On a hillside in Lebanon not far from Tripoli stands a once-empty mall four stories tall. Its white walls and tiled floors echo with voices and clatter. But these are not the carefree sounds of shoppers reveling in choices. They are the sounds of displaced families setting up home: the shuffling of bundles stuffed with a few household goods, the hammering of hooks to hang tarps for privacy, the pattering of many feet as children dart for a soccer ball in the atrium.
These are families from Syria—about 100 of them—who have settled here to escape the brutal fighting that has torn their communities apart and left more than 100,000 people dead. They are families like Amany Mohammed’s. She arrived here with her five children in early May after their home in Syria was bombed.
“From my village, everyone became a refugee,” she says, “going from village to village until the people from those villages also had to flee and become refugees. Some of us were able to leave the fighting and come to Lebanon, but many can’t.”
Mohammed’s husband was already in Lebanon. He had been working there before the conflict in Syria erupted, following construction jobs as he could get them, and sending money home to his family. When Mohammed arrived, she hadn’t seen her husband since she was pregnant with their youngest child, now nine months old.
For the first 20 days of her exile in this mall, Mohammed shared a space with relatives until the room she and her children now call home became available on a lower floor after another family moved out. For rooms about 16 feet by 32 feet families here pay between $100 and $150 a month. Water is available only sporadically through a connection to a nearby water tower, and the stench of waste piling up outside the building wafts through the building.
“Here, people are going to the bathroom outside. Can you imagine?” asks a widow named Rabab. A mother of three children, she has been camped at the mall for three months. “The hygiene situation is getting worse.”
Oxfam is planning to help improve the water supply for the families living here and to help some of them with cash distributions so they can pay for their rent. Those included in the program will receive $150 per household for each of two months. Both Rabab’s and Mohammed’s families were to be among them.
While unemployment weighs heavily on the refugees, Rabab has figured out a way to earn a bit of money in a room at this mall. She is making candles, an enterprise she worked at for 12 years and whose value clearly goes beyond the income it provides. It gives her a focus—something she knows others would benefit from, too.
“If we had a bakery, the young, unemployed men could work there,” says Rabab. “It’s hard for them sitting around all day with nothing to do.”
But for all the challenges of living here, Mohammed prefers it, for now, to returning home.
“Back in Syria, things are getting worse and worse,” she says. “We’d only go back if we really had to, if we had nowhere else to go. I don’t want to go back yet. I don’t want to take my children back there to live in a war.”