International Refugee Week: George Butler Paints Their Everyday Life in Lebanon

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Doctors of the World recently commissioned renowned artist George Butler to visit the refugee camps where we operate in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.

In March I spent eight days drawing in the refugee camps or ‘tented settlements’ as they are now called in the Bekaa Valley in northern Lebanon. These settlements, medical clinics and schools are supported by Doctors of the World, who provide primary healthcare to tens of thousands of Syrian refugees across the country. Having drawn in Syria several times over the last 18 months and having started a small charity delivering humanitarian aid across the border into Syria I was aware of the conditions.

However this was very different from my last trip. There were no immediate signs of war, no tanks, no field hospitals, no walking wounded, no men in black headbands with Kalashnikovs. And yet with a million refugees now in Lebanon this was likely the most common experience of innocent people caught up in the war. Families of between eight and 12 people living in wooden-framed tents; tents in groups of 5,15 and 65 on the sides of roads, in fields and next to vineyards.

Often these tents were wrapped with disregarded and somewhat ironic advertising panels to keep the sun out and rain off. One featuring a Real Madrid footballer, one with female models on a catwalk and another even pictured a block of smart flats, presumably for rent, somewhere desirable – now the images were stretched around the last place on earth you would ever wish to live.

The drawings describe my seven days in the tented settlements in El-Qaa, Al-Ain and Kamed el-Loz. They show some of the people we met and the places they now live in. After listing the obvious practical things they needed for survival (water, food, medicine) going home was their biggest desire.

With passports and identification fast expiring, many of the Syrian refugees feel more trapped in Lebanon than they did under the bombs of the Syrian regime or the erratic nature of the opposition. They have few rights, no work – just the memories of a civilized, educated, clean, healthy life only three years earlier. Some told us they had been crossed off the UN refugee register, their only lifeline, unable to reapply.

It took me several days to work out how to describe these stories. Eventually I asked if I could draw the possessions they had brought with them from Syria. I expected, of course, that these would be precious objects with sentimental value or gifts from loved ones. I was soon put straight.

In reality, which this very much was, they were the things that were grabbed when the shelling started or when the lights went out; they were the objects left whole in the rubble of their homes, the things the kids happened to be holding or the stuff left in the car. More often than not they had no possessions at all.

It was now junk, with no useful purpose – but junk which connected them, although indirectly, to their previous life. Junk they could not throw away. The remote control for the Syrian TV, the clock, a broken lighter, an old key ring, keys for a motorbike stolen in Syria, a friend’s telephone number, a photo of a seven-year-old son left behind so he could go to school. This was the reality of it.

George Butler is an award-winng artist and illustrator specialising in travel and current affairs.