Lebanon Struggles With Influx Of Syrian Refugees

The United Nations now says some 5,000 Syrians are leaving the country every day, headed for any neighboring country that will take them. Up until now, the tiny country of Lebanon has hosted the highest number of Syrian refugees. Lebanon has its own history of problems related to large numbers of refugees, so now the country is forbidding the construction of formal refugee camps.

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It's not just Turkey that's overwhelmed by Syrian refugees. Hundreds of thousands have fled to Jordan, also Egypt and Iraq. But it's Lebanon that has taken in more Syrians than any other country. Lebanon has its own history of problems related to large numbers of Palestinian refugees, so the Lebanese government forbids the construction of formal refugee camps. NPR's Kelly McEvers spent a day with new Syrian arrivals to Lebanon who have to squat in the first available shelter.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Normally, we would start a story like this, by describing the landscape. We tell you about the green grass and the peach groves along the Lebanese-Syrian border. But that scene doesn't quite match the story we're about to tell. So instead, we'll take you inside the cramped and smelly room of an unfinished house, a room where a family of 15 now lives. Everyone sits on thin mattresses that cover a bare concrete floor. There's no heat. The family just got here a day before.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: The patriarch of the family starts the story. He's dressed well and has a dignified posture. He holds all the family's important documents in one hand. That and the clothes on his back are all, he says, he has left. The family comes from a part of Syria's capital, Damascus, that's a base for anti-government rebels. The family says their house was destroyed by government shelling a few months back.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: A daughter-in-law picks up the story from there. She says the family moved three times inside Damascus before leaving Syria altogether. That's how you become a refugee. You move from place to place until you can't take it anymore. Then you make the decision to leave. For this family, it happened at 5:00 in the morning. Government forces had been shelling all night.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: We couldn't sleep, says the daughter-in-law, so they got up and hopped in the back of a pickup truck on a freezing morning. It took four hours just to get to the place where they could catch a taxi to Lebanon. All along the way, they were stopped at government checkpoints. One of the sons was taken out and beaten.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Now to the next daughter-in-law. She says the situation isn't much better here at this unfinished house in Lebanon. The babies don't have diapers. The food is much more expensive than it was in Syria. We ask what they eat.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Soup, rice with lentils. There's no bread. Do they have meat, we ask.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: We forgot what meat is, she says, then catches her breath.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: She starts crying and leaves the room, so we won't see her shame. She later comes back in. We asked her why she's crying.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Because of my life, she says. I left my house, and you don't want me to cry? The unfinished house where the family now lives is owned by an old Lebanese woman. She says she hopes the Syrian families will be able to register with the United Nations and get some cash to pay the rent. Ninette Kelley is the UN high commissioner for refugees, representative here in Lebanon. She says the agency has only registered half of the hundreds of thousands of people who fled here from Syria. That means the unregistered people simply don't qualify for food, blankets and rental assistance.

NINETTE KELLEY: We just cannot keep up with the growing numbers of arrivals. We've gone from, in December, maybe 1,700 persons approaching us daily to now over 3,000 approaching us every single day.

MCEVERS: Just one floor below the family of 15 is another family of nine.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: This woman literally ran for her life, clutching one kid under each arm. She crossed into Lebanon illegally, which means she has even less of a chance to register with the UN. With no refugee camps in Lebanon, the best a family can hope for is a place to crash and UN handouts. We walk back outside to the green grass and peach trees that now just seem cruel. We see more doorways in the unfinished building, more empty rooms that await more new arrivals. Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Beirut.

BLOCK: And our thanks to Reema Maroush(ph) and Lov Asilow(ph) who contributed to our reports from Syria's borders today.

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