A bad business idea could help fill a critical need for Syria's refugees

News Stories, 19 December 2013

© UNHCR/S.Baldwin
A group of Syrian refugee women move into their new home, a former chicken farm, near Qoubaiyat, in northern Lebanon.

QOUBAIYAT, Lebanon, December 19 (UNHCR) One of the biggest challenges facing Syrian refugees is also one of the most fundamental. Finding safe, secure and dignified shelter for the 2.3 million-plus to have fled the country is an enormous task. In Lebanon, where there are no major camps to accommodate the influx, and where each arriving family requires a new solution, the problem is urgent.

Rents are increasing, the capacity of host families to accommodate refugees is being exhausted, and available space is disappearing. In the northern Lebanon town of Qoubaiyat, UNHCR and its partners have hit upon a novel solution. Earlier this month a group of families moved into their brand new home, refurbished with funds from UNHCR and managed by the Danish Refugee Council It's a chicken farm.

"I don't want to leave," said Fatimah, a refugee from the Syrian city of Qusayr, who arrived here last month after being forced to leave her previous home near the Syrian border because of shelling.

The shelter, a three-storey concrete and cement-block building with sweeping views of the surrounding countryside, will ultimately accommodate 60 families. It is one of a dozen such farms in the region that UNHCR hopes to make operational by the middle of next year, with five opening by as early as the end of this month.

The shelters are available thanks to a business idea gone bad. Several years ago, local entrepreneurs took advantage of favourable loans to build multi-storey concrete chicken farms in the rugged countryside along the Syrian border. The cavernous structures, which afforded the birds lots of air and light and a roof over their heads, were intended to serve as suppliers for major poultry distributors.

But a variety of factors, including the global financial crisis, concerns over hygiene and avian flu, and consolidation in the poultry sector, led to many of the new enterprises failing. The result was abandoned buildings scattered across the hillsides of northern Lebanon with no apparent use. Then the Syria crisis erupted.

"We thought that this was a good option," said Vincent Dupin, the senior site planner for UNHCR in Lebanon. "In this country we have to be creative to find shelters," he said. "Otherwise we are stuck."

In other conflicts, such as the Kosovo crisis of 1999, he said, agricultural buildings such as barns were used to house refugees, but this is the first time to his knowledge that chicken farms have been used as shelter by UNHCR.

He conceded that some officials were sceptical that chicken farms could be repurposed in this way. Industrial cleaners had to be brought in to scrub the floors, cement blocks fitted to shut out the bitter winter mountain weather, and power and water delivered from the municipal supplies. The ground around the building has been levelled and gravel laid to keep the dust down. On the up side, rent for the abandoned buildings is negligible; refurbishment cost about US$100,000.

When Fatimah and her family moved in last month, children ran through the corridors and peeked from wire mesh windows. Fatimah said she was particularly relieved to have a room of her own, to share with her husband, for the first time since fleeing Qusayr five months ago. She held up a green key chain with her very own key, and grinned.

The Danish Refugee Council, which is administering the shelters together with a local partner, the Akkar Network for Development, says that it will continue to monitor the refugees' needs at each shelter since the housing is unconventional. The agency is considering transport to schools for the children and helping with access to local food markets. If all goes according to plan, by the middle of 2014, the farms could house as many refugees as a full-fledged transit site. In a country with little useable shelter, this is one bad idea that could turn out to be a very good one.




UNHCR country pages

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie meets Iraqi refugees in Syria

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie returned to the Syrian capital Damascus on 2 October, 2009 to meet Iraqi refugees two years after her last visit. The award-winning American actress, accompanied by her partner Brad Pitt, took the opportunity to urge the international community not to forget the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees who remain in exile despite a relative improvement in the security situation in their homeland. Jolie said most Iraqi refugees cannot return to Iraq in view of the severe trauma they experienced there, the uncertainty linked to the coming Iraqi elections, the security issues and the lack of basic services. They will need continued support from the international community, she said. The Goodwill Ambassador visited the homes of two vulnerable Iraqi families in the Jaramana district of southern Damascus. She was particularly moved during a meeting with a woman from a religious minority who told Jolie how she was physically abused and her son tortured after being abducted earlier this year in Iraq and held for days. They decided to flee to Syria, which has been a generous host to refugees.

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Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

As world concern grows over the plight of hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians, including more than 200,000 refugees, UNHCR staff are working around the clock to provide vital assistance in neighbouring countries. At the political level, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres was due on Thursday (August 30) to address a closed UN Security Council session on Syria.

Large numbers have crossed into Lebanon to escape the violence in Syria. By the end of August, more than 53,000 Syrians across Lebanon had registered or received appointments to be registered. UNHCR's operations for Syrian refugees in Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley resumed on August 28 after being briefly suspended due to insecurity.

Many of the refugees are staying with host families in some of the poorest areas of Lebanon or in public buildings, including schools. This is a concern as the school year starts soon. UNHCR is urgently looking for alternative shelter. The majority of the people looking for safety in Lebanon are from Homs, Aleppo and Daraa and more than half are aged under 18. As the conflict in Syria continues, the situation of the displaced Syrians in Lebanon remains precarious.

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Turkish Camps Provide Shelter to 90,000 Syrian Refugees

By mid-September, more than 200,000 Syrian refugees had crossed the border into Turkey. UNHCR estimates that half of them are children, and many have seen their homes destroyed in the conflict before fleeing to the border and safety.

The Turkish authorities have responded by building well-organized refugee camps along southern Turkey's border with Syria. These have assisted 120,000 refugees since the crisis conflict erupted in Syria. There are currently 12 camps hosting 90,000 refugees, while four more are under construction. The government has spent approximately US$300 million to date, and it continues to manage the camps and provide food and medical services.

The UN refugee agency has provided the Turkish government with tents, blankets and kitchen sets for distribution to the refugees. UNHCR also provides advice and guidelines, while staff from the organization monitor voluntary repatriation of refugees.

Most of the refugees crossing into Turkey come from areas of northern Syria, including the city of Aleppo. Some initially stayed in schools or other public buildings, but they have since been moved into the camps, where families live in tents or container homes and all basic services are available.

Turkish Camps Provide Shelter to 90,000 Syrian Refugees

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