“There’s a lady here who has ten children aged under 18, and she’s widowed, and living in a tent,” we were told. The thought of that existence, in the cold of the Bekaa Valley winter, was difficult to fathom.
Having grown up in middle class England, and having had a very comfortable life there, and in Canada, I never had many challenges in life, until I began to explore the world. My eyes were truly opened first, when I began renting a ramshackle apartment in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. Having taken for granted always having enough money, enough food, enough warmth, and generally the ability to buy or do what I want, afford healthcare, and swan around the world without a second thought, I had never had any appreciation for how most of the world live. There’s a reason you rarely meet travelers of the backpacker variety from “developing” world countries. There’s too many barriers to do anything – both financial, and bureaucratic. Our world is locked down with tight controls, which mean the likes of myself can go anywhere, but for those less fortunate with their place of birth, being able to move anywhere in this world of ours is extremely difficult.
It’s sad but true. I can hold down a job doing practically anything in the UK or Canada, and know that in a few short months of thrifty living, I can afford to take months off at a time, to explore the world. The friends I’ve met from less fortunate backgrounds these past couple of years cannot.
And so, this really came to a head, when my life became intertwined with the ongoing Syrian civil war. This conflict has been called the worst humanitarian disaster since the Rwandan genocide, more than 130,000 people have been killed – a figure that is decidedly conservative, and more than five million people have been forced to flee their homes. If I had to leave my home I’d have plenty of options, and always somewhere warm, dry, and safe to sleep. For the majority of these five million people – that’s more than half of the population of the city of London by the way – they don’t have that luxury.
Eventually, I wanted to do something – anything – to help people who were suffering. It’s impossible for one English dude with a laptop and an SLR to change the world, or stop a war, but I at least wanted to do something to help some people in need, somewhere.
And so Blankets4Syrians was born. Coined by my university friend, Roshina, we set about raising funds for Syrian refugees living in the less-than-stellar conditions of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.
So we did. Through a combination of friends, family, social media, and downright annoying harrying of people, we ended up raising $5,000, purely through donations. Two weeks ago, arranged by a Syrian friend who works with refugees in Lebanon, we made our trip to Bekaa.
It was both heartwarming, and extremely sad to visit the camp. In this expansive, spectacular valley that runs 120 kilometres through Lebanon, sandwiched between two mountain ranges, were camp after camp after camp. Inside those camps live families from all over Syria. Farmers, drivers, office workers. Mothers, daughters, sons. You name it, they were there. Drive up the main highway from Chtoura toward the ancient Roman ruins of Baalbek, and look either side of the highway. There is the unmissable sight of thousands of hastily erected tents, draped with plastic sheeting, and with old car tyres hurled on top, to keep the ceilings in place. Homely, this is not.
At the camp we visited, we were greeted with smiles, handshakes, and strong Turkish coffee. We sat in the tent of the man who was leader of the camp, and talked about their experiences. Most people in that camp had been there between one and two years – some of them longer. And there was no sign of them being able to go back to their homes any time soon. One question that hung with me: would they still have homes to go back to?
We were shown around the camp, all the time being shadowed by crowds of children – most of them under the age of five, all smiles and laughter. It’s amazing how children seem to be able to cope with such situations. I guess, in some ways, life is all a game at that age. However, in quiet moments I saw the looks of anguish, the short tempers, and the signs of a difficult life etched upon the faces of some of the children. I’ve seen some horrific videos and images of the Syrian war. Things I will never forget. But I can barely imagine what some of these children have had to endure.
Our time at the camp was short and sweet. We distributed what we could to the families we had been put in contact with. We had some extra clothes, and blankets to go around. These were snapped up in an instant. It was shocking to see the conditions, the situations people were living in. Huge families, many mouths to feed, and little or nothing to do it with. I will never forget the thought of being a single mother with ten children to raise. In a tent. As the sun went down, we felt the temperature drop sharply. With the day almost done, some of the kids wanted to show me their play area – a huge hill rising sharply up from the flat valley, next to the tents.
We climbed the hill, twenty children in tow. From the top, we could see the whole camp, the Bekaa Valley bathed in the golden light of the final moments of sun light. We could see other camps, dotted around the landscape, as far as the eye could see. The sun had now set behind the mountains leading to Beirut, and the Mediterranean. On our left we could see the mountains to the east – behind which lay Syria. Home for all of these people. The children slid down a trench, scored into the hill. This was their playground. The trench was so well-defined, having been used for months – and years – before. I wondered for how many more years Syrian kids would slide down this hill, reducing the few clothes they had to wear to rags, before they could return home, and resume their lives.
For more images of my visits to see those suffering from the Syrian war, and other images from my travels, visit my Flickr page.