As of May 7, there were 1,183,327 registered Syrian refugees with the UN in Lebanon. The real numbers are rumored to be much higher than that, in a country where the ratio of refugee to citizen has become the highest in the world. Today, Lebanon has all sorts of Syrian refugees: registered refugees, unregistered refugees, privileged refugees (living in nice flats), laborer refugees ( with their families ) etc. According to the UNHCR about 30% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in dire economic conditions. Many of them live in dense urban centers, and often in crowded housing situations. The urban Armenian neighborhoods of Beirut fall in this category.
A few blocs away from the bustling neighborhood of Mar Mikhael known to be the latest hotspot in Beirut, as you take a random walk down the old Armenian neighborhood of Hadjen - where Genocide survivors first settled in the turn of the century - you can easily feel the presence of Syrian Armenian families everywhere in the neighborhood. Members of the local neighborhood council of Hadjen recalls how the neighborhood residents rallied in the early days of the Syrian war collecting basic household items to help arriving refugees that came with only the clothes on their backs. Dozens of apartments have been converted to accommodate arriving Syrian refugees. Today more than 50 families have temporarily settled just in the neighborhood of Hadjen.
Across the river from Hadjen, in the Armenian district of Bourj Hammoud (Armenian: Պուրճ Համուտ) many more Syrian Armenian families have taken refuge there as well.
The local agoumps ( clubs ) are full of Syrians on any given day. Many looking for work as some have not been employed for over a year. Refugee households are usually supported by wage earners that work 12-13 hrs per day (including weekends) for sub-standard wages. On Friday nights a group of Syrian Armenians gather at the local Nigol Touman club. They gather to share news from Aleppo, help each other, and sometimes have tea and laugh. " Its like our weekly support group meeting" says Houri, a former teacher in Aleppo who recently escaped the bombings in Aleppo and fled to Beirut with one suitcase.
The Armenian Relief Cross of Lebanon has tried to accommodate dozens of refugee families and provide health & social services through its chapters and dispensaries. However the needs of the refugees are monumental and require more resources than available by the Lebanese Armenian community, which itself has not completely adjusted to steady state after enduring the lengthy Lebanese civil war (1975-1990).
Life is hard for many Syrian refugees in Lebanon where strict immigration procedures require them to register with the authorities every 6 months and pay $100 per person and wait in long lines. They also are afraid of getting sick as no one (besides the privileged refugees) seems to have health insurance. Death for refugee families adds to the trauma of their circumstances. No one wants their elderly family members to "die while being a refugee in Lebanon" because a plot in an Armenian cemetery costs $5,000. Some refugee families who lost elderly ones are opting for a "temporary burial container" for a year for $1,000 as long as the family comes back and makes permanent burial arrangements before the year is up.
To face the growing needs of the refugees a local Relief Committee to assist Syrian Refugees was created several years ago amongst Armenian charitable organizations that included the likes of the Howard Karageuzian Commemorative Corporation, the Jinishian Foundation, the charitable arms of the Armenian Catholic and Evangelical communities and the Armenian Relief Cross of Lebanon. This committee coordinated initial relief work while individual organizations such as the Karageuzian Foundation continued delivering services through their medical centers at Camp Marash. Thousands of needy refugee families have been registered by the relief committee. And yet, the needs far outweigh the local resources.
As this is 2015 - the year of We Remember & We Demand - the Armenian Diaspora, which has survived and prospered globally in the last century, needs to do significantly more than what's currently being done. Syrian Armenians who have been forced to leave their homes should not suffer as urban refugees in foreign lands. They should be given a humane choice to take refuge and offered affordable housing in host countries like Armenia and/or in Lebanon. If April 2015 meant anything to global Armenians, vulnerable refugee families that lost everything after 5 generations, cannot just be left "for each to care for themselves."
The Armenian Redwood Project with its #RootsForRefugees campaign is assisting refugees in Armenia with affordable housing. As the war in Syria wages on, if you're asking yourself what YOU can do to help those seeking refuge, WATCH this video and contribute by going to igg.me/at/rootsforrefugees. We have 22 days left to make a difference in the lives of these refugee families!