After years of living in tents that are inundated by rain in the winter and do not shield from the summer heat, the family of al-Raqa refugee Mohammed Qassem took shelter in a building in Lebanon's Bekaa valley under a 12-month rent-free programme.
The "Occupancy Free of Charge" (OFC) programme allows Qassem's family and four other families to live free of charge in the building in the town of Qab Elias.
The building was still under construction in 2018 when the OFC programme provided funding to its Lebanese owners so they can complete construction work in exchange for providing free housing to Syrian refugees.
The programme, run by a number of NGOs that include Save the Children, the Norwegian Refugee Council and Solidarités International, aims to provide housing and security for vulnerable Syrian refugees and improve the capacity of local communities to host them.
"I lived for a long time in a tent with my family and relatives in which we were exposed to the bitter cold and flooding in the winter and extreme heat in the summer," said Qassem.
"But since late 2018, my wife, six children [ages 8 to 15] and I have been living in adequate housing," he told Al-Mashareq.
"An unfinished building with no doors or windows in Qab Elias caught my eye, and since I had heard of OFC, I visited the [building’s] Lebanese owner and suggested the possibility of living in it with my relatives," he said.
Qassem reached out to Save the Children, which agreed to give the building's owner a sum of money to install doors, windows, lighting, bathrooms and a kitchen.
After the work was completed, Qassem signed a lease that allowed him to stay at the property for 12 months free of charge.
The property owner, Jamal Ibrahim, said he agreed to the proposition on humanitarian grounds, "because Qassem was seeking a home for his family".
"A representative from Save the Children gave me a sum of money, to which I added an equal amount and completed the construction work," he told Al-Mashareq.
Ibrahim views the programme as a "humanitarian initiative" that helps both Syrian refugees and Lebanese host communities.
Save the Children has been implementing the OFC programme since 2013 as part of the Lebanon Crisis Response Plan, said Rayan Hajj, technical adviser at Save the Children International.
Lebanese host communities tend to be poor, he told Al-Mashareq, noting that it is common for residents to begin building two or three-story homes but to leave the work unfinished due to lack of funds.
"So, we offer them a sum of money that is equivalent to a full year’s rent, ranging between $1,200 and $1,600, paid in three stages and allocated to completing the repair work," he said.
After the work is completed, the Lebanese landlord and the Syrian tenant sign a free-of-charge lease agreement for a period of 12 months and register it with the municipality, Hajj said.
At the end of the lease period, the lease is either renewed or a new one is drawn, taking into consideration the refugee’s financial situation, he said.
The programme is implemented in the Bekaa, the North and the South, and has so far benefited 3,500 Syrian refugee families, 250 poor Lebanese families and 1,165 Lebanese property owners.
"It has helped forge strong relationships between [property] owners in the Lebanese host communities and Syrian refugees," said Hajj.
It also has contributed to boosting the real estate market by enabling residents in impoverished Lebanese host communities to complete the work on their unfinished housing units and establish a semi-integrated network of sanitation and electricity infrastructure.
Watfa Najdi, who works with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, told Al-Mashareq the institute has conducted a study with Save the Children to evaluate OFC's impact on refugees, particularly their access to food, healthcare, and education.
The study showed that the refugees’ situation improved and that they were better able to provide education to their children, she said.
"It also showed that the programme’s impact on host communities was positive because it increased the number of housing units and eased the pressure on the infrastructure," she added.