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Tiny graves: Syrian refugees in Lebanon struggle for space to bury children

For Syrians in Lebanon, death brings a final indignity as the bodies of their loved ones are squeezed in along cemetery edges

The graves of the children are easy to discern, little bumps on the ground squeezed in along the edges of the cemetery. A rectangle of four small concrete blocks is enough to encompass one childs entire body.

No names are carved in marble, just overgrown, withered grass rustling in the breeze of the Bekaa Valley. In the cemetery named al-Rahma, meaning Mercy, only one Syrian refugee childs tombstone bears markings an illegible name etched into the stone with a rough tool, the mark of a despairing parent.

You see these little graves that we put on the side? Theyre all children, and theyre almost all Syrians, said Hosni Shuqayyif, the cemetery caretaker. There are so many children. We bury them in the corners, on the sides, or between the other graves, wherever there is space.

The number of Syrians who have fled their country after six years of war passed 5 million on Thursday. More than a million of those are registered with the UN high commissioner for refugees in Lebanon, compared with a prewar Lebanese population of 4 million, the per capita equivalent of the UK hosting 13 million refugees.

But in this tiny nation, with its 18 official religious sects, Syrians have endured many indignities from onerous visa procedures to poor treatment and humiliation at the border and residency offices, to child labour, sexual exploitation, and life in fragile plastic tents that collapse in winter, and the xenophobia of local politicians pandering to fearful followers.

And now, death brings a final indignity. Families of dead Syrians living in Lebanon are increasingly struggling to find a place to bury their loved ones, often leaving them for weeks or months in hospital morgues while they search for cemeteries that will take them. They struggle to scrape together enough money to pay off hospital fees, sometimes carrying them in cardboard boxes or in the backs of taxis and digging graves with their bare hands.

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A tiny grave at al-Rahma cemetery. Photograph: Kareem Shaheen for the Guardian

NGOs sometimes negotiate deals with municipalities to allow refugees to share cemeteries with the Lebanese, but they are growing overcrowded because of the large population of Syrians, often outnumbering locals by three or four times. Few landowners are willing to sell land to build graveyards, worried about plunging real estate prices and superstitions, and religious authorities are staying clear of the problem.

Most Syrians, who are banned from work, cannot even afford the $200-$300 cost of burial, including performing Islamic rites of cleansing, or shrouds and gravestones, and donors are few.

Theyre not finally at ease when they are dead, said Haytham Taimey, a Lebanese sheikh who runs the Development and Renewal Association, an NGO that helps Syrians find and pay for burial spots. Even human emotions, when youve lost somebody close to you, their basic right of mourning and saying goodbye, Syrians dont have that any more.

There is no comprehensive data for mortality rates among Syrian refugees in Lebanon. UNHCR only finds out about deaths if a family opts to tell them, an unlikely step since it could mean a reduction in aid, or if a person who is receiving medical support dies in hospital. The organisation counted 2,087 deaths in 2015, though the number is likely much higher given the Syrian population and the limits on reporting.

A spokesperson for UNHCR said they were aware of problems finding burial spots, and while the organisation cannot assist with burial procedures, it provides counselling to families and tries to put them in touch with NGOs that can help.

UNHCR is aware of the general difficulties that Syrian refugees face in burying their loved ones in Lebanon, the spokesperson said. When UNHCR is alerted to specific issues, we ask our local partners to help refugees resolve this through dialogue. Local and religious authorities, local partners and municipalities are among the parties that could help refugees solve these issues.

In the past, Arab cemeteries often included a section labeled madafen al-ghoraba, or the graveyards of the strangers, for visitors who passed away a now defunct practice.

Walid Luwais, an official at the Islamic endowments authority, acknowledged that the issue amounted to a crisis, but said that even when the government buys land for a cemetery plot neighbours often refuse to allow the burial.

People dont want graves near them, its a popular superstition, said Taimey, the local sheikh. They love life and they dont want to open their windows and be reminded of the afterlife. They have to be hidden from view, though to be honest dead people are better neighbours, they never do anything to harm you.

Some municipalities have come up with solutions, allowing Syrians who live in refugee camps in their towns to bury their dead in a designated area of the cemetery, while turning away outsiders. One such town is Omariyah, which houses 15,000 Syrian refugees to 7,000 Lebanese, and where half of the local cemetery is occupied by dead Syrians.

