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Lebanon: Surviving on Society’s Margins

The majority of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in substandard accommodation. Louai (left) lives with his family in an abandoned garage. Photo © European Union/ECHO/Peter Biro

A staggering 1.2 million people have crossed the border from war-torn Syria into neighbouring Lebanon. Without any formal refugee camps, many Syrians in Lebanon have been forced to seek shelter wherever they can find it: in sheds, abandoned buildings, spare rooms and tented settlements. Unable to work, and with their savings long gone, an estimated 70 percent of refugees live below the extreme poverty line. In response, EU Humanitarian Aid and its partners are providing tens of thousands of people with cash that enables them to pay for rent, food, clothing, healthcare and education. 

By Peter Biro, regional information officer, EU Humanitarian Aid @Peter_Biro

Lebanon’s Bekaa valley is a sweeping fertile plain framed by snow-capped mountains, and the site of magnificent archeological sites, vineyards and green agricultural patches. It is also the temporary home to an estimated 400,000 of Lebanon’s 1.2 million Syrian refugees. Families, sometimes consisting of up to a dozen people, live in rows of flimsy tents, patched together with plastic tarps, ragged burlap and scraps of wood.

Louai, his wife Imane, and their three young children have sought shelter in a dark, disused garage by the side of a dusty road. They share their living space and one bathroom with eight other people, and like so many other Syrian families here, they are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. Even the very basics—sufficient food, medicine and warm clothes as winter approaches—are no longer a given.

I have looked everywhere, but have been unable to find any work,” Louai says, shaking his head. “And life in Lebanon is very expensive.

With their savings dried up, Louai’s family is one of over 17,000 households in Lebanon that are receiving cash assistance from the European Union in partnership with six humanitarian partner organisations. These organisations make up the “Lebanon Cash Consortium” (LCC). Each household receives a monthly cash payment of nearly 175 US dollars by bank transfer. The money can be withdrawn and used to buy food, pay for rent or other basic needs.

It is a speedy, efficient and dignified way to address the basic needs of refugees,” says Massimiliano Mangia, who oversees ECHO’s operations in Lebanon. “Cash allows refugees greater freedom and flexibility to choose their household needs.

In addition, regular cash transfers could mean that people can afford to send their children to school, instead of forcing them to take up menial, often dangerous, work. Mangia says that it could also save refugees from desperate and hazardous survival strategies such as early marriage and prostitution.

A recent study found that LCC cash aid increases refugees’ monthly consumption of living essentials—such as food, gas for cooking, water and healthcare—by over 20 percent compared to families who are not receiving cash assistance. Families receiving LCC cash are also better off because they are less reliant on debt to pay their rent.

The cash assistance helps us get by,” Imane says. “Without it, we would be thrown out onto the street, unable to pay the rent. We would have to borrow money to survive.

Before the war, Louai ran a lucrative steel business in the Syrian city of Homs, selling construction materials.

We used to be well off,” he says. “We had a big house, owned agricultural land and had some savings.

The family arrived in Lebanon three years ago after their home in the Homs neighbourhood of Bab Amr was flattened in an air raid.

A barrel bomb hit our neighbour’s house and destroyed everything around it,” Louai says. “We sold my wife’s jewellery so that we could get by as we moved from one place to another in Syria. But wherever we went, the fighting followed us. Eventually we decided to flee to Lebanon.

Despite their financial hardship, the children are able to learn basic numeracy and literacy for free at a nearby informal school. The eldest of the children, 10-year-old Linda, loves school.

I dream of becoming a doctor or a teacher,” she says. “I hope that one day that dream will come true.