The makeshift camps we visited nestled in Beqaa Valley where the poppy fields were in full bloom, are filled with 10 by 12 foot rooms, tarped against rain and snow for the recent winter months. Tens of thousands of Syrians call these camps home. Since 2011, the entire population of Lebanon has increased by half as they opened their gates to over 2 million people, the majority of which are women and children, fleeing the civil war of their neighbor to the east.
Zada had five daughters, but only four are alive now. She seems to grow haunted as she tells us of her little Abella, who would have just celebrated her first birthday had she lived. Doctors told the family that the baby had a hole between the lower ventricle walls of her heart; she wasn’t getting enough oxygen to her blood. In the United States, many infants who have this surgery grow up to live normal lives, but your chances plummet when you are the child of a war in a foreign land. Medical care in refugee camps can feel like a luxury item, so when a doctor offered to do the open heart surgery for $10,000 U.S. dollars in cash, though it was an astronomical sum, Zada said yes. Abella was prepped for the surgery. Though he said she fought for her life, after the surgery, the doctor told Zada the baby just “didn’t make it” and turned over the Aliyah’s body to her and her husband with no explanation, no questions allowed. As a refugee, Zada was left with no recourse, and no way to know what happened to her daughter. She had lost her home, her country and now, her child. What she needed was empathy and superhuman courage.
The weight of war is more than just physical. As I talked to women here, it was easy to see evidence of trauma at epidemic levels. Up to half of all women and girls living in the prolonged, extreme-stress situation of the refugee camps in Lebanon experience depression associated with physical and mental violence. Feelings of abandonment and deep grief accompany their trauma. “There was no hope left in Syria for us. So we fled,” whispered Amira, a Syrian refugee and mother of two.
“War arrived in our home and we had no heat, no gas, no food, no water.” Pained, Amira recalled the first time she fed her children spoiled vegetables and moldy bread from a bakery, it was “like feeding my children from a trash can.” She remembers avoiding the gunfire as she ran back to her apartment with the food. Caught in the height of battle for “the capital of the revolution,” Amira and her children were prime targets for ruthless rooftop snipers. She and her husband waited out the nearly four months of fierce antigovernment clashes that left over 1,500 dead before they fled for Lebanon. Though Lebanon opened their doors to her family, their suffering continued as her husband coped with his stress through heavy drinking, disappearing for long periods at a time, and then altogether in 2013.