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Grave at Omariyah cemetary. Photograph: Kareem Shaheen for the Guardian

It is a real crisis, said Mohammad al-Ahmad, the towns mayor, who helped institute the rule. He said it was still painful to turn away desperate Syrians. Imagine someone coming to you who cant find a place to bury his dead loved one. When he asks you: So where do I go with my dead relative? In Syria Im homeless, and here I cant even bury my relative. You dont know what to do. Of course he should have a burial place, he said.

For Syrians in Lebanon, that heartbreak is a daily occurrence, and the calls to Taimey and local youth organisations are too frequent. One man, who declined to give his name, had to carry his father in the back of a pickup truck for hours until he managed to find a burial spot in a cemetery late at night, burying him without a coffin.

Fighting back tears, he walked away saying: They want us to just throw our dead in the street.

There is no shortage of stories of the desperate plight of Syrians. One volunteer with a youth group in Saadnayel, a town that hosts about 26,000 Syrians, described how they had to bury a 50-year-old man who had been in a morgue for 40 days. Hospitals will often keep custody of corpses if the victim has no paperwork or if his family owes money.

There was a man who arrived in a taxi, and he had his son with him in a cardboard box, said Shuqayyif, the cemetery caretaker. A cardboard box. Not even a wooden casket. A cardboard box that probably had had potatoes or shoes in it. I saw that myself. And the father is there, digging with his hands to bury his child. Its heartbreaking.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/30/lebanon-no-space-syrian-refugees-graves-bury-dead


Beirut’s last public beach: residents fear privatisation of Ramlet al-Baida

A private development close to Beiruts last remaining public beach is sparking anger among residents who fear companies will leave nothing for the poor and middle classes encroaching further into a city that already lacks public space

Take a stroll down the golden sands of Ramlet al-Baida, Beiruts last public beach, and youll see families fishing and smoking shisha in ramshackle palm frond cabanas, boys kicking footballs under battered lamp-posts, and children building sandcastles in the waves. It is a rare outlet in a city where public spaces are few and far between. But at the beachs southern end, the scene abruptly gives way to looming cranes and men in hard hats driving rebars into a rising edifice of concrete.

The development, known as the Eden Bay resort a more than 5,000 sq metre project billed by its website as a sanctuary of luxury and refinement began constructionlast year, sparking outrage among beachgoers, civil society activists and public space advocates. The company behind the project says they have complied with the law and are set to inject vital investment and hundreds of jobs into Lebanons bruised economy. But many of the poor and middle class Beirutis who have been going to the beach for generations see it as an encroachment on one of the few public spaces they have left.

Poor people are trash here, says Hisham Hamdan, 59, glancing at the development as he lounges with a lunch of fish, hummus and vegetables alongside half a dozen friends. Its Ali Baba and his 40 thieves, he adds, listing a few prominent politicians and businessmen. Theyre mafiosos, all of them.

He plucks a cane topped with a bust of Nefertiti from the sand and gestures toward a row of apartment buildings. Look, he says. You know how much that is? Four million dollars. And everyone here has nothing. (Some nearby properties do indeed sell for that much.)

A little way up the beach, Abu Rami, a 43-year-old department store worker who asked to be identified by his nickname so he could speak freely, kicks a football with his son. When I was a bachelor I used to come out to Ramlet al-Baida every day, he says. Id run down here with my friends around six or seven and wed play football. Wed even come out and play football at night wed swim and play and stay out late. Everyone has memories like that.

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Eden Bay resort is set on 5,188 sq metres of Beirut coast. Photograph: Achour Development

Now, he says, people are afraid private companies will overwhelm the beach, leaving nothing for the citys poorer people and middle classes. The way I see it, the people here need to come out and protest against these companies this is repression against the poor.

The roots of anger and suspicion go much deeper than one resort. For a city its size, Beirut has a shocking lack of public space. There is just one major central park Horsh Beirut, which was recently reopened to the public after years of closure while miles of Mediterranean coast are covered with luxury apartments, clubs, restaurants, hotels and resorts that charge hefty entrance fees. For the many Beirutis living on just a few hundred dollars a month, the price to bring a family into one of these clubs could amount to a major chunk of a months salary. If youre poor, you dont always have the right to enjoy the outdoors.

