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The Syrian Refugees Living in an Abandoned Lebanese Shopping Mall

It's like Dawn of the Dead, only with poverty and skin infections instead of zombies and death.

The courtyard of the former mall in Lebanon that has become home to around 1,000 Syrian refugees

In the central courtyard of an abandoned shopping mall in northern Lebanon, Hamad affectionately squeezes the cheek of one of his younger sisters. She briefly feigns disgust, before planting a kiss on his cheek, turning on her heel and running off into one of the many derelict shops that have become homes for Syrians fleeing the conflict in their home country.


Around 1,000 refugees – almost entirely Sunni and mainly from the Syrian provinces of Hama and Idlib – currently live in the former shopping centre, which is nestled in the small village of Dede above Lebanon’s second city of Tripoli. Most residents profess support for the Syrian opposition, though a number are in favour of the Assad regime and the rest appear merely apathetic, more concerned with looking after their families while fighting continues in their various hometowns.

"Most of the kids here aren't enrolled in school," says 17-year-old Hamad, who fled the northern Syrian city of Aleppo two months ago. "Some attend the local mosque for a couple of hours every day and receive instruction in reading and writing, but most of the time they don’t have anything to do and just try to amuse themselves."

The satellite dishes clinging precariously to the shopping centre's walls are one potential avenue of amusement, but the sound of TV news bulletins reporting the rising death toll in Syria doesn't exactly lift the mood. While the kids chase each other around and play with whatever they can get their hands on, a group of older men sit on plastic chairs and upturned pots, chatting over glasses of sweet tea and packs of cheap cigarettes.

"Often it feels like the adults are in the same position," says Hamad. "It can be hard to amuse yourself when there's no work and you have no money to spare. Sometimes this place can feel like a prison."


Work, like educational opportunities, is scarce, making it a constant struggle to pay the monthly rent of £150 – a somewhat extortionate figure given both the living conditions and the fact that it's possible to find rooms for a similar price in some of Beirut’s more gentrified districts.

Hamad holding another resident of the former mall

Hamad should be completing school this year, but four months ago his father was killed by a piece of shrapnel from an exploding mortar in Aleppo. The eldest of four children, he has now become the family’s principal breadwinner, working at a nearby quarry for up to £12 a day. But, he says, work is by no means guaranteed on a daily basis, and making ends meet can be difficult.

"There are so many Syrians here in Lebanon now that many Lebanese are offering as little as 10,000 lira (approx £4) for a day’s manual labour," says Yasser Al-Hassan, who hails from the town of Mehardeh in Homs province. He and his extended family of 12 have been living in a spartan room on the complex's ground floor for 18 months. "They don't care if you say no because someone else will always say yes."

Yasser Al-Hassan with his two children

As Al-Hassan speaks, his daughter emerges from the adjacent room. He picks up the seven-year-old girl, who has a series of blisters surrounding her mouth, and sits her next to him on his battered old Yamaha. Like many in the complex she suffers from the skin infection cutaneous leishmaniasis – or "Aleppo boil" – which is transmitted by sandfly bites and causes lesions to break out and spread over the body. Although charities including Oxfam are active in the centre, Al-Hassan says he is struggling to balance paying the monthly rent with obtaining suitable treatment for his daughter.


"Before the civil war, there was oppression and injustice, but we were happy. We weren't wealthy, but we had jobs – we did OK," says Al-Hassan with a deep sigh. "Now, I can’t even provide for my children’s educational and medical needs."

Residents claim that current aid efforts are insufficient to alleviate even basic nutritional and medical ailments, and in an environment now defined by anxiety and tension it's common for arguments to degenerate into physical confrontations. More often than not, restoring order is left to the residents themselves, though on occasion the local police have been called in.

Predictions that Lebanon is due its most severe winter in a century is sewing further concern, especially now that cracks are starting to appear in the walls and ceilings thanks to damp and mildew, and because nothing resembling central heating exists in the complex. The lack of a sewage infrastructure and the fact that the mall lacks a regular water supply doesn't seem to be helping the situation much, either.

That said, many Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in worse conditions. According to the UN's Higher Relief Council (UNHCR), there are 780,000 Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, but the Lebanese government puts the figure closer to 1.3 million, taking into account refugees who haven't registered with the UNHCR. If the government estimation is correct, Syrian refugees now account for over a quarter of Lebanon’s population.


Inside one of the rooms of the former mall

As well as stretching its resources, Lebanon has witnessed numerous violent manifestations of the Syrian conflict on home turf. Due to the burden placed upon the country, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Miqati announced on October the 9th that initiatives were being planned to investigate the legal status of unregistered refugees. He says that doing so will help to "safeguard" Lebanon from "imminent dangers" caused by the continued influx into the country.

Animosity towards Syrian presence in Lebanon predates Syria’s current civil war. It has its roots in the Syrian Ba'ath regime's 29-year military occupation (from 1976 to 2005) of the country under the rule of Hafez al-Assad, and later his currently embattled son, Bashar. Even around Tripoli, where support for the Syrian opposition is strong, a perception that Lebanon is witnessing a new form of occupation can rear its head, and casual racism towards Syrians is becoming increasingly more common.

Miriam Khalil.

"We civilians had nothing to do with [the Syrian occupation]. It was the army and the security services – we didn’t want it to happen to them," says Miriam Khalil, a widow with four children who relies on her brother’s paltry income as a fruit and vegetable grocer to survive.

"Although Syria and Lebanon are sister states, between us there is this rift," Khalil says, shaking her head. "Often we're treated like we are the enemy, but we've got used to struggling; we can cope with it – we've had to adapt."


Hamad had told me that, when the residents are sleeping, local Lebanese will occasionally appear outside the mall and taunt those inside, firing gunshots into the air. For her part, Khalil complains of being verbally abused on visits to the local UNHCR headquarters in Tripoli, saying that others have had food stamps forcefully taken from them on similar trips.

"We are treated worse than second class citizens," she says. "We are robbed of our dignity."

Yusra Al-Ghajjar (on the right)

Those unable to cough up the monthly rent receive little sympathy from the centre's landowner, according to Yusra Al-Ghajjar, a 50-year-old from Idlib province. "If you can’t pay rent, they kick you out," she says, placing a couple of peppers in brine outside the third-floor room she shares with seven other family members. "They don’t care if you have to sleep on the ground."

Hamoudi in one of the rooms of the former mall

Inside the room, Al-Ghajjar's two-year-old nephew Hamoudi lies silently, sleeping on a mattress on the floor. Al-Ghajjar explains that Hamoudi’s father was killed in an aerial bombardment in Idlib last year, one of between 100,000 and half a million (depending on which figures you believe) who have lost their lives in Syria’s two-and-a-half-year conflict.

With no sign of the conflict abating any time soon, the residents of the former mall – along with the masses of other Syrians taking refuge in Lebanon – seem to have little but the prospect of more purgatory ahead of them, in a country that's becoming increasingly hostile.

Follow Martin on Twitter: @scotinbeirut

More about Syria's refugees:

Talking to the Syrian Refugees Who Are Desperate to Leave Calais for England The Syrian Refugees of Za'atari Wish the West Would Bomb Assad

WATCH – Ground Zero - Za'atari Refugee Camp