Nour holds baby Aisha on the eve of moving into a refurbished apartment of her own. Like many Syrian refugee children in Lebanon, Aisha has never known her mother’s homeland. She was born as a refugee in the fourth year of her mother’s stay in Beqaa. Photo: Alexandra Dignan
Nour holds baby Aisha on the eve of moving into a refurbished apartment of her own. Like many Syrian refugee children in Lebanon, Aisha has never known her mother’s homeland. She was born as a refugee in the fourth year of her mother’s stay in Beqaa. Photo: Alexandra Dignan

A point beyond survival

As the Syrian crisis drags on for its sixth year, Syrian refugees are increasingly in need of shelter solutions that not only protects them from the elements, but also gives them the safe space they need to prosper and plan the future of their children.

By Alexandra Dignan

The third time Nour, 22, was hospitalised by her husband, a doctor questioned how she had sustained such damage to her kidneys. What she did not say was a thick cane to her stomach, lower back and legs.

Nour, three-months pregnant at the time, said: “I fell down the stairs”.

Nour cradles baby Aisha, now nine months old, in her lap as she recounts the past. Her three eldest children play together nearby; Tarek, 7, Khalid, 6, and Alaa, 3. In 2012, the family fled bombings which devastated their hometown near Damascus, Syria. But arriving in Lebanon, Nour’s husband struggled to find work and the family spiralled deeper into debt, and relieved his frustration by assaulting her.

02 CustomAlaa, 3, contemplates eating a peach. Alaa has a hole in her heart which leaves her tired and struggling for breath. The condition runs in the family. Nour has so far resisted giving permission for an operation to fix the condition for fear Alaa, like her cousin, will not survive it. Photo: Alexandra Dignan

With more than one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, according to UNHCR numbers, rents have reached to unprecedented highs, the family shifted between squalid rented accommodations for more than three years. Eventually they found a room in a DRC rehabilitated and managed building. By then, the prolonged exposure to trauma had left its mark on Nour’s children. They were withdrawn and fearful, unable to leave Nour’s side for long. Other women in the building urged Nour to leave her husband. Yet she was sexually harassed when she tried to find work. "I lost hope", she recalls. "I thought I could never feed my children on my own". 

Nour reached out to DRC staff who regularly visited the building to check on the welfare of residents, only after her children were assaulted as well.

03 CustomTarek,7, poses for a photo while Khalid, 6, attempts to distract him. Tarek is the quieter and gentler of the two brothers, while Khalid, more adventurous, is prone to mischief. Photo: Alexandra Dignan

Tarek and Khalid had tried to intervene when her husband assaulted her. In response, her husband beat Tarek. After confirming the details of Nour’s case, DRC staff put in place a plan to ensure her protection and security. Nour and the four children moved into a new building rehabilitated by DRC.

Nour and her family joined the thousands of Syrian refugees already settled in DRC rehabilitated homes. Across Lebanon, landlords have entered into agreements with DRC to finance and oversee the completion of their unfinished buildings, agreeing to host Syrian refugees rent-free in exchange. These innovative arrangements have given DRC the opportunity to meet immense need from refugees like Nour. So far, 869 buildings in Lebanon have been rehabilitated in collaboration with UK Aid.

04 CustomThe family’s living quarters in the newly refurbished building, a day after moving in. The building the room is in, like most of DRC’s rehabilitation projects, was transformed from a shell-like state into a series of fully insulated, freshly-painted homes fitted with electricity and running water. Several families share fully equipped kitchens and bathrooms while maintaining discreet living spaces. Photo: Alexandra Dignan

With one in four persons a refugee in Lebanon, the Syrian crisis is now protracted in nature and requires durable solutions for the community as a whole. DRC’s integrated interventions build the resilience of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees and Lebanese host communities by empowering them to access public services and opportunities for social and economic development, build strong linkages with local government, and become aware of their rights and responsibilities. Complementing work at the community level, DRC works in partnership with local government to improve basic services and their capacity to manage the influx of refugees.

05 CustomNour with Alaa in their new home. The pair are pictured indoors, although the family is quickly coming to spend much of their time on their own balcony overlooking the Beqaa Valley. Photo: Alexandra Dignan

Nour and the children now live in a newly refurbished apartment that they share with two other female Syrian refugees and their children. DRC also referred Nour to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR. This allowed her to receive an e-card with which she can provide food for her family.

For the first time in her life, Nour has a measure of independence. She has her own living quarters to raise her children in privacy and dignity. "We are safe here", she states.  Surveying her young family, Nour explains that her hopes now rest on her children’s education. Tarek is old enough to start attending school, and soon his younger brother Khalid will join him.

06 CustomKhalid in action. At six, the more boisterous of Nour’s two boys is almost ready to start school. Photo: Alexandra Dignan

Nour once wished to die: “I wanted to kill myself, but I stayed alive for my children”. Living in her new apartment has given Nour reason to believe that there is hope for her.

“I can finally look beyond survival towards the future again,” she says.

DRC has been operating in Lebanon since September 2004. In 2011, following the Syria Crisis, DRC capitalised on its presence and expertise in emergency response and protection to meet the urgent needs of Syrian refugees and host communities.