situation, thus making the camps a prime target for infiltration.
Everyone lives in decentralised tent night. They live in a few square meters, separated by plastic foil. They sleep on the ground, cook without a kitchen, and don’t have access to sanitary installations. They must pay landowners for a place in these makeshift accommodations. Which means many people work in the fields daily — despite illness, war injuries, pregnancy, and so on. Too many field workers are children. Everyone earns five US dollars a day, minus $2.50 for the placement officer and another dollar for the driver, who brings them to and from work.
When the transporter comes back to camp in the late afternoon, everyone jumps off the truck in droves, laughing and excited, and visits the on-site doctors. Many go directly into the medical tent. Some suffer from backaches caused by the arduous manual labour. I overhear a seventeen year old, eight months pregnant, asking for painkillers so that she can continue working. The doctor advises against this, of course, but they cannot control what happens. It’s a wearisome job.
The Humedica team treats 3,500 patients a month. A German coordinator is always on site and, from time to time, a specialist makes an appearance. Respiratory problems, skin rash, worm infections, and enuresis, were the main diagnoses today. The team must drive home before nightfall.
That night, from the comfort of my apartment, I gaze at the ‘Anti-Lebanon’, the mountain range separating Lebanon and Syria. It’s incomprehensible to me that a war rages on, a mere fifteen kilometres away.
When I go to sleep I hope that all the terrible moments will never catch up with Elise and the many other traumatised children. I hope they do not fearfully tremble when they sleep in their tents.