In a Syrian refugee camp: I would tell President Trump ‘to come and see’ us

Michael Isikoff
Chief Investigative Correspondent

BEKAA VALLEY, Lebanon — Families crammed into ramshackle tents. Children playing amid garbage. Their parents, bewildered and fearful — with no place to go.

That is life in Jdita, a settlement center for Syrian refugees in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.

“What you see now is how we live every day,” says Hana Khalaf, surrounded by a half-dozen young children, her nephews, nieces and cousins, huddled together on the tent floor. “Life is monotonous. The situation is difficult. Imagine, you never know when your tent will catch fire.”

Her country has been on fire for six years. There are 4.8 million refugees from Syria’s civil war. That’s more than five times the number of Palestinian refugees created by the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. An estimated 1.6 million Syrians are in Lebanon, where most can’t get work permits due to onerous local regulations. Many of the children in Jdita have no school to attend.

So the families wait endlessly in their tents — for something to change.

But nothing does.

Sana’ Jassem clutches a crying baby, standing by a sheet-metal-covered well and a fire crackling by a tire. She and her husband, Toufic Salem-Ali, a farmer from outside Aleppo, fled the city when the shelling started in 2013. Toufic has nothing to farm now. “Life is difficult when the man does not work,” Sana’ says, looking at her husband as he stares off into space. “Most days, one stays hungry when the man does not work.”

Moutaz Khalaf, 33, Hana’s brother, has mournful eyes as he tells the tragic story of his family. He had been a senior lawyer in the Syrian Directorate of Agriculture in Aleppo. In 2013, his mother left for a trip to Lebanon — and disappeared, taken captive by regime soldiers.

“I’ll never forget that day,” he says. Five months later, his brother — a former soldier in the Syrian army — was traveling in territory controlled by the rebel Free Syria Army (the FSA) and disappeared as well. “I feel like I have bad feelings for the number seven, because my mother disappeared on the seventh of April and my brother on the seventh of September,” he said.

Then a friend, a fellow government employee, was arrested by Syrian Air Force Intelligence. “They took him, and after 16 days, they released him as a corpse, as a result of torture and electrocution,” Khalaf says.

Later, he finally got word about his mother. She had been taken to Saydnaya Prison outside Damascus — the same notorious facility that Amnesty International, in a report last week, dubbed a “human slaughterhouse.” Between 5,000 and 13,000 detainees have been executed at Saydnaya in mass hangings authorized by senior officials of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government, the report says.

When I asked Assad about the report in an interview last week, he said, “You can forge anything these days,” and then added, “We’re living in a fake news era”— a phrase he now uses for all allegations of human rights abuses by his government.

Was his mother a political protester? No, Khalaf says, she was “illiterate” and had nothing to do with politics. But she was a Sunni and, he says, the regime had held her and 13 other Sunnis as hostages to force the release of 42 Alawites being held by the rebels. The plan for an exchange didn’t work out — so they executed her instead, he says.

Khalaf and the rest of the residents are afraid to return to Syria and are years away from any hope of resettlement in the United States or Europe. But still, they have been following — on their mobile phones and on televisions — the debate in the United States about President Trump’s executive order to ban all Syrian refugees from the country.

I asked Khalaf if he had a message for Trump. He does, he says. He wants him to come to Jdita.

“I [would] tell him to come and see the Syrian refugees, who are lost between torn tents and a torn country,” he says. “And now there are kids who are [being] raised, a generation being raised thinking that tents are their home.”

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