04/06/2020, 16.11
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As COVID-19 increases despair and neglect, Syrian refugee set himself on fire in Bekaa (video)

by Pierre Balanian

Bassam Al Hallak died after seven hours of agony. Nobody did anything for him, not even the UN, his son Haitham said.  Unemployed for two years, he feared the epidemic would plunge his family in greater poverty. Seen as carriers of the virus, Syrian refugees endure discrimination.


Beirut (AsiaNews) - Bassam Al Hallak, a 52-year-old Syrian refugee, set himself on fire yesterday morning in Taalbaya, a poor area in the Bekaa. Unemployed, he had become increasingly desperate as a consequence of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Quickly, he was taken to a nearby Bekaa hospital with third-degree burns. His wife and children heard the neighbours shouting when they saw walking down the street engulfed in flames. He died later in the day, in the afternoon.

The family had arrived in Taalbaya six years ago, from Daraya, near Damascus. To keep his dignity, Bassam refused to live in a tent in a refugee camp and tried to find work. This cost him dearly. According to his son Haitham, 27, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees repeatedly denied him economic support and food aid.

Later, his father “lost the job as a bricklayer two years ago and could not even pay the monthly rent of 400,000 Lebanese pounds (about US$ 180),” Haitham said.

“There are many people like us,” he explained. In fact, about 5,000 Syrian refugees live in refugee camps in the area or in run-down private homes in poor areas.

Before taking him in, the hospital had to wait for a greenlight from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). He was supposed to be moved to the Geitaoui Hospital (Achrafieh, Beirut), which specialises in burns, but the approval came too late and Bassam died after seven, long painful hours at the hospital near his home.

“For many hours, no one heeded our requests for help while my father lay dying in silence," Haitham said.

“The family lived in great poverty,” said Mayor Sadek Mehyiddin. “We receive many requests from needy families, after the government decided to offer 400,000 (Lebanese) pounds in aid to each household, but only for the Lebanese.”

In the case of Syrians, the UNHCR in supposed to take care of their needs, but it has recently reduced its aid, including medical support.

Many Syrians in Lebanon now regret not going home during the two days allowed by the Syrian government before closing the border with Lebanon. Many are still trying to cross it illegally.

In Syria they are looked upon with suspicion because they are coming from a country with a high level of contagion, and are thus thought to be carriers of the coronavirus. However, so far, no Syrians in Lebanon has tested positive.

Since early March, this has not stopped at least eight Lebanese municipalities from imposing a travel ban on Syrian refugees, even before the measures taken by the Lebanese government.

People can go out to buy food between 5 am until 7 pm, but in some municipalities, like Britel (Baalbek), Syrians are allowed to go out only between 9 am and 1 pm.

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