This month Interpal’s ‘Bearing Witness Programme’ took a women’s delegation to Lebanon to visit the refugee camps, our projects and other organisations working to support refugees. The delegates included Yvonne Ridley, Victoria Brittain, Naomi Foyle and Abeda Laher, as well as key Interpal staff. The group were specifically trying to understand and learn about the struggles facing women and girls and how Palestinian and Syrian refugee women are working to better their lives and their communities.

On the first day we visited Syrian refugee camps set up by local philanthropists and supported by NGOs in the Bekaa Valley and it was an opportunity to see how Syrian refugees are being hosted in this isolated area, just a few miles from the border of Syria. Al Aoudi camp was well organised and it was clear that the refugees felt a sense of safety in the camp they did not in the towns and cities, however deprivation and trauma were also apparent. The ground water is contaminated, electricity is in short supply despite a generator on the grounds and the 350 families being homed are struggling with
poverty, a lack of jobs and a lack of schooling for older children. The stories we heard were heartbreaking and it was clear how much the refugees wanted to return home and how much they wanted to believe in a better future.

We met Huda, a Palestinian Syrian from Yarmouk, who was injured in a bombing and is raising her children alone as her husband is so traumatised that he is being cared for by her eldest son outside the camp. She spoke of how her sister is still trapped in Yarmouk and one daughter is in Turkey. Beyond the lack of basic needs and poverty it is the stories of human loss, broken families and uncertainty that stay on your mind.

The rest of the week was spent visiting the established Palestinian refugee camps across Lebanon, as well as visiting various local organisations that Interpal supports to hear about the humanitarian situation
on the ground and the issues impacting the lives of Lebanon’s 450,000 Palestinian refugees. Being able to visit families supported by Interpal and organisations working for the most vulnerable, such as women and those with disabilities, gave us a fascinating insight into the way the influx of Syrian refugees and the ongoing marginalisation of Palestinian refugees is causing massive social ills, increasing poverty and creating a sense of desperation not seen before.

In Al Bass Camp we spoke with the local women’s community centre who told us about how poverty was causing an increase in early marriage, as well as Syrian refugees being exploited with lower wages and the tension this was causing for Palestinians losing work to them. They told us the story of a brave 14 year old who left home to avoid an unwanted marriage, and how the centre helped mediate with the family and offer her support. She trained as hairdresser and was now earning enough money to take care of herself, and this was a great example of the important work these organisations do and of the bravery of young women struggling against so much, and sometimes their own families.

The delegation also sat down with Interpal’s social workers to get their insights into the issues facing people within the camps. As Palestinian women working for their communities, their contributions and thoughts were a great way to learn about what is important and concerning to people in the current climate. They spoke of the issues specifically facing women, but highlighted that the challenges facing men needed to be consideredas women were able to get support from NGOs and community organisations whilst many men were not.  We also met with human rights advocates and a journalist who reiterated how the Syrian influx was impacting the situation and also how they were working to support Palestinian refugees from Syria, as well as how many organisations were supporting Syrian refugees and they needed more support to continue this. Interpal’s work and the positive view that our beneficiaries and partners had of us was mentioned time and time again, and our field office are to thank for working so hard to ensure we are making a difference and bettering lives. The trip was successful in making the humanitarian crisis facing people apparent, but it also highlighted how communities are trying to support each other and the resilience of people caught in a shockingly difficult situation.