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Lebanon: no country to bury Syrian refugees

Syrian refugees in Lebanon have to navigate a complex jumble of actors to find a grave for their loved ones. 

21 July 2020

BEIRUT It took three days to find a place to bury Hasan Rabeh, a 29-year-old Syrian refugee and well-known dancer who took his life in 2016 in Beirut.

“We tried in Beirut, we asked all the mosques, none accepted,” Rami Alrihawe, a cousin of Hasan, told Syria Direct. After Beirut, they tried in the northern city of Tripoli. “Not even a single cemetery received us,” he recalled. Eventually, they buried him in a “barren land” in the Beqaa Valley, a one-hour drive east of Beirut. “Nobody takes care of this problem, we can’t bury any Syrian here, who put this rule?” Rami asked himself.

Rami’s question is not easy to answer. No Lebanese law bans Syrians from receiving sepulture in Lebanese cemeteries since burials are not regulated by national legislation but by religious authorities at the municipal level. Each town sets its own rules, leaving Syrian refugees to navigate a complex jumble of actors to find a grave for their loved ones. 

Between 2011 and 2014, Syrian refugees in Lebanon “did not find obstacles to burying their relatives”, according to Sheikh Waled Al-wais, from Dar al-Fatwa in the Beqaa Valleya religious institution issuing legal rulings to the Sunni community. But after 2014, “the Lebanese cemeteries could not cope and some municipalities banned the burial of Syrians,” he added. Currently, only a handful of local NGOs support Syrians in finding a place to give sepulture to their loved ones, mainly in the Beqaa Valley, Tripoli, Akkar and Sibline.

Who decides who can be buried?

Each religious authority regulates the burials of their community. For instance, Dar al-Fatwa, as the Sunni authority in Lebanon, would be “in charge” of the Syrian refugees who are Sunni, which are the majority. Representatives of Dar al-Fatwa, together with local council members and local families, make the decision whether or not to bury in their town, explained Haitham Taaimi, Head of Mission of Development and Regeneration Association (DRA), a Lebanese association based in the town of Chtaura that helps Syrian refugees in the burial process. However, sometimes it is more complex. For example, in the case of the Syrian child who was exhumed from a “Lebanese only” cemetery in a town in northern Lebanon last September, Taaimi explained that “the land belonged to Dar al-Fatwa, but the local power was the one taking that decision”.

While some towns agree to bury Syrians if they live in the area, other villages directly bar Syrians from their cemeteries arguing lack of space; Lebanon, with a population of 6 million, hosts 1.5 million Syrian refugees. 

In Lebanese cities close to the Syrian border, kinship makes things easier. “Some of the Lebanese allow Syrians to bury [their deceased relatives] because they have Syrian cousins,” explained Ali Iwies, the Communication Officer at DRA. 

Beyond municipal cemeteries, families can pool their resources and buy a piece of land to bury their dead. In the Beqaa Valley, several well-off Syrian families have created two cemeteries, according to Taaimi. 

Beirut is off-limits

Beirut cemeteries are inaccessible to Syrians. “Only certain well-off Syrian families can bury in Beirut”, explained Samer Harb, the manager of Harb Funeral Home in the Beirut neighborhood of Msaytbeh.

In the Lebanese capital, the cost of a grave starts at $1,500 while in the Beqaa Valley a grave can cost $500. “Syrian refugees can not pay these amounts, sometimes until they get the money, they stay with the body in the house for three days,” Iwies said. 

The Martyrs cemetery of Beirut is off-limits for Syrian refugees, 13/07/2020 (Syria Direct)

Adding to the cost of the grave, the funerary services – ranging from the cleansing rituals, the hearse or the flower arrangements – fatten the bill. Harb charges 1.3 million Lebanese Pound (LBP) for ‘modest’ funerals and 9 million LBP for ‘middle class’ burials ($860 and $6,000 at the official exchange rate of 1,500, respectively). 

For Druse or Christian Syrian refugees, the cost of a coffin starts at $200 (that would be 300,000 LBP at the official exchange rate, but now Harb charges 1 million LBP due to the devaluation of the national currency). “These days, people take the cheapest coffin, without the car or anything else,” Harb explained. Since Muslims are buried in a white cotton cloth, the cost of renting a coffin to transport the body is less expensive. 

Coffins at the Harb Funeral Home in Beirut, 13/07/2020 (Syria Direct)

The cost of burials differs according to the age of the grave. “If someone was buried there from a long time ago and we don’t know who is there, they open it and use it, this is a cheaper option,” explained Taaimi.  

Beyond the financial aspects, Beirut cemeteries do not seem open to Syrian refugees. When asked if they banned Syrians, a source at the association that manages the Bashura and the Martyr’s cemeteries in Beirut said that only people with family members already buried there could bury, thus, Syrians were left out of the equation.

A place to rest

New graves being built at the Haouch El Harimeh cemetery in the Beqaa Valley, 15/07/2020, (Syria Direct)

The fresh geraniums and dahlias give testimony that the family of Mahmoud al-Julud, born in 2005 and dead last May, visit his grave frequently. Other graves remain unnamed and flower-less. At the door of the Haouch El Harimeh cemetery, a sign reads “big tomb $200, small tomb $100.” 

In 2017, Dar al-Fatwa, in coordination with DRA, bought this 3,000 square meter plot of land that has a capacity of 1,000 graves for Syrian refugees. A quarter of the cemetery is occupied now and “in two years it will be full,” said Taaimi. Syrians generally pay 300,000 LBP for a grave, “but if someone is poor, we don’t take money from him or her,” said Al-wais. 

