Syria crisis: The story of Manal

Katy Wright is our Head of UK Government Relations. She recently travelled to Lebanon with women’s rights campaigner, Lady Fiona Hodgson, and Oxford MP and Oxfam Association Member, Nicola Blackwood. They visited to see how Oxfam is dealing with the humanitarian response in the region, but what stayed with Katy was the human impact of the Syrian crisis – and the story of Manal.

Driving back over the mountains east of Beirut, the Bekaa valley of Lebanon stretches out behind us. Its green plains and small towns picked out by shafts of sunlight, which are trying to pierce the grey mist of the day.  The scene is peaceful from our vantage point, but the mountains we see on the other side are Syrian, and the Bekaa region is home to over 150,000 refugees, with more arriving every day. With the mud of the refugee camps still on our shoes and painfully aware that while we are heading back to the city to get warm and dry those we left behind  are not, we
reflect on what we have seen:

In one of the informal tented settlements that have appeared and grown in the region we met families living in improvised shelters. The children wore plastic sandals in the mud and told us they have not eaten yet today. Mothers told us of trying to keep families together, safe and fed in the most difficult circumstances. In another camp nearby, a woman asked us whether we have a doctor with us. Her child was sick and although Lebanon is keeping hospitals open and trying to accommodate the influx of refugees, transport and hospital fees can mean healthcare is
not available to many.

The impact of the crisis on Lebanon is immense. Official numbers of registered refugees show that the country has experienced a 10% population increase. But estimates suggest that the true numbers of extra people in Lebanon are more like 1 million – an increase of 20%. And in this small country the evidence of the crisis is apparent even as normal life goes on. In a visit to a local school in the valley we were taken to the playground where UNHCR was undertaking one of their daily distributions of hygiene kits to families who queued,
patiently, clutching their official refugee papers.

The crisis is taking a huge toll on the men, women and children who have to cross those mountains with next to nothing. But it is having a toll on the host communities too. This was very apparent to us in Shatila camp in Beirut. A Palestinian refugee community of some 60 years, its crumbling housing blocks, with their narrow alleys and streets are now home to around 600 extra families, all Palestinians whose homes in Syria are destroyed.  It is now common for a single room here to host not two families but three, with up to 20 people in one

I sat next to Manal while talking to Oxfam’s partners about their work to help families in the camp. She was 19 and told us how last summer she had been chatting with her friends in Syria about what she would study at university. But she was forced to leave when her home was attacked and her new life as a refugee makes studying impossible.  Her frustration and disappointment was clear. She said she felt unsafe in the camps, threatened by the men who offer $150 to marry them. Her worries were not misplaced – another woman in the room regretfully told
us that she had agreed to marry off her 16 year old daughter, to ease the burden of providing for the rest of her children.

There are many ways to tell the story of what is happening in Syria: A story of the Arab Spring brutally repressed, a story of a political crisis testing the UN Security Council, a story of humanitarian need on a vast scale and inadequate aid to meet it. But for me it will be the story of Manal who was so like me, and had dreams, and had her future stolen. 

You can make sure support gets to people like Manal by donating to our Syria Crisis Appeal or adding your name to our petition.

Author: Katy Chakrabortty
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.