Beirut: Living with the refugee crisis

Dominated by gulf banks, government offices and chic boutiques, I watch an exclusive, sophisticated downtown Beirut go into lockdown. Private security and army occupy the pavements carrying heavy weapons while closely monitoring vehicles and civilians. Targeted assassinations, most recently of Minister Mohamed Chatah, as well as a trail of vicious bombings in Dahiyeh district of South Beirut, have pushed authorities into high alert.

I encounter two Syrian refugee boys. They persistently offer to shine my shoes in exchange for some food or coins. I see large billboards thanking Saudi Arabia for their 3 Billion USD donation to the Lebanese army along city streets . They sit next to more billboards selling 3MM security ‘blast proof’ glass ‘for the safety of your loved ones’.

Exiting towards the poorer southern districts of the city, it’s a world away from the affluence of downtown Beirut. Checkpoints are more frequent and the surroundings become more impoverished. The urban landscape consists of disorganised heavy concrete buildings, masses of people and chaotic bumper to bumper traffic.

Here communities are struggling to deal with their own problems, as a wave of refugees from Syria engulfs the poorest areas of Lebanon’s cities and towns. The taxi I'm travelling in is stopped as I near the refugee camps ofShatila.My bag is checked and body pat-downs are administered by soldiers. I then meet my contacts; two outreach workers, one female, one male, who work with a local a NGO dealing with the monumental refugee crisis.

In an apartment in Shatila, Ibrahim sits still, breathlessly looking at the three of us with a dead stare. The NGO worker's sitting at both sides of me look at each other with depressed frustration. Kadija, Ibrahim’s ailing wife, is straining to lay back on a mattress that runs along the small apartment wall. She lets out a cry of pain as her daughter eases her down. Once on her back, she still cries, gripping tightly to the arm of her worried daughter sitting on the floor between her parents. The family have arrived from Syria. Ibrahim is near 80 years old and in a critical condition. He lifts his t-shirt to reveal a protrusion of heavy flesh that hangs down below his waist line. I immediately mistake it for a giant tumour, but the female NGO worker corrects me “It’s his intestines, only the skin of his stomach is keeping them in.”

The female NGO worker is straining to hear her phone. She desperately tries to find a hospital that will accept him under UNHCR registration. She can't get through to anyone. Repeat call follows repeat call. When she does get through, our small room goes into tense silence. She explains the chronic condition of Ibrahim. Then the call finishes. "They can't take him either. They say they have no beds." I look at the old man and I'm certain he’s on death's door. His breaths are short and laboured. He can't move.

Shatila is an area of suffocating little alleyways with no sunlight, fresh air or natural light. Ten thousand people reside here, a number growing fast as Syrian refugees seek out the cheapest accommodation. All that is visible when you look skywards is a dense mix of power lines and crumbling concrete. The stairs from the apartment are steep and the alleyways are packed with people and speeding scooters. I don’t know how an ambulance can even get to Ibrahim. It looks like an impossible situation.

Out on the street, the two NGO workers walk fast and talk fast in Arabic, trying to come up with a solution for Ibrahim. They have decided to go direct to the hospital; phoning for help isn't working. I try and keep up while staying conscious of the scooters skimming past on the narrow alleyway. Once out near the road we flag down a taxi for Rafic Hariri University hospital, one of the biggest in Lebanon and not far from Shatila.

We find ourselves at the door of a small staff room hidden off the hospitals main reception area. Both NGO workers argue Ibrahim’s case while giving their details. The two staff members in the room shrug off any discussion stating they simply have no beds. The pleading goes around in circles and I can’t see anyone receiving the refugees arriving after us in the main hall.

Taking a look down the corridor running to the right of reception one can see beds but no people. The female NGO worker checks the left corridor and confirms the same; more empty beds. “The hospital gets more for Lebanese patients, that’s why they don’t want to take Syrian patients.” “With Syrian refugees they only get 75% of the costs.” the male NGO worker tells me.

An old woman approaches us and tells her story. She is a Syrian refugee. She holds a picture of her recently deceased son in her hand. She sobs as she tells how her 21 year old daughter-in-law, now a widow, isn't being admitted. The hospital refuses to take her as she is an overdose victim.She lays on a trolley barely conscious. The old woman goes through waves of emotion and tears as she recounts her son, his young wife and their three children. She is lost in every sense.

Fraught with bureaucracy the health system was failing before the Syrian refugee crisis. “It never got a chance to develop and recover from the civil war” the female NGO worker tells me. It was late afternoon when the NGO workers finally managed to get Ibrahim admittance to a hospital. His case is just a drop in the ocean of refugee cases facing both of these workers in Beirut each day.

Photo credits: Eamonn Sheehy



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