Tiny graves: Syrian refugees in Lebanon struggle for space to bury children

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For Syrians in Lebanon, death brings a final indignity as the bodies of their loved ones are squeezed in along cemetery edges

The graves of the children are easy to discern, little bumps on the ground squeezed in along the leading edge of the cemetery. A rectangle of four small concrete blocks is enough to encompass one childs entire body.

No names are carven in marble, only overgrown, withered grass rustling in the breeze of the Bekaa Valley. In the cemetery named al-Rahma, entailing Mercy, only one Syrian refugee childs tombstone bears markings an illegible name etched into the stone with a rough tool, the mark of a despairing mother.

You watch these little tombs that we put on the side? Theyre all children, and theyre almost all Syrians, said Hosni Shuqayyif, the graveyard caretaker. There are so many children. We bury them in the corners, on the sides, or between the other graves, wherever there is space.

The number of Syrians who have fled their country after six years of war passed 5 million on Thursday. More than a million of those are registered with the UN high commissioner for refugees in Lebanon, compared with a prewar Lebanese population of 4 million, the per capita equivalent of the UK hosting 13 million refugees.

But in this tiny nation, with its 18 officer religious sects, Syrians have endured many indignities from onerous visa procedures to poor therapy and dishonour at the border and residency offices, to child labour, sexual exploitation, and life in fragile plastic tents that collapse in wintertime, and the xenophobia of local politicians pandering to fearful followers.

And now, death brings a final indignity. Households of dead Syrians living in Lebanon are increasingly struggling to find a place to bury their loved ones, often leaving them for weeks or months in hospital mortuaries while they search for graveyards that will take them. They struggle to scrape together enough fund to pay off hospital fees, sometimes carrying them in cardboard boxes or in the backs of taxis and excavating tombs with their bare hands.

A tiny tomb at al-Rahma graveyard. Photograph: Kareem Shaheen for the Guardian

NGOs sometimes negotiate deals with municipalities to let refugees to share cemeteries with the Lebanese, but they are growing overcrowded because of the large population of Syrians, often outnumbering locals by three or four times. Few landowners are willing to sell land to construct graveyards, worried about plunging real estate costs and superstitions, and religious authorities are remaining clear of their own problems.

Most Syrians, who the hell is banned from run, cannot even afford the $200 – $300 cost of burial, including performing Islamic rites of cleansing, or shrouds and gravestones, and donors are few.

Theyre not finally at ease when they are dead, said Haytham Taimey, a Lebanese sheikh who runs the Development and Renewal Association, an NGO that helps Syrians find and pay for burial spots. Even human emotions, when youve lost somebody close to you, their basic right of mourning and saying goodbye, Syrians dont have that any more.

There is no comprehensive data for mortality rates among Syrian refugees in Lebanon. UNHCR merely find out about demises if a family opts to tell them, an unlikely step since it could entail a reduction in aid, or if a person who is receiving medical supporting dies in hospital. The organisation counted 2,087 deaths in 2015, though the number is likely much higher given the Syrian population and the limits on reporting.

A spokesman for UNHCR said they were aware of problems finding burial places, and while the organisation cannot assist with burial procedures, it offer attorney to households and tries to put them in touch with NGOs that can help.

UNHCR is aware of the general difficulties that Syrian refugees face in interring their loved ones in Lebanon, the spokesperson said. When UNHCR is alerted to specific issues, we ask our local partners to help refugees resolve this through dialogue. Local and religious authorities, local partners and municipalities are among the parties that could help refugees solve these issues.

In the past, Arab graveyards often included a section labeled madafen al-ghoraba , or the graveyards of the strangers, for guests who passed away a now defunct practice.

Walid Luwais, an official at the Islamic endowments authority, acknowledged that the issue amounted to a crisis, but said that even when the governmental forces buys land for a graveyard plot neighbours often refuse to allow the burial.

People dont want graves near them, its a popular superstition, said Taimey, the local sheikh. They love life and they dont want to open their windows and be reminded of the afterlife. They have to be hidden from opinion, though to be honest dead people are better neighbours, they never do anything to harm you.

Some municipalities have come up with answers, letting Syrians who lives in refugee camps in their townships to inter their dead in a designated area of the cemetery, while turning away outsiders. One such township is Omariyah, which houses 15,000 Syrian refugees to 7,000 Lebanese, and where half of the local graveyard is occupied by dead Syrians.

Grave at Omariyah cemetary. Photo: Kareem Shaheen for the Guardian

It is a real crisis, said Mohammad al-Ahmad, the towns mayor, who helped institute the rule. He said it was still painful to turn away desperate Syrians. Imagine someone coming to you who cant find a place to bury his dead loved one. When he asks you: So where do I go with my dead relative? In Syria Im homeless, and here I cant even inter my relative. You dont know what to do. Of course he should have a burial place, he said.

For Syrians in Lebanon, that heartbreak is a daily instance, and the calls to Taimey and local youth organisations are too frequent. One man, who declined to give his name, had to carry his father in the back of a pickup truck for hours until he managed to find a burial spot in a cemetery late at night, burying him without a coffin.

Fighting back tears, he walked away saying: They want us to merely hurl our dead in the street.

There is no shortage of stories of the desperate predicament of Syrians. One volunteer with a youth group in Saadnayel, a town that hosts about 26,000 Syrians, described how they had to inter a 50 -year-old man who had been in a morgue for 40 days. Hospitals will often maintain custody of corpses if the victim has no paperwork or if his family owes money.

There was a man who arrived in a taxi, and he had his son with him in a cardboard box, said Shuqayyif, the graveyard caretaker. A cardboard box. Not even a wooden casket. A cardboard box that probably had had potatoes or shoes in it. I insured that myself. And the father is there, excavating with his hands to bury his child. Its heartbreaking.

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