Working with all our hearts: a day in the life supporting Syrian refugees

18 Sep 2013   |   Blog   |   Syria   |   Emergency Relief

Tags:  Syrian refugee, Syrian refugees   |   No comments

Maria at work

Every day we hear more shocking news and heart-wrenching stories from Syria. But what is it like for those working on the ground supporting Syria's refugees? Caritas Lebanon reports on the people and stories encountered by a Social Worker, Maria Abou Diwan, in just one day.

On the wall of the centre where Maria Abou Diwan works are paintings by Syrian children. They look like any other children’s pictures – a mix of people, shapes and colours – but when you look closely at some of them, you can see what look like houses being bombed, or soldiers pointing guns.

Maria, 30, is a social worker in Caritas Lebanon’s Migrants Centre in Taalabeya, a town near the Syrian border in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. She and her colleagues at the Caritas Lebanon centre are working round the clock to make sure that thousands of Syrian refugees have food, medical care, clothes, blankets and mattresses.

She is used to hearing horrific stories: she’s met children who have seen their parents killed, and adults who have been tortured, their arms covered in scorch-marks from electric shocks.

We can’t continue to cope with such huge numbers arriving every day. However, for now we are working with all our hearts. We are a very good team. Everyone does everything they can to help each other. That is how we keep going.
Maria Abou Diwan

“Here in Lebanon, we understand about the effects of war”, she says. “We know what it can do to people. That is why we work so hard to help our neighbours”.

Life here is very hard – Ahmad

In the late morning, she heads for a half-built block of flats, where around 120 refugees are staying. It’s little more than a construction site, with exposed metal rods sticking out at every angle.

64-year-old Ahmad is slumped on a mattress, holding a roll of toilet paper so he can wipe away the tears. His home was bombed while he was in it. He and his family had to run through the streets to find safety, hiding from gunmen behind burnt-out cars.

Now he is sharing a small room with his entire family. Caritas Lebanon’s team is supporting them, but Ahmad is struggling to cope.

“Life here is very hard,” he says. “It is humiliating to leave your home at my age. I feel like I have lost my dignity.”

The sheer number of refugees pouring into Lebanon means that there isn’t enough nearby accommodation to go around. A million people have arrived since the crisis began, and the rate is increasing every week.

We cry all day – Gharam and Nafeh

Gharam and Nafeh

After leaving the building-site, Maria heads for a makeshift camp: a higgledy-piggledy collection of shelters constructed from bright plastic sheets. As she pulls up in her van, people come streaming out, delighted that help has arrived. They form an orderly queue, and Caritas’ team distributes food, bedding and clothes.

Two of the most recent arrivals are eleven-year-old Gharam and her brother Nafeh. Their mother was killed just days ago.

“We lost our mum and we loved her,” says Gharam, with her arm around her brother. “It’s very difficult for us. I can’t live without my mum. I need her. We cry all day. My brother is too upset to sleep after all he has seen.”

At the moment, they are sharing a tent with their cousin and with three other families. Maria notes down their names: there are special shelters where vulnerable children can stay.

We wouldn’t eat without Caritas’s help – Khatar


Maria’s final stop is another village, where yet more refugees have arrived. Conditions here are even worse than in the camp. Six families – around 30 people – are sharing a cowshed with a sewage pipe running through it.

“It’s horrible,” says Khatar, a 42-year-old mother. “The sewage pipe leaks sometimes. The children are very sick. But it’s either here or we live on the streets.”

After speaking with Khatar, Maria says she will arrange for a doctor to visit with the mobile clinic of Caritas Lebanon, and Caritas Lebanon will do everything she can to find somewhere better for the families to stay.

“We wouldn’t eat without Caritas’s help,” says Khatar. “We are so grateful. May God help them in their mission.”

Working with all our hearts

On the drive back to Taalabeya, Maria looks exhausted. When asked if she ever gets to see her family, she just laughs. Despite everything, she will start again tomorrow morning – part of a thin line of social workers struggling against a devastating humanitarian crisis.

Maria says: “I hope the war in Syria will finish soon and all the refugees will return. Here in Lebanon, we can’t continue to cope with such huge numbers arriving every day. However, for now we are working with all our hearts. We are a very good team. Everyone does everything they can to help each other. That is how we keep going.”

Find out more about the Syrian crisis and how you can help

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