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Syrian Refugees In Lebanon Told Their Homes Must Be Demolished


Lebanon has accepted Syrian refugees but doesn't want them to think they can stay forever, so it's told thousands that their homes must be demolished. NPR's Ruth Sherlock visited one town where refugees are doing that work themselves.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Zeina Rahal fled to Lebanon six years ago from the war in Syria. Now she stands by in tears as her brother-in-law and four young boys take sledgehammers to the walls of the family home.

ZEINA RAHAL: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: "What are we supposed to do," she asks. "Where are we going to go?" Rahal's brother-in-law, 26-year-old Ahmed Jumaa, says it took the family years to move from a refugee tent to this simple breeze block shelter.

AHMED JUMAA: (Through interpreter) We saved the little aid we got. Some days I'd have to sacrifice feeding my kids just so I could afford to build. This house that I built with my own hands - I'm destroying it with my own hands.

SHERLOCK: Lebanon hosts over 1 million Syrian refugees, but it only allows them to build shelters made of canvas or wood. Anything with concrete walls over a meter high, it says, must now be destroyed. And the government warns, if the refugees don't do this by July 1, security forces will. It's a move that's designed to stop the refugee population from settling permanently in Lebanon.

BASIL HUJEIRI: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Basil Hujeiri, the mayor of the town where almost 6,000 refugee homes are slated for demolition, says the influx of refugees has put pressure on Lebanon's already weak infrastructure. But he disagrees with his government that this measure is necessary.

HUJEIRI: (Through interpreter) This is not really about the security or economic situation. This is a political decision.

SHERLOCK: Politicians here have used the Syrian refugees as scapegoats, someone to blame for Lebanon's many problems. Some still see the influx of Palestinian refugees in the 1980s as contributing to the country's civil war. Across Lebanon now, harassment and racism towards Syrians is growing. Hujeiri sees this decision as just another tactic to make life harder for the refugees.

HUJEIRI: (Through interpreter) The goal is to get them to return to Syria. But it's hard for the refugees to go back. They are afraid and don't feel safe.

SHERLOCK: Syria is still a country at war. In some parts of Lebanon, refugees are allowed to replace the concrete shelters with tents. But in others, whole camps are being dismantled and the refugees told to move on. We visit one such camp. We arrive only 24 hours after the refugees. Some 36 families, over a hundred children among them, were ordered to leave. The whole community is in shock. Iman Rabieh, a thin, young mother of two, welcomes us into her home.

IMAN RABIEH: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: It's just a concrete room, but it's been carefully appointed. Purple flowery mats carpet the concrete floor. The children's clothes hang from pegs on the walls.

RABIEH: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Rabieh tells us her husband has gone in search of somewhere to move to. But the family has no money, she says, and no idea where they'll go. She breaks down.

RABIEH: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: She tells us the war in Syria shattered all of her dreams, and now she's sick with worry about the future.

RABIEH: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Her children sit near their mom unsure of what to do as she cries. She says the reality is no Syrian wants to stay in Lebanon.

RABIEH: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: It's just that it's not safe to go home. In Syria, there's still shelling and bombs, and some returnees risk being arrested. Rabieh looks around at the simple concrete home that's soon to be demolished.

RABIEH: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: If the Lebanese government thinks that these four walls are the reason that her family won't go back to Syria, she says, they're wrong. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Arsal, Lebanon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.