Even dead, Syrian refugees find no room in Lebanon
Al-Fayda, Lebanon - In muddy farmland on the outskirts of Saadnayel, in the Bekaa valley, Ahmad, a Syrian refugee from Aleppo, crouched over his brother’s fresh grave, surrounded by dozens of headstones etched with the names of Syrian cities.
As he watched relatives dig the plot to hold his brother’s body, the 33-year-old refugee recalled the hard time he had to find a final resting place for his sibling.
Like many of Lebanon’s more than 1.2 million Syrian refugees, Ahmad struggled to meet the cost of burials and, in some cases, he was barred by locals from interring his brother’s body in local cemeteries.
“My brother died in a car accident four days ago. So I tried to take him to Syria because I heard it was very difficult to find a burial ground in Lebanon,” Ahmad said. “So I fixed everything. I went to the Syrian embassy, resolved all the paper work and I was told that we could cross.”
He, however, was not able to make it into Syrian territory. Border guards said the deceased owed a fine of 140,000 Lebanese pounds, about $93, over a legal transgression. When Ahmad offered to make the payment, he was informed that it would take up to 48 hours before the body could be cleared for entry.
“What am I supposed to do at a border crossing for 48 hours with my brother rotting in the car?” he asked.
Ahmad scoured the Bekaa valley, visiting cemetery after cemetery, for an available plot but to no avail. “All those in charge of the cemeteries said that they didn’t have place for Syrians and at this point my brother’s body had been exposed for three days,” he said.
It was not until Ahmad reached Al-Fayda outside Saadnayel, that a solution presented itself. The Arab al-Weiss clan, an extended tribal family spread across six villages, has provided Syrian refugees with free plots in cemeteries in Al-Fayda and Al-Marj. “We are Muslims and we need to respect our doctrines. We can’t just turn away corpses and tell them to throw it in a ditch,” said Sheikh Mohammad al-Weiss, who oversees the Al-Fayda Cemetery.
The cemetery, which opened in 1965, is one of the few places in Lebanon that allow the burial of Syrian refugees. In the span of 45 years, 500 Lebanese nationals have been buried on the grounds. In two years since opening its plots to refugees, at least 300 Syrians have been laid to rest there, Weiss noted.
The scarcity of burial grounds has generated a crisis for Saadnayel, which has only two cemeteries, one of which is full. Saadnayel Deputy Mayor Riad Sawen said the situation was deplorable. The town had a population of 30,000 Lebanese, making it difficult to provide burial grounds for refugees. “There is barely enough place for the Lebanese. The solution lies with the government and the UN, which should provide land exclusively for the burial of Syrians,” he argued.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees is not directly dealing with the issue and has left it for local authorities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to handle, according to the agency’s spokeswoman, Dana Sleiman.
“We hear of a lot of cases of Syrians trying to bury their dead, so what we do is refer them to organisations and municipalities that could help and in most times a solution is found,” Sleiman said.
Local NGO Ghirath al-Khair, which supplies aid to Syrian refugees, has provided assistance to those seeking to bury loved ones. Volunteers have contacted local officials across the valley’s villages seeking plots for burial, according to Executive Director Ziad Taktak.
He said the NGO has had the most success in arranging burials in a recently opened cemetery in Taalabaya. The burial ground had only five gravestones at the outbreak of the Syrian conflict. Today, no fewer than 200 bodies are buried there, Taktak said.
Northern Lebanon also suffers from an unmet demand for plots by refugees, according to Khaled Asmar, the mayor of Qibbet Shamra in Akkar district.
His village has the only cemetery in Akkar, and one of the only cemeteries in the north, that receives refugees.
“They call from all over the north and beg for plot to bury in,” he said. The 500-square-metre-land used to have only 35 gravestones, according to the mayor. “Today, the plot has over 250 bodies — 200 of whom are those of Syrian refugees,” he said.