Snakes and Ladders on Syria Street

Children attend an event organized by Oxfam and partner organization Utopia
Children attend an event organized by Oxfam and partner organization Utopia

Nour*, 45, works at a school in northern Lebanon. The nursery school continued to run classes for Syrian and Lebanese children despite being on the front line of a long-running conflict between neighborhoods. Fighting has intensified in recent years, mirroring the Syrian crisis just over the border, but a recent ceasefire is finally allowing Oxfam and its partner to deliver emergency assistance.

“The recent clashes have had a huge impact on the children,” Nour said. “There were snipers on either side of the school and bullets coming directly into the classrooms. When the fighting started, the children were so scared – some of them would faint and others cry until it was safe to go outside and their parents came to collect them. It would happen so suddenly. Children, two to six year olds, would be sitting in class and the next moment they were running to the corridors to lie on the floor.”

But while a tentative ceasefire holds, hundreds of children play snakes and ladders in a conflict-shattered playground, chase balloons and become unrecognizable creatures thanks to a splash of face paint.

Oxfam is working on repairs and hygiene

We are working with a local organization to repair and construct latrines in the damaged homes.

Water engineers are installing and repairing water pipes, tanks and taps to get water flowing again after fighting stopped. The team has also been distributing hygiene kits, latrine kits, environmental kits, water filters and water storage containers. An event last month brought together refugees and the community for games and discussion.

Staff and volunteers found fun ways to teach the children about good hygiene practices, including hand washing. Lebanese and Syrian parents took the opportunity to sit and eat together on the steps at the side of the playground while their children ran frantically around, and talked to the NGO staff about what would make their life a little bit better. 

Rebuilding essential services

Life is certainly not a party on the former front line – nicknamed Syria Street – but Oxfam is helping people clear debris and rebuild essential services.

“There is now a ceasefire in place – it will hold, Inshallah,” said Nour. “We have work to do on the school before the children come back after the summer – the water needs to be running and the bullet holes patched up, broken windows mended. All we can do is hope and pray that it will last.”

Despite the risk of renewed violence, many living in the neighborhood are Syrian refugees seeking safety. Dima* fled Syria just four days ago and is in real need of humanitarian assistance.  

“A year a half ago the Syrian army arrested my husband, so we couldn’t go out. We stayed with my husband’s parents, but my father-in-law was also detained. We had to come to Lebanon in the end – my parents fled here and my mum is sick,” she said.

Life in Lebanon is not always easy

Dima and her friend Afra* discuss their life in Lebanon. “There is some good and some bad,” Afra said. “Sometimes walking down the street, people say they wish we never came here. This event is very much appreciated – it’s time for the kids to have fun. It’s a good time for us to forget about our burdens.

Almost all Syrians living in this part of Tripoli are paying high rents to be here. Thirty-year-old Dalya Mohamed from Homs in Syria pays $200 per month for somewhere for his four children to call home. 

“The house is so close to Syria Street, that during the clashes bullets were flying over our heads and every time we had to run to my brother’s place down stairs to take cover with the kids,” he said.

People have lost everything

We used to help others in Ramadan season, last year we were the one’s needed help. Our Lebanese neighbors were sending us food. 
Without the help of my brother and our kind neighbors we wouldn’t survive.”

Dalya’s brother Waleed lives in the flat below but they both grew up in Homs in Syria.

“I owned a supermarket, I was milk distributor, we were living in a great situation back in my hometown of Homs. Today, they told me that everything is destroyed and all my belongings are stolen. I have nothing left.

“During the clashes here in Tripoli we just stood in a middle room, which doesn’t have windows. My sister used to come with her kids to hide here. Her apartment is the last floor and it is exposed to direct and indirect gun shooting.

“Now it is better, at least the kids can go and play nearby. We didn’t survive the war back in Syria to come and die here.

Repairing Syria Street

Since the truce, rehabilitation has started, they repaired the sewage pipes in our alley and they are working on all Syria Street; repairing everything."

And then Waleed echoes what the fears that the community gathering is in some way designed to address.

“I hope we don’t re-witness the war extending to here and we start the loss, the suffering and displacement all over again.”

* In order to protect their identities these are not their real names.