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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


Breaking down barriers: how a Syrian refugee turned his good luck into jobs for others

Nirary Dachos determination to help fellow refugees find work in Australia inspired the launch of Refugee Talent

Just 14 months ago Nirary Dacho was a penniless refugee, landing at Sydney airport with a dream of being able to continue his career as an IT analyst in a country where he would be safe from Isis.

Today the 29-year old Assyrian sits in a comfortable office as the cofounder of Refugee Talent, a fast-growing digital platform that exists to get refugees into work.

This has been a rapid turnaround in fortune especially considering 48% of those on humanitarian visas remain unemployed 18 months after arriving.

Dacho has been able to break free from the traps that frustrate other refugees, thanks to a combination of lucky breaks and his ability to make good connections.

When Dacho arrived from Syria, via Lebanon, on a humanitarian visa with his parents, brother and sister, he could speak English, had a masters degree in web science and more than eight years of working in IT and teaching programming at university in Syria.

Even so, he found it impossible to break into the employment market, despite updating his skills to Australian qualifications.

My qualification was from overseas and I had no work experience in Australia and these are two of the main barriers for employment for refugees, he says.

Dacho applied for more than 100 jobs in his first eight months before getting his first lucky break which involved starring in a television news segment.

When the ABCs Lateline program was preparing a story on unemployed refugees, the assistance organisation, Settlement Services International, nominated Dacho as a client to be profiled.

After it was screened, 10 employers lined up to offer him work and help. With a three-month contract as a software engineer with the technology company Dolby Australia, he was getting local experience that seems a prerequisite for most employers.

It was an exciting development, however Dacho was nowhere near elated. It was such a bad feeling, he says, explaining that he was thinking of the thousands of other refugees still waiting for their lucky break.

They are also qualified and have long years of experience and they are sitting there, doing nothing. I was happy because I finally got a job but, the other side of it, [I] felt so bad.

Dachos second stroke of good fortune came 12 months ago when he attended a networking event for refugees with IT skills Techfugees Hackathon Australia and met Anna Robson, who became his cofounder and the chief executive of Refugee Talent.

Robson had spent 10 months working at the Nauru detention centre as an adult recreation officer and the two of them bonded over their desire to help refugees get work experience. Robson decided to join forces with Dacho to build an online platform to connect refugees to employers. The site launched in February.

The third time fortune smiled upon them was in March this year when Robson, moonlighting as an Uber driver, started chatting about her venture with an investor she was taking to the airport.

That passenger was Jason Yat-Sen Li, thechairman of Vantage Asia Holdings, a diversified investment group with offices in Beijing and Sydney and interests in real estate, mining, financial services and technology. Li is also a former Labor candidate for the seat of Bennelong.

I asked her what she did when she wasnt driving an Uber, says Li, who was moved by what she had to say about her work with Save the Children on Nauru.

The thing that caught me the most, apart from the awful things she saw there, was her observation that the vast majority of the people who were locked up there were highly skilled. They were doctors and engineers and software developers.

Li became an investor in Refugee Talent, offering Dacho and Robson free space in his Sydney Surry Hills office, business start-up advice and introduction to his business connections.

The story and the serendipity of it appealed, Li says. It is a really nice thing in the innovation space where one can do something that reflects ones values and hopefully do well out of it as well. We do think it has the potential to be a viable business.

They sit with us in our office so, whenever they have questions or problems, they come to us. I chair their board and have helped them to put together a small board of directors. I have helped them raise a little money to get them started and they use some of our in-house resources, like an in-house designer.

Refugee Talent now has 50 employers on board, has 160 clients and has placed 15 in jobs in its first eight months. The company has expanded to Melbourne and is looking at other states.

Dacho says the duo never expected things to happen so fast, thinking it would take two to three years to get to the point where they are now at 11 months, with both being employed full-time by the business.

I am so lucky because I have these three moments in Australia, he says, referring to his lucky breaks.

His advice to other refugees would be to take the initiative, rather than depending on case workers and assistance organisations. They should also get Australian qualifications as soon as possible and try to get any job (to get local experience), using refugee-assistance channels or applying direct to employers.

And drawing upon his experience, they should also make the effort to meet as many people as they can to build up a network.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/nov/03/how-a-syrian-refugee-found-success-by-helping-other-refugees


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