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Syria: “We were just like you”

As World Refugee Day approaches, Catherine Carter, Save the Children’s Head of Humanitarian Information, reports from the Lebanon/Syria border.

Lebanon is beautiful, dangerous, surprising.

Walking through the high streets in Beirut feels reminiscent of Knightsbridge: expensive shops full of expensive women wearing expensive clothes. Restaurants and bars spill out into the night, filling the warm night air with laughter, music and cigarette smoke.

Plastic surgery, perfect make-up and luxury is all around. It feels a world away from the volatile, clash-prone border region with Syria. But it isn’t.

Minutes down the road and a heavy military presence is everywhere. Armed clashes, gunfire and shelling are all commonplace. Expensive homes are decorated with ornate balconies and dotted with lush green climbing vines.

Look closely and you’ll spot a face peering at you from the darkness of the garage. And another, and another. Syrian families are crammed into garages, half-built houses, shop floors, anywhere they can find.

Isra* is one of them. Living on a shop floor, she only has a thin piece of muslin to partition off her ‘home’. She’s not used to it. In Syria she rented a big fourth-floor apartment for herself and her two children. It had a beautiful view over the city. She drove her children to school. She took long baths, painted her nails and wore make-up. She watched the beginnings of the civil war on television.

War outside your home

Fast forward two years and she’s pregnant with her second child in a Syria torn apart by war. There is no water. Her children turn the taps on the bath tub and nothing comes out. The city is under siege and shelling is audible throughout the night. The relentless pounding noise shifts, and is louder. The war is outside her home. She looks out the same window and the beautiful view is replaced with a scene of horror. She watches as cars burn, as neighbour fights neighbour in her beloved city. She watches as children are shot by snipers in streets she used to push a pram down. And she feels terror for the child growing in her womb.

When it is Isra’s time to give birth, she knows she needs to get to a hospital. She urgently needs a Caesarean, but medicines and doctors are in short supply. She arrives at a hospital with her husband and a nurse frantically helps her. Her baby is born prematurely, and he is rushed to an incubator. But the electricity has been cut off for days, so the incubator lies cold and empty.

The doctors quickly hook it up to an old generator and she knows her baby’s life hangs in the balance. She’s given an hour to rest after the operation and her baby is safe for a while. But she can hear gunfire – the hospital is under attack. The generator stops and the hospital room is plunged into darkness. Isra grabs her baby and stumbles out of the hospital. Her husband carries her and the baby back to their flat under gunfire.

They left Syria soon after and she locked her flat for the last time. Now in Lebanon, Isra cries herself to sleep. She asks me to share a message with the world. This is it, word for word.

“I want the world to feel us, to have compassion, to listen to these stories of our lives and our suffering. To know that no-one wants to leave their home. We were living a normal life – we had houses, jobs, shops, warehouses. Now we have lost everything, we have nothing. I just want the people outside to know that we were just like you.”

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