The Blog

Britain's Syria Shame

In this dusty corner of one of the Bekaa Valley's unofficial refugee camps the children show off their language skills. Pre-crisis Syria prided itself on it's high level of education. Now though for Rahaf and her brothers it's only informal education that's available to them.

[Young girl at one of the Bekaa Valley's unofficial refugee camps. PHOTO/Sara Firth]

Rahaf and her two younger brothers are jostling with each other to tell me their names in English.

'My name's Rahaf and I am 12 years old' Rahaf tells me proudly, asserting her older sister prerogative and getting there first.

[Rahaf and her brother Fady (in red). Ali peeps from behind his sister. PHOTO/Sara Firth]

In this dusty corner of one of the Bekaa Valley's unofficial refugee camps the children show off their language skills.

Pre-crisis Syria prided itself on it's high level of education.

Now though for Rahaf and her brothers it's only informal education that's available to them.

That's the thing about refugee status, it's levelling - often reducing people to a complex set of needs to be provided for.

'These people had to flee with nothing, most of them' the Bekaa Valley UN's Lisa Abou Khaled tells me 'They had to flee because their houses were being bombed or their neighbourhood. Some of them came literally with just the clothes they have on their backs.'

Of course the needs right now amongst Syrian refugees are great and many.

But what might surprise you on a visit to one of these camps is the moments of humour, the hospitality, and the strength.

It takes strength few of us will ever be called on to find, to have to flee from your country as it's torn apart by war, remove your children from their home and their education and live in a camp surrounded by other people who've lost just as much or more.

It's pain that's hard to contemplate even as you're hearing the first hand accounts.

Nonetheless every day the people here get up and get on.

Small, powerful acts of defiance and bravery.

[Daily Chores: 12 year old Fatima helps collect water to clean with. PHOTO/Sara Firth]

Rahaf, Fady and Ali's mum is doing just that when I meet her.

She's getting on. Peeling potatoes and cleaning their tent.

She tells me the children's medical records were left behind when they fled Syria.

Rahaf, Fady and Ali all have varying degrees of vision impairment.

Ali is curled up next to me. His small hands are running over my notebook and then the edges of my iphone.

His hands telling him what his eyes cannot.

['His hands telling him what his eyes cannot'. PHOTO/Sara Firth]

His parents aren't sure whether their vision impairment is curable. The mobile health units that visit the unofficial camps don't have an eye specialist.

Later in the day once I've been invited to the family's tent the children's mother tells me their father doesn't usually let anyone photograph the children.

He's a proud man, and he wants help for the children, not pity.

Rahaf is currently receiving non formal education provided by UNICEF and partner NGOs in Lebanon.

Fady and Ali though are hyperactive and have been harder to integrate into activities.

[Rahaf and Fady. PHOTO/Sara Firth]

As I watch the children playing and practising their English, I wonder if they would be considered one of Prime Minister David Cameron's 'very difficult cases'; (his words recently on Syrian refugees who might be permitted to enter Britain.)

The PM has come under increasing pressure to sign up to a UN resettlement initiative that calls on countries to pledge 500 places for Syrian refugees.

By the end of the year the UN hope they can resettle up to 30,000 individuals.

To date, 19 countries have pledged; France, Germany, Spain and Ireland amongst them.

Britain is as yet not on that list.

It's not just Rahaf and her brothers whose needs are (to borrow the Prime Minister's words again) 'very difficult.'

UNICEF tell me that at this one informal camp there are currently 17 children with disabilities including 2 with downs syndrome, and 6 using wheelchairs.

Heartbreakingly UNICEF say 'there are insufficient funds to provide all in need with wheelchairs'

Across Lebanon health conditions amongst Syrian refugees are a serious issue; vision impairment, diabetes, cancer.

UNICEF say 'funds are generally insufficient to deal with specialised health cases especially in a country where health care is expensive and the caseload of refugees is at 1/4 of the population, if not one third according to the Lebanese Government (1.3 million refugees in a country of 4.2 million).'

In the refugee camps we visited we were again and again met with the infamous Syrian hospitality. I've never drunk so many cups of tea and coffee!

[Warm hospitality extended. PHOTO/Sara Firth]

I thought about how the people here were extending me their hospitality and offering me what they could.

The fact that Britain isn't yet fully returning the generosity shown by people who have so little now, made me feel ashamed.

Wednesday afternoon an opposition day motion calling on the Government to sign up to the UN pledge will be debated.

When I spoke to the Foreign Office they told me all they can say for now is that 'this is something that is being looked at and worked on by the Home Secretary.'

It's true that Britain's currently the second largest aid donor to Syrians but as the UN's Lisa Abou Khaled tells me 'we understand that other countries are contributing and helping us a lot in terms of donations and funding but it's still important that there's a sharing of the burden. Especially as Lebanon is such a small country and the capacity is really exhausted here.'

That's the thing about a refugee crisis. You're giving help to people who need it, you are sharing a burden.

But you're extending that help to people who'd give anything to have never needed it in the first place.

Britain hasn't been the first to sign up to the UN pledge.

Let's make sure we're not the last.

[Boy peers out of a tent in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. PHOTO/Sara Firth]