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The Syrian Refugee Crisis – A View from Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley

The Bekaa Valley is “home” to more than 350,000 Syrian refugees, a sizable proportion of the nearly two million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Some of these war-victims have been displaced for more than seven years. I recently returned to Bekaa to work with various people and organizations in the refugee communities. This field research was/is part of a longitudinal study on humanitarian crises that began in the 1990s during Yugoslavia’s disintegration; expanded to include refugees and other forcibly displaced persons in and from Burundi, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar, and most recently in/from Colombia, Central America and the Middle East. A few observations from my most recent visit to the Bekaa Valley are shared below, with implications for the research project and humanitarian relief.

Living conditions in Bekaa’s refugee communities are challenging, but humane. Some of the refugees living here endured horrific trauma during their forced displacement and journey to Bekaa, but now, after several years, a routine or normalcy is perceptible; frustration and a longing to return to Syrian homes are evident, too.

Shelter takes the form of tents sheathed in wide strips of canvas and plastic tarpaulins, sometimes battened by ropes, heavy tires and blankets. Some tents have concrete floors, most have electricity, and many have a television and satellite dish. No tents were observed to have indoor plumbing; people share portable toilets.

Water is rationed and sometimes scarce, which compounds discomfort in the searing summer heat. At least one member of each family has a mobile phone or access to one. People are connected communally, electronically, digitally. People are generally free to come and go. Many men work in Lebanon’s agriculture and construction sectors, while women tend to care for young children and continue other traditional roles.

Some “homes” or rooms may have more than 10 people living in them; many are children, many of these children were born in the refugee communities – making the best of the only homes they know. Families are often fractured; most if not all have lost loved ones.

I should also add that one can see dignity in these communities, and sense a cautious optimism that a return to Syria may be possible.

The worst of humanity forced Syrians to flee their country, but some of the best of humanity is visible throughout Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley. Benevolent and careful coordination of governments, NGOs and businesses, with the leadership and cooperation of the community’s “Mshaweesh” and the people he leads are vital to community well-being. This dynamic is a primary focus of our research: how best to manage relationships and the various interests of stakeholders in these communities, and affecting these communities, in ways to deliver the most useful goods and services.

It is important to recognize that refugees are vulnerable consumers with evolving needs. In addition to basic care for health and safety, refugees also need foreign-language proficiency, computer literacy and marketable skills, if they are to thrive when and where they find permanent residency. Hearing their voices, and cooperating to provide resources throughout their journey, is essential. UNHCR, CRS, Caritas, World Vision, IRC, USJ, the kindness of the Lebanese and donors scattered around the world  – too many good and noble people and organizations to list here – are vital to this process. They provide funds, goods, services and experiences; among them are financial support, health care, education, training, transportation, jobs, arts, recreation and hope.

The Syrian refugee crisis is profoundly tragic; its resolution enormously complicated – including how it plays-out in Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley. Our team of international scholars, advocates, NGOs, refugees and other stakeholders is actively engaged in the study of the systemic complexity of the crisis, and the discovery of plausible solutions to it. We are hopeful our efforts will result in “best” practices to assuage suffering, to prepare for a better future, and to establish sustainable and equitable marketing systems around the world that can mitigate or interrupt the cycle of violence and catastrophe in Syria and beyond.

I will occasionally revisit this blog or make entries elsewhere, to update this project.

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