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Coffee and patience: a day in the life of a family hosting Syrian refugees

By Anaïs Renevier
SAADNAYEL, BEKAA VALLEY, 8 May 2013 (IRIN) - Two years ago, as Syrian refugees began streaming across borders, Lebanese families opened up their homes. Unlike in Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, where hundreds of thousands of refugees are being housed in camps, at the beginning of the influx into Lebanon, the majority of refugees were hosted by families. Some Lebanese households took in as many as six refugee families.

But as the conflict next-door has dragged on and the number of refugees in Lebanon has grown, so too has the burden on their Lebanese hosts.

Today, most of the 425,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon are renting homes or apartments; with only 6 percent hosted by families, according to a survey by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

IRIN spent a day with some Lebanese hosts, bringing you this portrait of a family trying to balance obligation and sacrifice.

It was a series of twists of fate
that brought together two families - one Lebanese, one Syrian - that did not know one another.

They met 15 years ago in a shared cab on the way to Syria, where the Lebanese family often shopped for cheaper products. Becoming friends, they met once or twice a year in Syria after that.

When Israel began bombing Lebanon in 2006, as part of a war with the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, the Lebanese family fled to Syria, where their new acquaintances hosted them for one month.

Six years later, the tables were turned.

On a sunny Thursday morning, Hannan is preparing a simple Lebanese breakfast of bread and vegetables for guests in the small Sunni village of Saadanayel, in Lebanon’s eastern Beka’a Valley.

Houda, 7, Bassima, 14, and their grandparents Sadika and Mohammad are seated on the floor of the living room, preparing to eat.

Hannan has been hosting the family of seven Syrian refugees in her humble two-bedroom house for the last five months. The children’s parents, Fadia and Houssam, have been out since early morning, like every day, searching for jobs in the surrounding cities of the Beka’a Valley. Their third child, 10-year-old Kamal, is out fetching water.

When their neighbourhood near the Syrian capital Damascus was bombed in December 2012, Fadia and Houssam called the only people they knew in Lebanon, and Hannan immediately responded.

“It's a pity. They had nowhere to go,” she said. “I couldn't say no. It would have been an offence against God not to help them.”

Hannan’s husband has a second wife, and only sleeps at the house every other day. Their five grown children do not live at home any more. So Hannan gave up her bedroom for the young Syrian couple, and is now sharing the second room with the grandparents and three children.

She spends her morning with the grandparents, interrupting their chit-chat every five minutes to take laundry off the clothesline, prepare coffee, garden, and watch over the refugee children playing in the field next door (They arrived in Lebanon too late in the year to enrol in school).

Everyone helps out with the household tasks, even Sadika, who has arthritis and leg pains. Fadia helps with the cooking and cleaning when she gets home from the job search. But as far as Hannan is concerned, that’s the easy part.

“I am used to cooking a lot of food for my visitors, so I don't mind cooking for 10 people. It is not the logistical side which is difficult. It is the financial side,” she whispers. “We are struggling to get enough food for everyone.”

The Syrian family has run out of money, so she, her husband and her seven guests live off the little money her husband gets from his pension, from their rented out horse pen, and from the garlic they grow in the backyard, which they trade for other vegetables.

They have cut back on meat almost completely and Hannan and her husband no longer buy new clothes or things for the house.

“I don't want to tell them that it's difficult, because I fear God,” Hannan says. “In 2006 when I stayed at their place it was different. I was staying with the grandparents, and it was only for a month.”

Around midday, the visitors begin stopping by. First it is the neighbours; then shisha-smoking friends of Hannan’s son, some of them Lebanese soldiers; then her own friends. They pass the time under the shadows of trees in the garden. The coffee is always flowing. The visits do not stop until late afternoon.

They chat about everything and nothing, and when the discussion turns towards the situation in Syria, Hannan springs out of her seat, and disappears into the house, finding a new task to keep busy. She doesn’t say so, but the discussions appear to make her uncomfortable. At the very least, she’s tired of it. “They spend all day talking about Syria,” she says.


At 2pm, the school bus drops off the neighbours’ children, who join the Syrian children chasing each other around the field. Shortly after their arrival, Fadia returns from hours of job-hunting. She cannot afford to take the bus every day, so sometimes she walks for kilometres.

She checks on her children, then immediately turns to helping Hannan with the daily tasks. She doesn’t get very far before a new visitor arrives.

A local representative from the Sunni political party Future Movement has stopped by. (He sometimes distributes food vouchers to the Syrian refugees, but he does not have any with him this time).

“They're lucky to have found a host family,” Anouar Choubasse says. “A lot of Syrian refugees have nothing, not even a roof.”

Fadia is a little surprised by his arrival and keeps her distance. She has tried to keep her family’s presence as discrete as possible - potentially for fear of the growing resentment towards the refugees in Lebanon. She never shares her opinions about politics.

“Saadnayel has always been a [hospitable] community,” says Choubasse. “But now, I can feel the racism growing. A lot of Lebanese people are in a difficult situation and don't get any help. It's not as bad [here] as in certain villages, where they imposed curfews on the Syrians. But people are losing patience.”

This Lebanese host family appears to be no exception.

His wife may fear God, but Hannan’s husband Ali does not hesitate to speak openly when he comes home later in the afternoon.

“When I sleep here, I have to sleep on the couch in the living room. I want to sleep in the same bed as my wife again. If the situation lasts for more than two more months, I will set up the family in a tent in the garden. If they will be staying for the long term, I will build a permanent structure for them.”

He pauses to consider.

“Of course we need to help them,” he goes on. “As the Arabic saying goes: ‘If someone is good to you, be twice as good to them’. But we need our intimacy at some point.”

By 4.30pm, the visitors begin trickling out. The Syrian father, Houssam, is still not home. His wife hopes his delay means he has found a job.

While Mohammad, the grandfather, takes a nap in the living room, Fadia and Hannan have lunch together. To accommodate the constant stream of visitors, they have to eat in two shifts. Today, the women eat first. They usually mix with the men, but this change of circumstances makes them laugh. “In the old Damascene tradition, the men ate before the women,” Fadia says. “Now it's the opposite.”

Whereas both Fadia and Hannan seemed uncomfortable with some of the visitors talking politics, the atmosphere during lunch is much more relaxed.

Houssam eventually returns, still jobless. He is frustrated, but does not show it.

“I have been looking for a job for five months now and haven't found anything,” he says. “There is too much unemployment in the area and they hire the Lebanese before hiring Syrians… I could take any job, as long as it's not too physical because I have heart problems,” he adds.

They chit-chat together on the front porch until the sun sets.

At night, they watch a drama series - careful to turn on the TV only after the news is over. Hannan tries to distract them with happier thoughts.

“We don't want to follow what is happening in Syria,” she explains. “It is too emotional for the Syrian family to talk about it. When you host a Syrian family, you have to be careful and subtle about the topics you talk about. You also have to be really patient.” And apparently, you also have to have a lot of coffee.

ar/ha/cb

Theme (s): Conflict, Refugees/IDPs,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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