Tents can tell stories of joy and stories of anguish. I lived in a canvas tent in Northern Canada for 10 years. It was my choice, and I loved it. I loved the challenge of being self-reliant and of living without electricity and running water.
Mohammad and his family also live in a canvas tent. Their tent is not in Northern Canada, but in Northern Lebanon, along the Syrian border. I met them while I worked for Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) for 6 months in 2016.
In January 2016 I sat on the floor of the tent where Mohammad, his mother, his wife and his 9 children lived. It was winter, and we huddled around the woodstove as snow fell outside. As Mohammad showed me photos of their life in Aleppo, it reminded me of how I used to proudly show people photos of the tent I chose to live in. Seeing Mohammad’s photos and the beauty of old Aleppo, it was clear that their tent living was not by choice, but by absolute necessity.
I began working as a nurse with MSF in 2009. Since then I have worked with some of the people this world has forgotten most. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Cameroon, and South Sudan I have worked with people fleeing conflicts that were unmentioned in western media. In Niger and Chad I worked with people continuously struck by waves of malnutrition caused by a complexity of factors out of their control. Besides a few photos of malnourished children, their stories were rarely told in western media.
The Syrians I met in Lebanon can also classify as a forgotten population. While stories of the Syrian conflict are regularly recounted in the news and the politics and plights of Syrians in Europe are in the media on a daily basis, the stories of families such as Mohammad’s go unheard.
Mohammad and his family arrived in Lebanon in 2013. They fled Aleppo during one of many bomb strikes. They arrived in Lebanon with very little. They couldn’t afford to rent an apartment or a garage, so they were forced to rent a small canvas tent in one of the many Informal Tented Settlements (ITS) set up in Northern Lebanon. ITS are the result of the Lebanese government forbidding refugee camps in the country.
Mohammad’s mother has diabetes and high blood pressure. The travel and stress of the situation had caused her diabetes to become extremely unstable. Upon arriving in Lebanon she needed medical care that specialized in chronic diseases such as diabetes. Mohammad’s wife was also pregnant with their 9th child, and needed prenatal care. Other Syrians living in the ITS told the family to go to MSF’s nearby free health clinic.
Since 2011, MSF has run health clinics in North Lebanon. These clinics provide free consultations for acute illness, antenatal and postnatal care, mental health and chronic disease. It was in one of the 4 MSF clinics in North Lebanon that I first met Mohammad and his family.
While I began working with MSF as a nurse, in Lebanon I worked as the project coordinator. As the project coordinator I assessed the context and the needs of everyone living in the area and I spoke with different people about the experience of Syrians and vulnerable Lebanese living in the north. I spoke with government officials, medical officials, religious leaders, and the people living the stories – Syrians and vulnerable Lebanese.
As I sat on the tent floor in January, I heard a sentiment that I came to hear repeatedly during my time in Lebanon. Mohammad and his family want to return to Syria, but they can’t right now. Syria is home, but for now they are stuck. Stuck living in a canvas tent, and for them there is no clear future. Employment is hard to find, education for the children is irregular, and food is expensive. The tent is cold in the winter and hot in the summer. But, I was told repeatedly, at least health care and medication is free, thanks to MSF.
My experiences with MSF constantly teach me about the power of relativity. I loved my 10 years in the canvas tent in the wilds of Northern Canada. Those years taught me that anything is possible, and made me feel that the world was full of open doors. For the hundreds of thousands of Syrians living in canvas tents in Lebanon, it is not the same experience. The only door that seems open is that of the canvas tent. And that of the MSF clinic.