Refugee Camps in the Bekaa Valley
“I’m sorry, but do you have something in vanilla?” is just not something you can say to a smiling refugee who’s just offered you a Fudgsicle, a refugee for whom that Fudgsicle could represent as much as 20 percent of a day’s pay. The refugee does not want to hear that you’ve just never really been a “fan” of chocolate. The problem is you also can’t turn down the Fudgsicle, at least not more than a couple times. It’s a cultural thing that’s not worth going into here. So you take the Fudgsicle. But that doesn’t mean you enjoy the Fudgsicle. Quite the contrary. You want to know what guilt tastes like? It tastes like a Fudgsicle.
Since the start of the Syrian crisis, refugees have poured into Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, drawn by ties to family and friends and the hope of finding employment on the farms that surround the local communities.
In most cases, they’ve found few opportunities for work. The sheer number of refugees – nearly 700,000 in Lebanon as of October 2013 – means abundant cheap labor, with those who can work earning only subsistence levels of pay. Some refugees work solely for the right to stay on the land and must move on when the work dries up.
NGOs estimate more than 250 unsanctioned tent settlements have sprung up across the country, where families as large as 16 sleep on thin, donated mattresses in one- and two-room shacks.
As the crisis in Syria drags on, the number of fresh arrivals continues to rise.
This man invited me into his tent to take photos of his son, a young revolutionary who had been injured. His son had bandages covering his stomach and tubes running from those bandages into a jar on the ground, the contents of which one can more or less imagine. I took photos of all of that, as was asked of me, but in the end, it looked like a photo of a guy lying down in a tent, so I’m showing this man instead, because I liked him.
This boy stayed in exactly this position for about thirty minutes before waking up while we were interviewing his father (who had nine other children running around the camp). The boy immediately began wailing when he saw three people in his tent he didn’t know, which, admittedly, is probably how I’d react also. He calmed down pretty quickly though.
A lot of Syrians have very striking eyes. National Geographic eyes. This girl put up with me for a few seconds and then was rightly back on her way.
This wasn’t an example of child labor so much as it was a kid seeing someone with a camera and then feverishly looking busy so the guy with a camera would take his picture. Mission accomplished! Farmers may disagree with me on this, but I don’t think he was doing anything more than moving some hay a foot or two to the right.
After he saw me stop taking pictures, he immediately stopped working. Notice the remnants of a recent nosebleed.
Drilling a hole to build a new well.
Bros before holes. (I apologize for this caption that’s straight out of a Sex and the City episode – and also because I hate the expression it’s playing off of – but the thought occurred to me and it’s stuck with me ever since. Anyway. They’re taking a break from building the well. Notice the tea.)
Waiting for water to boil.
These guys are repairing appliances, but let’s not talk about appliance repair. Let’s talk about tea. Lebanese and Syrians drink a lot of tea and offer you the chance to drink a lot of tea. I drank a lot of tea. I thought at first that it was true, that tea in the Middle East really is better than tea in the West, but I’ve since learned two things. (1) The tea here is just as often Lipton tea as it is something more interesting and (2) it’s only so good because they heap sugar into it. So it turns out I still don’t like tea. I like sugar. Just the same, drinking cups of hot tea off a nice silver platter is a custom I plan to adopt, because even though the whole routine is time consuming and a little ridiculous, I’ve grown to like the low-level pageantry of it.
The baby has an infected insect bite on his opposite cheek. It was the second worst thing I saw that day. (I could just leave it at that, but I’m not looking to depress anyone, so for those of you with healthy imaginations, the unseen infection is not nearly as bad your nightmares might suggest. It’s still just a bug bite.)
Another camp, the only one I’ve seen with donated tents uniformly arranged. An aid group also set up public showers, meaning everyone I saw at this camp was far cleaner than anyone I’ve seen at any other camp. (Lebanon doesn’t officially allow any of these camps to exist. Why this one was allowed was never explained adequately.)