Ana Maria Luca & Myra Abdallah

“Give them money
and they bring you aid”

Syrian refugees are being extorted by sheikhs and NGOs alike

Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley complain about corruption and humanitarian aid fraud. (NOW)
Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley complain about corruption and humanitarian aid fraud. (NOW)
Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley complain about corruption and humanitarian aid fraud. (NOW)
Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley complain about corruption and humanitarian aid fraud. (NOW)
Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley complain about corruption and humanitarian aid fraud. (NOW)

“They steal, they all steal.” The woman is in her 50s, wearing a large black dress with silver embroidery and a black veil. She sat in front of her tent on the outskirts of Bar Elias. “Come inside and I will tell you something,” she said.


The tent was empty except for the rugs on the ground. That’s how two families of Syrians — two women, two men and 8 children — have been sleeping since the holy month of Ramadan when they moved here. “I’m just visiting, and I don’t want people to know who I’m related to. They would lynch me if they knew,” she explained. Her brother-in-law, himself a Syrian refugee, scammed other refugees, especially women, by telling them that he would process their children’s papers in order to get aid from UNICEF, all in exchange for a fee. “From some he asked even $200. He made a lot of money.”


The woman wants to do the right thing and wants to raise awareness that many poor people who fled the war in Syria and sought refuge in Lebanon are being preyed on by social pariahs — sheikhs who steal aid money; doctors who won’t perform surgeries; nurses who ask for money for free vaccines; NGO workers who demand bribes for aid.


“Here’s the thing: it all depends on who you know. If you know someone in the organization which is distributing aid, you can get aid. If you don’t, you get nothing; that’s how things around here work,” explains Mohammad, a man in his late 40s who lives with his 10 children in one of the camps in Bar Elias. “If you give them money, they bring you aid. That’s it.”


Mohamad says applied for aid in several international NGOs. Somehow, he never qualified. His neighbor, who has only six children, got the aid. “I went to ask him how he managed to get it. I told him I had been trying for a month. He told me straight to my face: ‘Because I “contributed” with 100,000 LL [$70].’”



Sheikhs and NGOs


Hanan, a woman in her late 20s, considers herself one of the fortunate refugees. She and her husband found a room to rent in a house still under construction. She would have received a degree in psychology in 2012, but Aleppo was bombed and she had to flee to Lebanon in 2011, right before her senior year. However, due to her education, she was able to get a job as a kindergarten teacher in Bar Elias. “They pay me 250,000 LL [$170] because I’m Syrian. If I were Lebanese, I would get double — $350 — which is also not much. My husband works in construction; he gets daily jobs. He brought $200 home yesterday and the landlord found out and came to claim his rent for the room we live in.”


“We are trying to move to a sheikh’s camp, because we don’t pay rent there. But not everybody can get into these camps. You have to know someone who knows someone who knows the sheikh. And, maybe, pay them a small bribe to help you,” she says bitterly. “The sheikhs here gather all the refugees, they take a picture, they give away 15-20 bucks and they keep the rest for themselves. We found out from a foreigner who works for an NGO that they’ve been bringing milk for children for the past year. I haven’t seen any in the six months since we came here.”


Refugees say that it always works the same way: the sheikh has an NGO, he gets money, and he keeps some for himself and the rest he distributes as aid. When the donor organization comes to see what has been done with the money, he brings some people to tell the auditor what a great job he’s been doing. “Many times, the person from the international NGOs, many times a foreigner, comes to ask how the aid is distributed, how the money has been spent, if it reached the people. They provide a translator who doesn’t tell the truth and doesn’t translate right. We know, we just know they’re translating wrong because they always smile and show they’re content when we’re talking about our suffering,” she says. 



