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Caritas in Lebanon Helps Syrian Refugees

A female refugee from Syria prepares food for her family as her son helps her with the stove 22 Nov. at a refugee camp in the village of Jeb Jennine, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. No one is sure how many refugees from Syria have already arrived in Lebanon. (Photo: CNS/Paul Jeffrey) 

29 Nov 2012 – By Paul Jeffrey

BEIRUT (CNS) — When Syrian refugees arrive in Lebanon, help begins with a phone call to the U.N. refugee agency — if they can get through.

In most refugee areas, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has no fixed office; its staffers make only sporadic visits for which refugees make appointments over the phone. It’s that phone call that is the problem.

“We have called UNHCR several times, but they never answer the phone, and there’s no permanent office to go to,” said Ghaziya al-Houmaydan, a refugee who, six months ago, fled bombing in her hometown of Homs, Syria, and who now lives in a tent in the Bekaa Valley.

Hessen Sayah, project manager for Syrian refugees for Caritas Lebanon, the local church’s charitable agency, said she hears about the problem all the time.

“People call our Caritas hotline to ask for help with calling UNHCR, saying it’s always busy or no one answers. We tell them to call again. And we take their names to tell UNHCR about them, especially the most vulnerable or urgent cases, like people who need medical assistance,” Sayah told Catholic News Service.

“And once you get UNHCR on the phone, it can take up to two or three months to get registered,” she said. “But if a family has needs now, Caritas is here to help them.”

No one is sure how many refugees from Syria have already arrived in Lebanon. According to the UNHCR, more than 131,000 Syrian refugees were either registered in Lebanon or had made appointments to be registered as of Nov. 16. The UNHCR said nearly 316,000 additional Syrian refugees have registered or have registrations pending in other neighboring countries.

Sayah said she thinks the official number for Lebanon is too low.

“We can’t get an accurate count, because many are afraid to register. I think the number is at least double what the UNHCR says,” Sayah told CNS.

Many refugees are reluctant to register because of misconceptions about the implications.

“When we first arrived in Lebanon, people told usthat if we registered, we wouldn’t be able to return home. We planned on returning, so we put off registration,” said al-Houmaydan, who acknowledges she received bad advice.

Sayah said some Syrian minorities, such as Christians and Kurds, are reluctant to register with the UNHCR.

“They’re afraid that if they register, their names will be given to Syrian security, or if the situation improves they will not be able to return. We can’t force them to do it, but we try to convince them that it’s better to be registered,” Sayah said.

On top of Syrian nationals who’ve been forced to flee to Lebanon and other countries, Iraqi and Palestinian refugees living in Syria also have fled the fighting. Caritas has helped them, too. It persuaded the government to grant longer visas to the Palestinians and has continued its work with Iraqi refugees in the region.

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Tags: Syria Lebanon Syrian Civil War United Nations