14/08/2013 13:37 BST | Updated 14/10/2013 06:12 BST

We Must Not Ignore Syria's Refugees


When people ask me how Lebanon is coping with the influx of refugees from Syria, I say - we're not. Lebanon has a population of just over four million, and we are now hosting more than one million Syrians. With the history of conflict in this country, it is our natural instinct to welcome refugees, but we are being overwhelmed. People are extremely worried about the pressure on the economy, about the increase in crime, and of course about the sharp rise in sectarian violence.

Despite the tensions, the Lebanese people are showing great solidarity towards their neighbours. Grassroots organisations like Caritas Lebanon are doing everything we can to support the refugees. With help from CAFOD in the UK, Caritas Lebanon is supporting more than 100,000 people, providing food, healthcare, clothes, mattresses, blankets, shelter and psychological support.

Many of the refugees in Lebanon are living in dire conditions - in makeshift camps, half-finished buildings and cramped apartment blocks, often with several families sharing the same tiny space. Some families have fled with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and they can't afford to pay for accommodation or basic services. Our staff and volunteers have found children sleeping on the streets, and heard stories about parents selling their daughters for marriage because they are so desperate for money.

A woman recently brought her seriously ill baby to one of our medical centres because she couldn't afford $200 to pay the fees for treatment at the local hospital. We rushed them both back to the hospital, but the baby died along the way. It's shocking to think that children are dying for the sake of $200.

Today, a whole generation of Syrians is being traumatised by the war. We have met countless children who have watched their parents being killed or seen their homes damaged. I am proud of the fact that we don't just give these children handouts, but instead help them begin to process of coming to terms with what they've experienced. We offer them therapy, and we encourage them to draw pictures or play with toys in order to explore what they're feeling.

In the 1980s, my home in West Beirut was bombed, so I understand the pain that the refugees are experiencing. You don't expect to lose everything, you're not prepared for it, and suddenly you are left with nothing.

After my home was destroyed, a local priest suggested that I should become a social worker. It was a suggestion that changed my life. It helped me to realise that it wasn't just me who was suffering - it was people from every community. I forgot my own pain. I was able to have a new life and start again.

Local knowledge is incredibly important when dealing with this kind of crisis. Grassroots organisations understand the culture, speak the language and have existing structures in place. Yet all too often they are marginalised. International aid agencies arrive and set up their own structures. They pay huge amounts to move expats here, and, even worse, they poach staff from local organisations, often offering triple the salary. We at Caritas Lebanon are lucky because we receive funding from CAFOD and other catholic agencies around the world, but all too often local organisations simply aren't being given the resources they so desperately need.

The UK government recently announced £50 million in aid to support both Syrian refuges in Lebanon and Lebanese people who are affected by the crisis. I greatly welcome this new funding, but it's crucial that it is targeted towards the local organisations that are on the frontline of this emergency.

Najla Chahda is Director of the Caritas Lebanon Migrants Centre, a partner organisation of CAFOD