05/20/2016, 14.55
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Caritas Lebanon: the plight of Syrian refugees who cannot register newborns or bury their dead

Fr Paul Karam talks to AsiaNews about refugees’ serious "economic, social, moral and human” conditions and emergencies These include the near impossibility for them to bury their dead for lack of space and high costs. Registering births belong to “Syria and the international community." In the Year of the Mercy, he pleads for help to Caritas activities.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – Conditions for refugees in Lebanon remain critical. Problems compound each other and it is harder to meet multiplying “economic, social, moral and human emergencies,” said Fr Paul Karam, director of Caritas Lebanon, which has been playing a leading role in helping Syrian and other refugees fleeing war.

Speaking to AsiaNews, Fr Karam said that Lebanon has not only welcomed Syrians. For a long time, the country has hosted for a long time “Palestinians, as well as Iraqis who left in their homes and land in the past few years to escape violence." For this reason, we need “concrete aid, starting with money” to continue “our work.”

Burying their dead is one of the many issues that touch Syrian refugees. There is little space, and the few existing cemeteries are reserved for Lebanese citizens.

One story among many is that of Ahmad al-Mustafa, 29, a construction worker from Aleppo. After fleeing Syria at the start of the war, Mustafa and his wife lost three babies – aged three months, five days and just two hours old. "The problem was where to bury them," he told Naharnet, his tone matter-of-fact, as if numbed to the suffering.

When the second baby died, he was forced to open up the grave of his first dead baby and place the second one in it. With the help of a religious leader, he buried his third child in yet another district. He got no help from the authorities.

Death rates among Syrian refugees are much higher than among the local population because they are more vulnerable. There are no official statistics, but at least two thirds of Lebanon's Syrian refugees live in extreme poverty.

In Bar Elias, where Mustafa lives with his family, at least one person in the town's Syrian community dies each week. The cost per grave can sometimes be as high as US$ 250. So expensive is burial that many Syrians prefer to bury their dead secretly.

“We have heard these stories even though they do not touch our centres,” Fr Karam told AsiaNews. “I know about refugees temporarily burying their dead in mass graves. They expect that one day they will be able to come back to dig up the remains and bring them home. It's a real problem; like many others that complicate life of every day."

Then there is the question of "children born in Lebanon," who "are not registered either in Syria or in Lebanon."

“Our country is not very big,” the Caritas director said. “It is unthinkable to grant citizenship to everyone; it would undermine the delicate ethnic and religious mosaic that underpins it.”

"The point is that we have to end the war, arms trafficking, oil interests, and allow people to return to live in their own land. Because that's what they want."

Registering births “cannot be an obligation of the Lebanese state; it must be the responsibility of Syria and the international community".

In the meantime, Caritas Lebanon carries on its aid work in an extremely difficult conditions.

"People are desperate and need help,” the priest noted. “It is not by dispersing them in other countries (Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey) or Europe that the problem can be solved. The point is to end the war, because those paying the price are the civilians, the poorest people."

Heeding Pope Francis’ plea in the Jubilee Year of the mercy, Caritas and Lebanon’s Churches have promoted and continue to offer aid and assistance programmes amid great difficulties.

"The health situation is really serious, and we are trying to cope with it as best we can,” Fr Karam said. “We provide money for daily expenses. The cost of living is high, especially for refugees. Lebanon has been impoverished by this crisis.”

In view of this, the clergyman appeals to Catholics around the world to help those working on the ground with a "donation to Caritas" so that they can bring "aid and comfort" to the less fortunate.

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