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For Syrian refugee families the mall is all

Syrian mall kidsJudi and Mohammed Yousef and their parents fled the beseiged Syrian town of Hama with only the clothes on their backs. Now a deserted Lebanese Mall is their home.  Photo: Oxfam/Sam Tarling.

Every kid wants to live in a mall, right?

Not if you’re a desperate Syrian refugee who has lost your home, family members and any other hope of survival in a foreign country.

But that’s the fate of about 90 destitute Syrian families who are squatting on the outskirts of the northern Lebanese town of Tripoli, in rented stalls in an abandoned mall building that boasts no Starbucks, McDonalds or cinemas.

They’re only a few of at least 1.4 million Syrian refugees who have fled the vicious war that has left more than 100,000 dead, razed thousands of homes and dozens of villages.

On Wednesday Oxfam, CARE International, World Vision, Handicap International and the Danish Refugee Council sounded the alarm on the escalating refugee crisis that has left a staggering 80 per cent of those who flee Syria outside of refugee camps -- eking out shelter in tents, temporary settlements, or overcrowded and overpriced rental accommodation.

In tiny Lebanon, they say, Syrians now make up a quarter of the population. (By comparison, think of Canada taking in 7.5 million refugees to an area little bigger than the GTA, over two years.) Nor does Lebanon -- still riven by ethnic and religious divides and decades of its own violence -- have the resources to accommodate them.

For mall children like Mohammed and Judi Yousef (seen above), there’s still some novelty in their new surroundings. For their parents, life in the deserted Al Waha building has the eerie isolation of despair. Stranded without most of their possessions, they have to pay up to $200 a month to rent an empty stall equipped with little more than a floor and ceiling.

The mall is connected to a nearby water tower, but water only flows sporadically. Garbage piles up outside in the dust.

Aid agencies are struggling to keep up with the needs. Oxfam provides safe drinking water and toilet facilities and helps out with emergency rent for the mall families and others in the vicinity. “Most of the refugees arrive with only the clothes they are wearing,” says Oxfam media officer Lindsay Clydesdale. “Those who have savings quickly use them up on rent and food.”

Although the agency and its local partner JAK supply rent subsidies and food and hygiene vouchers for the mall families, many in the refugee stream are not so lucky. “People are living in shopping centres, empty garages or makeshift tents on derelict land,” says Oxfam’s Syria response manager Colette Fearon. “Many are falling through the cracks.”
Meanwhile, funding pledges are falling far behind. “Canadians and our government have been generous,” says Oxfam Canada’s international programs director Anthony Scoggins. “But given the enormity of need, (Ottawa) should take a leadership role and dig a little deeper.”  The agencies are appealing for new funding to help fill gaps that are widening dangerously with hundreds of new arrivals and rising prices in host countries.

Mohammed and Judi’s memories of their decimated home in the central Syrian town of Hama may fade in time. And with no end to the war in sight, the mall may be their address for months, or even years to come. Not a shopaholic's dream, but an impoverished refugee's nightmare.

To give to those in need in Syria and neighbouring countries visit the websites of CARE, World Vision and Oxfam

Olivia Ward has covered conflicts, politics and human rights in the former Soviet Union, Middle East and South Asia, winning national and international awards.


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