"Destruction, fighting and indiscriminate shelling made us leave our home," said Abu Shebel, a retired schoolteacher in his mid-seventies.
"I would have preferred to die at home, rather than suffer the humiliation of displacement… But fear of death brought us here," lamented Abu Hassan, 40. "I miss my home, my toys and my things. I want to go back to my school and my friends," said his seven-year-old son, Hassan.
Abu Shebel and Abu Hassan and their families are among more than 180,000 Syrian refugees who have fled violence at home. They are now hosted by Lebanese families in Wadi Khaled, an impoverished and underdeveloped part of northern Lebanon near the border with Syria.
When they fled their hometown of Tal Kalakh and arrived in Lebanon in May 2011, Abu Shebel and his wife, also a retired teacher, were taken in by the family of Sheikh Tarek, a Lebanese friend of their son, Shebel. "We temporarily shared their apartment in the first floor. We were hoping that we would return home after a couple of weeks," Abu Shebel said.
But weeks dragged into months and hopes of an imminent return faded away. When it became clear that their displacement was not going to end any time soon, the old couple moved to a deserted apartment in the ground floor. "The place was totally abandoned, but with the help of the local community we succeeded in turning it into a decent place to live. They brought us everything, from mattresses to blankets, furniture, and kitchen utensils," the grey-haired refugee said. "I am very grateful … How can I ever pay back such kindness?"
For Abu Hassan, from the Khalidiyeh neighbourhood of Homs, conditions are much harder. He and his wife and three children, together with his two sisters and two of their children, share a dilapidated flat made available by a poor Lebanese relative. The one-room dwelling is sparsely furnished with mattresses, old carpets and a small gas heater that just barely keeps the cold at bay.
Im Hassan tried to hide her tears as she pointed at the damp walls of the badly insulated room that became her makeshift home. "We were living in a beautiful house in Homs," she said. "Look where we are now – we sleep, eat and cook in the same place. Rainwater is leaking from the ceiling and there is no proper heating. Our whole situation is tragic."
Abu Hassan's three young children have no place to play except in the muddy yard outside their flat. Forced exile can be even harder for children than for adults. Torn away from normal life in a violent and abrupt manner, many Syrian children are traumatized and scarred. "Syrian children will need psychological counselling and other help to overcome their trauma," said Abu Hassan. "They had everything they needed back home. But now they are refugees, deprived of even the most basic joys of childhood."
The Lebanese families hosting refugees are also bearing the burden of Syrian displacement. "They are our relatives and they came here seeking shelter. Although we are poor, we have to share our home and our food with them. We cannot leave them in the street," explained Abu Hassan's host, Imm Hamoudy.
With a handicapped husband and seven children, Imm Hamoudy is the family's breadwinner. She uses a small part of her house as a shop where she sells sweets and a few other food items. "I keep this shop to make a living," she said. "At one point I had to sell a gold bracelet to be able to feed my family and fulfil my duties in hosting my Syrian relatives."
"To return home and live in dignity is the wish of every displaced person. No one leaves his home willingly," said Abu Hassan. Meanwhile, an end to the Syrian refugees' plight is not likely to come any time soon…