Saadnayel, Bekaa – When Syrian refugee Khairallah Jdeir died after being hit by a car in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, his son was forced to bring the body back to his tent for two days before he was able to find a plot of land to lay him to rest.
“We faced a huge number of issues trying to bury him; everything costs money, we’re told we’re not allowed to bury people in most places, and there is still no place to bury our dead,” Youssef Jdeir, his son, told Al Jazeera. “No one would help us.”
What happened to the Jdeir family is not an isolated incident. Many Syrian refugees are facing issues over where they are allowed to bury their dead, forcing them to keep the bodies unburied for several days in some instances.
“We barely have enough money to live; how are we supposed to pay for the dead? And where are we supposed to bury them?”
There are approximately 1.1 million refugees currently registered in Lebanon, and another 400,000 unregistered ones. A large majority of them are based in Bekaa, between informal settlements and allocated empty buildings.
In some cases, local municipalities refuse to allow them to be buried in local cemeteries, saying residents do not want to give up their grave spots to the refugees. In other cases, local residents and refugees have come up against each other, with residents forcing the refugees to remove the bodies and put them elsewhere.
One such incident involved a young girl who was also killed in a car crash. As she was being buried, the owners of the land stopped the burial, refusing to allow her to be buried in their land. After several mediation efforts by local parties, she was eventually buried in a plot of land in another village.
We faced a huge number of issues trying to bury him; everything costs money, we're told we're not allowed to bury people in most places, and there is still no place to bury our dead. No one would help us. We barely have enough money to live; how are we supposed to pay for the dead? And where are we supposed to bury them?
In Islam, it is paramount to bury the body as fast as possible. Leaving the body above the ground for days on end is considered disrespectful to the dead.
In one cemetery, a small plot was allocated to the refugees to bury their dead but without tombstones, forcing the buried to remain anonymous in their death.
Tensions have been rising between the local population and the refugees as the country attempts to deal with the influx of refugees fleeing the civil war in neighbouring Syria, which is now entering its fifth year.
In one such informal settlement in the Bekaa town of Saadnayel, a number of Syrian elders who oversee the running of the camp gathered around a small stove inside one of the tents, attempting to stay warm against the biting cold outside.
Outside, children played in dirty puddles of melting snow that still blanketed the length of the Bekaa after a deadly storm hit the country over two weeks ago. The refugees were the hardest hit in the storm, struggling to stay alive in their makeshift tents while attempting to keep out the metres of snow that settled around them.
“When one of us dies, we struggle to find somewhere to bury them,” Abu Khodr, an elder in one of the informal tent settlements located in Saadnayel, told Al Jazeera. “Sometimes they have to stay two or three days before we can find somewhere to bury them.”
While individuals from the local community have donated plots of land in some areas for the Syrians to bury their dead, these are few and far between, leaving many others concerned over what they will do when their loved ones pass away.
Abu Khodr, who has been a refugee in Lebanon for the last three years after having fled his hometown of Qusayr, was visibly upset when he said: “Sometimes we’re even forced to bury them in secret. More than once we’ve been left with no choice but to bury a body in the middle of the night.
“What other option are we left with?”
Saadnayel, a small town nestled in the Bekaa Valley, is well-known for its strong support of the Syrian revolution since it started in 2011. Today it holds up to 35,000 Syrian refugees, according to figures provided by the municipality. But it only has two cemeteries, one of which is already full. Even though a small extension has been built, its plots have already been reserved by the locals to bury their dead.
“This is becoming a big problem for us [Lebanese] and for the Syrian refugees,” Khalil al-Shahimi, head of the municipality of Saadnayel, told Al Jazeera. “There’s no space in the cemeteries to bury our own people, and we are facing issues from Lebanese who don’t want their plots to be taken, and asking for [the Syrians] to be buried elsewhere.”
According to Shahimi, up until now, Syrian refugees were given burial spots on a case-by-case basis. “Either they know a sheikh who can help them out, or a mayor or local official,” he said. “But as a municipality there’s nothing we can do.”
Shahimi called on the United Nations and the Lebanese government to work on solving this issue, adding that it is not a problem that is likely to disappear. Due to the conditions the Syrians are living in, Shahimi explained – especially during the winter months – more Syrians are dying than Lebanese, and as a result, the issue of burial space needs to be addressed before tensions between the two communities escalate.
“This needs to be resolved soon; otherwise it is only going to get bigger,” he said. “The Syrians living here now will be living here for a long time to come.”
In comments to Al Jazeera, Dana Sleiman, a spokesperson for UNHCR, noted: “When this has arisen, we have asked our local partners to resolve this locally. The people who know the issues best are the local authorities, municipalities and local partners. We are happy to bring them together and facilitate the discussion but it’s not something we are involved in directly.”
Back in the informal settlement, another camp elder, Abu Firas, told Al Jazeera that it is not only an issue of space, but also of money, as they have to pay for grave diggers, which they cannot afford with the little amount of aid they receive from relief organisations.
“This is a national issue and needs to be addressed,” he said. “Syrians need their own land to ensure there aren’t any more problems.
“A small cemetery was donated to Syrians to bury their dead, but even that is overflowing,” he said. “The Syrian population [in Saadnayel] is three times the size of the Lebanese population.”
For Youssef Jdeir, the treatment of refugees in Lebanon is no different whether alive or dead.
“Here, the dead are dead and the living are dead,” he said.