Syrian refugee Omar al-Saidi has been spending his days warily watching over his four orphaned grandchildren as they play in front of the house where they sought refuge in the Lebanese south-eastern village of Chebaa.
Saidi’s life fell apart in a blink of an eye, leaving him alone with 24 dependents after his son and son-in-law died in the fallout of the Syrian civil war. Desperation is most evident in the elderly man’s complaints, especially when talking about unemployment back home. Here he recounts his story to our correspondent from 7Dnews.
Given his age and poor health, Saidi struggles on a daily basis to raise his grandchildren after they lost their fathers; one of whom died in a mortar shelling that targeted the south Syria town of Beit Jinn and the other froze to death in an unforgiving winter storm back in 2014.
“I am obliged to raise and take care of these four children,” Saidi says, adding to his list of dependents that includes two senior spinster sisters who were born sick, and whose condition has deteriorated under the toll of war.
“We need astronomical amounts of money to secure treatment,” Saidi stresses while pointing out that he has failed to secure a job both in Lebanon and Syria. His family has, so far, survived thanks to charity and the aid it receives from the United Nations. They dwell in a small shabby house along with other widows and orphans that are also struggling without the presence of an able caregiver.
“Returning to Syria will only double our suffering,” Saidi notes, despite the fact that medicine for him and his wife costs about $100 a month in Lebanon, where they live in dire poverty. Making matters worse, some of the children do not have any identification papers in order to make it past the border and back into Syria.
Chebaa has become a popular destination for Syrian refugees fleeing Beit Jinn, which is situated a mere 11 kilometres away from the Lebanese-Syrian border, adjacent to the Golan Heights. Refugees have arrived at the southern Lebanese town on foot or on cattle.
According to reports, displaced travellers making the crossing were given drinking water by the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF). Neither Israeli forces in watch towers overlooking the Golan Heights, nor the Lebanese army interfered with their crossing.
Chebaa villagers had waited for incoming asylum seekers with cars to help transport them into their town.
Originally, Chebaa was home to some 8,000 Lebanese citizens during the winter and 15,000 during the summer. Since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, the village has hosted an additional 8,000 Syrian refugees, 1,500 of whom have since returned home aided by the Lebanese General Security Forces.
Now that the Syrian regime has regained control of Beit Jinn, calls for refugees in Chebaa to return have been intensifying. However, many have been unwilling to return given that hunger still plagues their hometown where farmlands and crops were razed to the ground in the aftermath of war.
“There is nothing to return to,” Saidi says, whilst noting that his condition will most definitely worsen in the absence of the support needed for Beit Jinn’s destitute families.
In Chebaa, Syrian refugees find shelter in Lebanese-owned homes made eligible for a temporary stay by the UN, whilst others rent modest accommodation. Charities have also offered housing to needy families and orphans for free and the local municipality has borne the brunt of providing displaced people with free electricity.
Since April 2018, buses sent by the Syrian government have helped move hundreds of displaced refugees back from Chebaa and nearby Lebanese villages to their towns and farmlands in Beit Jinn. Returnees said they were given “assurances on being exempted from compulsory military service”. However, many still fear they will be conscripted upon going back.
Syrian refugees in Chebaa say that their Syrian towns are rundown because of high prices and unemployment.
“Abandoned orchards have been wiped out and there are no prospects for returnees to receive international assistance in the face of poverty and poor conditions,” a refugee, speaking under the condition of anonymity, told 7D News.
Nevertheless, this is hardly a shock as refugees in Chebaa were briefed in full by UNHCR representatives about the situation back in Beit Jinn.
“We have been told about the reality that awaits us upon our return; the unemployment, high prices and the absence of aid have all been mentioned,” the refugee admits. Many returnees have already voiced their regret for heading back early before working conditions have improved.
“Most of those living in Chebaa are devastated about Syria. There is no way to work there, and they cannot move freely in their villages because of the regime-imposed siege,” the refugee adds.
Others have also expressed their concerns about Beit Jinn turning into a theatre for a Syrian-Israeli conflict in light of increased tensions, due to its proximity to the Golan Heights.