The light goes on and off. It flickers for a few seconds, and then everything turns dark again.
Hala sits on the floor of her small room in Beirut. Ahmed, one of her five sons, runs to one of the room’s corners and jumps over a suitcase that lies around. He knows exactly which lumps and bumps he has to watch out for in the dark.
In Sabra, one of the poorest and most densely populated areas of the Lebanese capital, the electricity hardly ever works. It gets dark early here, but the light bulb never lasts longer than a few minutes. The rest of the time the candle that Ahmed has fetched from the corner has to be sufficient. Its light reveals the home of the family. A small, dark room, mold on the walls, windows without glass and a cold, wet floor. The two beds their Lebanese landlord has given to them are almost falling apart.
In Sabra, not only is electricity scarce, but so are shelter, water and work. Sabra was built in 1949 as a refugee camp for Palestinians. Provisional houses have become permanent, and most people have lived here for decades. Even more have joined them now: Lebanese who cannot afford to live anywhere else and refugees from Syria, such as Hala.
Hala is from Daraa where the fighting started almost three years ago. She did not want to leave her house, wanted to hold out until the war went somewhere else. But it was there to stay. Her house was damaged; her husband could not find work to support the family anymore. He was the first to leave and head to Lebanon so that he could send money back home. When the house was full of bullet holes and their garden burned down, it was too dangerous to stay. Hala and her five sons, who are between 4 and 12 years old, left to join her husband in Lebanon.
Ten days ago, Hala gave birth to a baby girl. “I always wanted to have a daughter. I was so happy about her birth,” she says. “But I live in fear every day – I am afraid she will get sick from the cold or freeze to death at night.”
Many people in Sabra do not have work or are badly paid. Like other Syrian refugees, Hala’s husband is underpaid and works for a lot less than his Lebanese counterparts. This causes friction, the effects of which Hala is also feeling.
“None of my neighbors asked me how I felt after I gave birth. No one congratulated me for having born a child,” she explains. “I don’t know anyone here and no one speaks with me. I miss my friends, my neighbors and my family. I miss their familiar faces.”
More than 860,000 refugees have registered with the United Nations in Lebanon. But the government estimates that more than 1.2 million Syrians are living within the country, which itself has only 4 million inhabitants. Hala is among those who have not yet registered with the UN.
In the beginning she did not have money to cover the transport costs to reach the registration office, which is quite far away from their home. She does have an appointment now, but she will have to wait one and a half months. After she registers, she hopes that she will receive food vouchers.
Some of her Syrian relatives and friends, who have also fled to Lebanon, have gone away empty-handed. There is simply not enough money to support everyone. At the moment, the family receives food from a local organization that partners with CARE. CARE also supplied the family with diapers for the newborn and items for personal hygiene.
There is no money to register the children for school. She explains, “They already missed two years of school while we were still in Daraa. It was too dangerous for them to go out. What shall they become later in life.”
This is not a question; it’s a statement.
“I have lost hope that my voice will be heard. I feel powerless,” she says. “It is as if I were standing on a market, high up on a gallery. Everyone can see me and hear me while I scream louder and louder. Everyone looks at me but no one is doing anything.”
She pauses and continues, “People could just as well be trees, a forest full of trees in the darkness. It would not make a difference.”
What does Hala do all day? What are her children doing? She says that daily routines even become unbearable at some point. She gives different tasks to her children every day so they do not get bored. One of them is responsible for making the beds, the other one takes care of pulling up the mattresses and blankets from the floor in the morning, if there is water, yet another washes the dishes in their small kitchenette.
The smallest one helps her prepare breakfast, lunch or dinner. “We have to decide. We cannot afford to eat more than one meal a day. Sometimes we play as if we ate dinner and prepared a feast. I am not sure whether this makes things better. But at least it keeps us busy.”
By Johanna Mitscherlich