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For Syrian Refugees, 'Life Has Stopped'


The war in Syria has sent refugees pouring into neighboring countries. And today, they fill camps, cramped apartments and the homes of relatives in Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. This week, the United Nations registered the 1 millionth Syrian refugee to enter the country of Lebanon. Currently, one in four people in Lebanon is a refugee. That is the highest concentration of refugees in the world. We turn now to NPR's Alice Fordham in Beirut. Alice, thanks so much for being with us.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Can you describe for us what life is like for many Syrian refugees in Lebanon?

FORDHAM: Well, it's beyond tough. It's not really allowed for charities or for the U.N. to build formal camps or any sturdy structures so people are living long term in these flimsy tents. It gets really cold here in the winter and really hot in the summer. Their not really allowed to work except for unskilled labor. Fewer than a fifth of the kids here are in school. The man who registered as the millionth refugee, Yahya, he actually expressed the despair that a lot of people feel here.

YAHYA: (Through translator) For Syrian refugees, life has stopped. Every day, we have hope that things will get better, but it gets worse. Life is very hard here. There's no work or anything to do. Now it's been three years that we haven't been able to study. We haven't been able to work. The Syrian people have lost a lot.

FORDHAM: And people also say that there's a lot of tension between Syrians themselves. That people from the revolutionary heartland of Homs squabble with the people from Damascus saying, you know, they should've joined the revolution earlier. That kind of thing. So yeah, it's miserable.

SIMON: What kind of impact can you see in Lebanon?

FORDHAM: Well, Lebanon wasn't exactly a completely stable place before this happened. And it has been rocked by this influx. There's resource problems like water, for example, that you might expect. But it's also distorted the economy in tough ways. So, for example, rents have soared, and the price of labor has plummeted. You know, people who used to get maybe $20 a day for working on a farm are now lucky to get $10. And some communities, some towns have just changed completely. In the town of Arsal, just over the border from Syria, for example, there were 35,000 people living there.

And now there's 125,000 Syrians on top of that. So people there were really supportive of the uprising in general, but now they're just swamped, and they're fed up. They say their kids come home from school with Syrian accents. It's completely changed life for them.

SIMON: What do people foresee for Lebanon and the refugees years down the road?

FORDHAM: Well, this is the big fear. I mean, the thing about Syria is that it's not just at war. It's physically destroyed. A lot of these people literally have nothing to go back to. Their house is gone. Their shop is gone. You have to look at who these people are. You've got 300,000 kids who don't go to school at all, maybe 100,000 teenage boys who were traumatized and bored and humiliated and borderline illiterate. What are they going to do if they're still here in two or three years? And there's uncomfortable parallels with the Lebanese Civil War, which started in the 1970's after there was a lot of tension among the Palestinian refugee community. So there's this real fear here.

SIMON: What help do the refugees get from the United Nations international community, NGOs?

FORDHAM: Well, the U.N., along with many other local NGOs and international groups, do do a huge amount. But the U.N. and everyone else says that they suffer from a massive shortfall in funding. And they've stopped giving food aid to every single refugee recently. They have had to cut back. There was one sad story of a woman - a mother - who set herself on fire, tried to kill herself after being disqualified for food aid. And the Lebanese government, such as it is, says it's not able to help much. And, in fact, would like them to leave. This is the social affairs minister speaking earlier this week.


WAEL ABU FAOUR: (Through translator) We're not asking for a solution to the Syrian conflicts. Our demand is for a decision by the international community to establish secure areas within Syrian territory to absorb the Syrians. Is this so difficult?

FORDHAM: And it's also worth remembering that this influx is ongoing. Like, actually, a lot of refugees haven't registered. There's probably more like 1.5 million people here. And there could well be 2 million refugees by the end of the year. So without massive, international help or a solution to the conflict in Syria, the outlook is really bleak here, both for the Syrians and the Lebanese.

SIMON: NPR's Alice Fordham in Beirut. Thanks very much for being with us.

FORDHAM: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.