When Mohammad al-Sheikh left Aleppo 18 months ago for the Lebanese border town of Arsal, he thought it was the last time he and his family would have to flee the Syrian conflict.
Arsal, a waystation on the road between Beirut and southern Syria, has for years served a safe haven for tens of thousands of refugees. Though the Lebanese government has not established official refugee camps, unofficial tent cities now dot the Bekaa Valley, while thousands squat in abandoned buildings or squeeze multiple families into cheap apartments.
But as jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Jabhat al-Nusra and other groups invaded the town this weekend in what is regarded as the most serious spillover of the war to date, the Lebanese armed forces and fighters from Hezbollah surrounded and shelled Arsal. Mohammed and his family – along with thousands of others – once again found themselves packing.
Only this time, the destination was uncertain. With more than 1 million Syrians already flooding Lebanon and anti-Syrian sentiment flourishing as far south as Saida and Beirut, the Lebanese army has blocked the roads, stopping Arsal’s re-displaced from moving deeper into the country.
“War follows wherever we go,” Mohammed says. “We’ve had terrible moments in Syria, and they haunt us still here in Arsal. The Lebanese army targets our camps in their pursuit of ISIS fighters.”
Mohammed and his family are lucky – they found friends nearby, in Hermel, who invited them to stay until the fighting in Arsal dies down. “I was really scared that I would be separated from my sister and parents,” says the former university student. “Wherever we go there’s war. Fighting, death and blood haunt us.”
Also forced to flee is Abou Ali al-Idilbi, 43, who has been living in Arsal for two years. Back home in Homs, he was a carpenter.
“We were besieged for hours,” he says. “We were scared we’d die and we remembered what we lived through in Homs at our old home in al-Khalidieh.”
“I fled with my family and we [now] live in a house in [the Lebanese town of] al-Labwe. We rented a room with a bathroom and kitchen for $150. It was all I had left from the work I did [also as a carpenter] in Arsal. The man I work for there was very generous and lent me money to provide for my family, but if things remain as is I’m not sure how we will survive.
“I fear for my children’s future. What is in store for us?”
One in four Syrian refugee households are now headed by women. One is Fatima, 36, from Idlib. In Arsal, she has been supporting her six children – three of whom are under age 10 – with occasional day-hire work.
When the shelling began, she says, “I was scared for my children. We quickly left our house and headed to the neighbors’ house since they had a basement.”
Once a two-hour truce between the army and militants went into effect, the family made its way to the nearby town of Labweh.
“We left empty-handed,” she says. “We have no clothes and are short on food. My kids are frightened.” Like so many other Arsal refugees figuring out where to go next, Fatima is aware that her presence might not be well-received elsewhere in Lebanon.
“I don’t know if the residents of Labweh would welcome us,” she says, “if we have to stay here.”