Shawn Baldwin, Photojournalist
Loula Al Hamoud awoke abruptly to the sound of pounding at her door early one morning. It was urgent: Her neighbor was in labor. “What am I supposed to do?” Loula asked before being ushered into the woman’s room, which was now covered in blood. But the moment had already come. They wanted Loula to cut the umbilical cord, and she did with the blade of a razor. “I have a strong heart,” Loula said, “but I’ve never done this.”
There are many things Loula never did before she was a volunteer with UNHCR. Now she is known as the mokhtara, or mayor, of a compound home to hundreds of Syrian refugees in northern Lebanon. Loula – friend, wife and mother of two – was among the first to arrive at the Nour Beach House, a dilapidated holiday resort bordered by the Mediterranean Sea and Lebanon’s towering mountains. “I used to go to sleep, wake up and find more people living here,” she said, describing the influx of refugees during her early days at the compound.
Loula often thinks of her life back in Homs, which she fled two years ago soon after the start of the Syrian conflict. She misses going for walks with her friends and discussing cooking, fashion and books. She misses taking her children to the garden on summer nights and buying coffee-flavored ice cream. But she was determined to leave Syria as the war moved closer to her home. Tanks were increasingly spotted on the highway not far from her house – and her family grew increasingly uneasy.
“I don’t want to go to school because what if something happens and I cannot get back home?” Loula’s eldest son Mohammed asked when he was in first grade, while the family still lived in Homs. “I’m close to you and you don’t have to worry about anything,” Loula told him. “Nothing will happen to you.” It was a promise she was keen to keep. With money running low, Loula and Yussef, now four years old, and Mohammed, now nine, joined her husband who left for Lebanon to find work a few months earlier. “You can’t live in fear and put your children in a constant state of fear,” she said.
In the spring, she was offered a position as a UNHCR volunteer in Lebanon. “I know all the NGOs and what they offer in terms of aid,” Loula said. “It is also easier for them to deal with one person instead of fifty refugees.” “I know what is going on with distribution, for example. Rather than twenty people calling UNHCR asking when the distribution is, they ask me because I know,” she added.
The first refugee to ask her for help was a man who needed a squeegee. “When people arrived they had nothing, no cleaning supplies,” Loula said, so she lent him what she could. Others needed medicine. And they had questions: “Where can they find the supermarket, the hospital, the butcher? Where should they go to buy vegetables?” Many asked about registration. “I used to give them the phone number for UNHCR and if they didn’t have a phone I used to help them make an appointment,” she said.
More than eight times in a given day, Loula gets a knock on her door at the dingy Lebanon resort where the number of refugees has billowed. It’s now home to more than 300 families. Several months ago, a mother wanted to register her newborn son and get him a birth certificate. Another woman needed advice on the best place to have surgery on her spleen. Later the conversations turned to the cost of schools. “Where do children go for vaccinations?” and “How do we receive aid?”
Loula’s job isn’t easy. “I’m always on edge,” she said, in a rare moment of frustration. “No one listens to me and they keep asking the same questions.” She sometimes wishes she could put all of the information on a blackboard so people will stop repeating the same questions. But in spite of the challenges, Loula is grateful for the chance to help other Syrians.
During autumn an elderly man from the complex fell gravely ill. Cries of his family yelling “He’s dead!” echoed from the heart of the compound. Loula urged the man’s son to seek medical care, but the man died on the way to the hospital. Hours later, the son returned with his father’s body and asked Loula where the man should be buried. Loula didn’t know what to say. But, after collecting herself, she reached out to a local official, a death certificate was issued and the man received a proper burial at a cemetery in Tripoli. “It is stressful and I feel the burden of responsibility, but I love my job because I am helping people.”
Shawn Baldwin is an award winning photojournalist and documentary photographer based in Cairo, Egypt whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Stern, Newsweek, Vanity Fair, Bloomberg Markets and the New York Times Magazine.