On credit


December brought even more bad news: the vouchers from the UN World Food Programme that gave a Syrian refugee the right to buy food for $30 from certain shops in the area was stopped until further notice. “They told us there is no more money,” Umm Suhair, a woman who refused to give her real name, said while asking if there was any chance we could buy water for her daughter, Suhair. The 9-month-old lay cradled in her arms, her cheeks dirty and cracked by the pinching wind of the Bekaa Valley. “She’s like this because we have no water,” her mother said. Her other children, two boys, run from the fields when they see the gallons. “Mommy, mommy I want water,” the toddler shouts. Soon he fights his older brother for the tin glass, the only one they have.


“We live on credit, 3al l7sab [on credit]. The owner of the shop in town where we used to get food with the vouchers gives us some rice and lentils on credit, thinking that when we get the vouchers, we’d pay him. There is no day that passes that the shop owner doesn’t pass to ask for his money. But he knows we just don’t have any,” she said.


Medical care doesn’t come cheap, either, even if NGOs struggle to pay for some of the treatments. Mohammad’s 9-year-old son needed his tonsils removed because he had an infection. At the hospital, Mohammad had another surprise. “The doctor asked for $250, although the surgery was already paid for by an NGO. The doctor took the money from the NGO and did not operate on the child.”


“Many people go through this. Even for the vaccinations. Children under five years old get vaccinated for free. But when we go to the hospital they ask for 10 dollars,” Hanan said. Some people pay. They work in the fields, they plant potatoes for the Bekaa farmers, they work in construction, and they manage somehow. Others, the majority, struggle to stay alive and feed their children only bread.


“Life under Bashar Assad was better than what we have now in Lebanon, in this room made of bricks with one widow. But now it’s too late for us.”


Ana Maria Luca tweets @aml1609

Myra Abdallah tweets @myraabdallah

Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley complain about corruption and humanitarian aid fraud. (NOW)

Life under Bashar Assad was better than what we have now in Lebanon, in this room made of bricks with one widow. But now it’s too late for us.”

  • joe.soubaih

    Human dignity should be one of the given rights of living. I stress SHOULD be. Because in actuality, it isn't. These refugees have it bad, there is no denying it whatsoever. But this is the status of being a refugee. They are refugees in a piece of land with its own economical problems, social instability, and political unrest. Lebanon took in more refugees more than many other neighboring countries. This in no way justifies what is happening to them. But if life was better under Bashar el Assad, by all means, let them go back and make room for more grateful refugees. It's easy to show blind sympathy for the refugees and point fingers at the Lebanese, vilifying them. I am not going to expand on the matter much because Hannibal-Atheos summed up my sentiments pretty well.

    December 15, 2014

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    So are the Lebanese: we pay double electricity bills and double water bills to the organized political Mafia that runs this country, bribes right and left, the highest cell phone rates in the world, highest pollution in the Mediterranean Basin, and just recently - which everyone in this megalomaniacal country of urbanized mountain brutes chose to ignore, including NOW - Lebanon ranked 136th out of 174 countries in the 2014 Corruption Index. Lebanon is the 6th most corrupt Arab country (out of 20), ranking in the company of Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Iraq, and Libya. So your pathetic pity for Syrian refugees is totally misplaced. Your "Western-style" copycat liberalism would be normal if Lebanon was a normal "Western" country. But it isn't. Lebanon is a third-world cesspool, which for the Syrian refugees is about the same as they were used to in Syria. Add to this the fact it was the Syrian fathers, brothers, and sons of those same refugees who tormented us, shelled us, killed us, assassinated us, kidnapped us and bombed us for 35 years, and I do not share your melodramatic fake me-too human rights empathic journalism on behalf of the refugees. The refugees should return to Syria and fend for themselves. There are large swaths of territory in Syria where there is no war. They can settle there until the war in their country ends. Lebanon has enough refugees from Palestine and has its own horde of problems. Stop pretending who you are not.

    December 14, 2014

  • joe.soubaih

    Well said :)

    December 15, 2014

  • muhami

    well said but it is Christmas and you must have some charity in your heart at least until the end of the year.

    December 16, 2014