Mohammad Ayoub, executive director of Nahnoo, a civil society group that advocated to reopen Horsh Beirut and is now working to revitalise Ramlet al-Baida, compares the citys situation to a house without a living room the space where a family comes together.

The salon is where you have to learn how to deal with your differences, because everybody owns it. You cant watch TV alone, so you need to discuss what to do. It teaches you dialogue, it teaches you democracy, it makes you feel a sense of belonging. This is why its important.

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Ramlet al-Baida is Beiruts last public beach. Photograph: Jamal Saidi/Reuters

Such spaces are especially vital given the legacy of sectarian division left by the countrys 1975-90 civil war, he says. But a lack of sufficient public regulation has allowed developers to chip away at such spaces over the years, leaving only a handful open to the public. What do we own in the city? Ayoub says. We own nothing. Why are we here in the city; what can we do in the city? You have to pay for everything.

As one of the few exceptions, Ramlet al-Baida (white sands in Arabic) has long been a magnet for suspicions about developers intentions. Activists point to a 1925 decree declaring everything up to the highest point the waves reach to be public property. However, since the 1960s, a string of exemptions, loopholes, violations and favouritism bestowed upon developers has gradually eaten away at the coastline and left the beach one of the last bastions of free access, they say. The nearby Dalieh outcrop is also under threat, although construction hasnt started.

In a cluttered and dimly lit office in central Beirut, Ali Darwish, head of Green Line, a Lebanese environmentalist group, runs his finger over a satellite image of Ramlet al-Baida, ticking off the plots where he says private developers are bent on building. Ask any older Beiruti above 50 or 60 and they wont even know that this is [privately] owned, he says. Its enshrined, its anchored in our brains that this is public land.

Back in the late 90s, Darwish says his group discovered a plan which showed that former prime minister Rafik Hariri famous for his extensive postwar real estate dealings wanted to turn the area into a marina, an effort quashed by public lobbying. Controversy flared up again in 2015 when a judge permittedtwo companies owning plots on the beachto close them to the public.The judge reversed her decision, but activists were on high alert.

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Security forces stand guard during a protest outside the gates of the Eden Rock development last year. Photograph: Thomson Reuters Foundation

Amid the atmosphere of distrust, civil society leaders have trouble seeing the Eden Bay development as anything less than a precursor to a full-scale takeover. Green Line has filed a suit to stop the project but pending a decision, construction has continued. If Eden Bay succeeds, activists believe other developers will undoubtedly follow. Darwish says one plot owner has already filed for a building permit a little further up the beach: This is the door-opener.

Achour Development expresses a very different view of the situation. In an office overlooking downtown Beirut nicknamed Solidere after the company Hariri founded before his 2005 assassination its lawyer Bahij Abou Mjahed, flips through a thick folder of documents which, he says, definitively prove the companys right to build on the land.

An assistant brings copies of the plots ownership records, the projects building permit, clearance from the order of engineers, and a map showing that the development is hundreds of metres from the part of the beach considered public.

Given regional turmoil, the new resort represents a courageous and ambitious project that will add hundreds of jobs to an economy badly in need of them, Abou Mjahed says. Lebanese departments are travelling all over the world to encourage investors to invest in Lebanon. If we create a war against this project, which has all the legal documents and all the legal permissions and permits and decisions, whats the message were sending to the investor? Come to Lebanon and invest, and in a moment somebody will decide that its a public area and stop you?

He says objections to the project are rooted in misunderstandings and, in some cases, conspiracy theories that assume the entire Lebanese government is arrayed against the public. Its against the laws of nature.

Back at Ramlet al-Baida, the nuances of the legal debate are of little interest to most beachgoers; many take it as a given that the system is rigged against them. There are politicians who are monopolising everything. They come down and take money and, so long, its over. They can do what they want, says Abu Rami, the department store worker. The Lebanese people need to stand together. Youll find people coming out and demonstrating against this repression, this theft three quarters of people are with them but they stay in their homes.

Why? Maybe people are distracted, he says. Theyre busy just getting by.

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/feb/02/beiruts-public-space-last-beach-residents-fear-privatisation-ramlet-al-baida


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