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Source: United Nations

By Farah Harwida and Mohamed Alalem in Tripoli, Libya  |  05 November 2020

In the bare concrete shell that is now her living room, an unglazed window open to the elements at one end, 56-year-old widow Hanan* sits in a white plastic chair and yearns for the comfortable house in a previously quiet neighbourhood of Tripoli that she was forced to abandon when conflict engulfed the Libyan capital last year.


Hanan and her family were among more than 200,000 Libyans forced to flee their homes by the violence in Tripoli, which erupted in April 2019 and raged for more than a year.

“We suffered. The shelling was right above us,” said Hanan, who abandoned her home to seek refuge in another part of the city, only to be forced to escape once more when the fighting caught up with them again. “Displacement is a terrifying experience. I left behind my neighbours, my quiet place, my peace of mind.”

For the past eight months, she has been living with her two daughters, two sons and a daughter-in-law in an unfinished apartment block in central Tripoli. They were among more than 100 uprooted Libyan families who – desperately seeking shelter amid the clashes – moved into the complex of grey concrete towers.

“We were starting our lives from scratch.”

The rubble-strewn apartments had no windows, doors or even an enclosed staircase. But because of their dire financial situation, Hanan and her family had no other choice. “There was no sign of life in the apartment. It was so windy. There was nothing”, she recalled.

“For three or four days, my son was staying here with a group of his friends. They’d make a fire and keep watch. Everyone was safeguarding their apartments as there were no doors”, said Hanan. “We were starting our lives from scratch.”

The family set to work trying to improve their barren living space, filling holes in the empty doorways with whatever pieces of wood and material they could find, cleaning and tidying, and relying on assistance from the municipality and local residents to get by.    

To provide much-needed assistance to some of the most vulnerable displaced families, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and its partner the Danish Refugee Council introduced a system of cash grants using pre-paid cards that could be used to buy goods direct from shops.

The programme aims to help people meet their basic needs including food, water, healthcare and shelter in a dignified manner, giving them choice over their spending needs. So far this year, the scheme has provided cash grants to some 1,750 displaced individuals across Libya.

Hanan was among those selected for assistance, receiving a pre-paid card with three monthly top-ups that allowed her to buy essential items for her family, including food and medicine.

“It saved me,” Hanan said, adding that the financial help was especially important as COVID-19 spread in Libya, sending the cost of food and cooking fuel shooting up. “I used the card for buying groceries, vegetables, and in the pharmacy. I have to take blood pressure medications and so I used the card to buy them, as well as personal items for my daughters,” she said.

Hanan said she was able to use the card at different outlets and avoided having to spend hours at a bank queuing for cash, which is often not available in Libya due to the current liquidity crisis. “The card is better. It’s easy to use,” she explained.

As well as her adult children and daughter-in-law, Hanan also found herself having to provide for the three cats that her son and his wife had brought with them to the apartment.

  • An unglazed window in Hanan’s apartment overlooks other unfinished buildings which currently host more than 100 uprooted Libyan families. © UNHCR/Mohamed Alalem

  • Hanan is photographed praying at her temporary home in the Libyan capital Tripoli. © UNHCR/Mohamed Alalem

  • One of the family’s cats reclines on a bed in the apartment, which they help to keep free of rodents. © UNHCR/Mohamed Alalem

  • Hanan and her family have filled empty doorways in the bare apartment with whatever materials they can find. © UNHCR/Mohamed Alalem

“My son and daughter-in-law love animals,” Hanan explained. “Sometimes, when I bought food, my son would wait for me to sleep and then take food to feed the cats. I used to get angry.”

Her antipathy towards the animals soon softened, however, when she realized that the cats were helping to keep the apartment free of the rodents that roam through the unfinished building.

“I didn’t use to like them myself. But then I found that they catch mice…so now I like them,” Hanan said. “I felt bad and started feeding them, because they help us too.”

“Now, everything is difficult.”

Although the fighting in Tripoli ended in June, many neighbourhoods are still unsafe to return to due to the high number of improvised explosive devices that remain, and the widespread damage to buildings. 

Hanan and her family are hoping they can move back to their former home before winter sets in. While their own house was not destroyed in the clashes, it was completely looted. They have been carrying out repairs, including putting in a new water tank and reinstalling the electricity.

“I hope we can go back before winter…[which] is very harmful when you are displaced,” said Hanan. “Now, everything is difficult…My family and I have lived through hard times.”

*Name changed for protection reasons

MIL OSI United Nations News