Previously, Dar al-Fatwa tried buying two parcels in Beqaa but the neighbors of those municipalities – Al-wais declined to name these villages – refused to allow a Syrian cemetery on their land.

From the left, Ali Iwies, the communication officer at Development and Regeneration Association (DRA), Sheikh Waled Al-wais, from Dar al-Fatwa in Beqaa and Haitham Taaimi, Head of Mission of DRA, at the Dar al-Fatwa office in the town of Bar Elias, 15/07/2020 (Syria Direct)

Not far from Haouch El Harimeh, 1,000 graves lay in the ‘informal’ cemetery of Al Faour. “People started to bury in this land. This was not allowed, and in 2018 the Ministry of Agriculture [the owner of the land] banned burying here and it closed,” said Al-wais. However, Abu Majdi, a social activist from the Shatila refugee camp who provides coordination support for Syrians in the burial process, told Syria Direct that he had buried a 45-year-old Syrian woman in Al Faour eight months ago.

In Shatila, originally a Palestinian refugee camp, Syrian refugees receive help from organizations in the camp to deal with the paperwork and are offered a place in Sibline cemetery (Mount Lebanon) at a cost of 400,000 LBP, explained Abu Majdi. The cemetery was originally for Palestinians but Syrians are also accepted. “Al-Shifa Association for Medical and Human Services may contribute to transportation [of the deceased] by ambulance, [the NGO] Ahlam Laji contributes the burial fabric, another group contributes to the transportation for the family from Beirut to Sibiline to visit; this is how we work,” he explained.

Um Ibrahim, a Syrian Palestinian refugee from Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus who sought refuge in Shatila in 2013, lost her elderly mother a year ago. “We couldn’t pay the cost of the burial. In the Beqaa they asked us for $1,000, and sending the body to Syria was not an option because the process is long and costly,” she told Syria Direct. Instead, in just one day, they buried her in the Sibline cemetery. 

According to a Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) survey, only 10% of Syrians refugees in Lebanon opt to send the deceased bodies to Syria. Batool Soltan was one of them. This 21-year-old Syrian, originally from the central city of Hama and living now in Shatila, had to bury her father-in-law last February. “His desire was to be buried in Syria, he loved his country,” she explained. The family paid $1,000 for the documentation, hospitals and crossing the border. The body travelled from Beirut to Tripoli and then crossed over to Syria in a taxi. It took two days to bury him. 

Razan Kmaleh, a sister-in-law of Batool Soltan shows a photo of her deceased father, at their house in Shatila refugee camp, 18/07/2020 (Syria Direct)

Samer Harb estimates the cost of transporting a body from Beirut to Damascus is around $700, but says most Syrians refugees bury their loved ones in Lebanon. “It is very difficult to transport the dead from a country to another, especially since most of the Syrians in Lebanon are aligned with the opposition to the regime,” added Al-wais.

A forgotten problem

No organization is gathering comprehensive data of the death rates of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. UNHCR gathers data on refugees “who die while admitted to a hospital care program. However, deaths (and burials) taking place within the community cannot be tracked if not self-reported by the family to UNHCR”, said Lisa Abou Khaled, spokesperson at UNHCR.

Ninety-nine percent of Syrian refugees have had a death in the family since arriving in Lebanon as refugees, according to the NRC survey – of these, 24% of the deaths related to minors and 76% to adults. 

Dar al-Fatwa registered an average of 4,000 deaths of Syrian refugees per year in Beqaa, a governorate of one million Lebanese and around 340,000 Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR. This religious institution estimates the death rate for Syrians at 6 per 1,000, while the death rate of Syrian newborns raised to 14 per 1,000. Syria Direct has tried to reach out to Dar al-Fatwa for related data at the national level, with no success.

The path to registering the death of a Syrian in Lebanon follows several steps: issuance of the death notification by a doctor, issuance of the death certificate by the local authority (Mukhtar), registering the death certificate at the Noufous department and the Foreigners’ Registry and stamping the death certificate at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Syrian Embassy. 

According to the NRC survey, only 3% of the respondents reached the last step and obtained a death certificate. This document is “important for refugees regarding inheritance, also related to housing, land and property rights back in Syria, custody of the children or ability to remarry,” explained Lianna Badamo, NRC Information, Counselling and Legal Assistance (ICLA) specialist.

To legally bury someone in Lebanon a death notification is mandatory, but 45% of the Syrians surveyed did not even initiate the procedure due to “financial reasons, lack of information on how to proceed or fear of approaching authorities,” said Mazen Mansour, ICLA Coordinator. Up until 2016, Lebanese authorities required both the  relative of the deceased and the deceased to have a valid legal residency permit to register the death. 

The fees to register a death can reach 50,000 LBP ($33 at the official exchange rate) and if the death is not registered within 45 days, a fine of 100,000 LBP is imposed. “In order to encourage refugees to proceed with death registration, authorities should waive the fees for the death registration and the fine of the 45 days delay”, said Badamo. 

Out of the 303 Syrian refugees surveyed by NRC, only one had received burial assistance from an NGO. The struggle to bury Syrian refugees seems a forgotten cause. 

In 2016, the DRA proposed a project to build a cemetery in Bar Elias where members of the same Syrian family could be buried together. “We did the map, the architecture plans, but we did not find donors,” recalled Taaimi. 

Cemeteries tell stories. “The cemetery for the French soldiers (in Beirut) is a testimony of the sacrifice of French soldiers during the World Wars”, explained Taaimi. He now wants the Syrian cemeteries in Lebanon to tell the story of the suffering of those who die far from home. 

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