“The solidarity of Lebanon is reaching its limits”
Many Syrian Christians have found refuge in Lebanon – Aid to the Church in Need is providing support
Flodia is lying in bed with acute abdominal pains. “The whole situation has now started to affect me physically,” she says. “Being a refugee means having stress. You cannot imagine it. Worrying about tomorrow eats you up, first mentally, then physically.” This young Syrian woman has been living in Zahle with her husband George and their three children since 2012.
The Christian city on the Lebanese Beqaa plateau called Zahle, is not far from the Syrian border, making it a destination for many Syrian Christians as they fled their homeland during the uprising against President Assad, beginning in 2011, as the situation became more and more bloodied.
“We had a good life in Syria. We lived in a beautiful house near Homs. But we could not stay. The rebels kept advancing. We have nothing left. We have no idea what has happened to our house,” she says bitterly and gestures to the room around her. The family is renting a bedsit. Five people are living in one room, in which they cook, eat and sleep. It is filled with old furniture donated by local Christians. “We have to pay 250 dollars a month for this small flat. That is a lot for us. Quite a lot.”
Flodia’s husband George worked in Syria as a labourer. However, he is no longer completely healthy. Neither he nor she has any kind of work. Instead, the three sons have to contribute to the upkeep of the family. Flodia has tears in her eyes as she talks about it. “My sons should be going to school or be in training for a profession or even going to university. But that is not possible. We need the money. But you can imagine how a mother feels when she robs her children of their future. I feel so guilty.”
Her son Eli, however, waves her words aside. The 16-year-old works at a warehouse and delivers goods. “Our parents used to do everything for us. Now it is simply our turn.” His younger brother, who is only 13, works in a bakery. The oldest of the sons, 17-year-old Roger, washes hair at a barbershop. The young men do not earn much. “My sons work twelve hours a day. For that, they are earning just 150 dollars a month. That is exploitation. But what can we do?”
According to Floria, their family of five needs six to seven hundred dollars a month to make ends meet. Eli has pretty much come to terms with the situation. “It was awful, having to leave home. However, I have also found friends here. And luckily we are all alive and together as a family. I am grateful for this. But I would like to continue my education.” He and his father would like to return to Syria when the war is over. “That is my home. I belong there,” he says. But, their mother Flodia sees things differently. “Of course I long to be in Syria. But how long will it take to heal the wounds that the war has inflicted between Christians, Sunnis, Druze, Kurds and Alawites? I don’t want to go back. I am ready to go anywhere.”
The family is grateful for the support they receive from the church. The Melkite Archdiocese of Zahle has been helping the Christian refugees from the very beginning. “We would not be able to make ends meet without the church,” mother Flodia says. For Archbishop Issam Darwish, this is a matter of course. The bishop is a native Syrian himself. “In 2011, when the first Syrian Christians from Homs knocked on our door in the middle of the night, it was clear that we needed to help them. After all, these are our brothers and sisters.”
The archdiocese is helping a total of 700 Christian families with food, clothing and other necessities. The church is also supporting a number of Muslim families. “We would not be able to do all this without the generosity of the benefactors of Aid to the Church in Need,” the archbishop gratefully says. “It is usually not that easy for Christians to get help. Since they live in flats and not tents like many Muslim refugees, they do not meet the requirements of many aid organizations. For this reason they are dependent upon us.”
The overall situation of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon does not appear to be getting any easier. According to cautious estimates, every fourth inhabitant in Lebanon is now a Syrian refugee. The UN has counted 1.2 million refugees, not all refugees are registered and so it is possible the number is likely much higher. Many speak of two million Syrians who have been taken in by Lebanon and its four million inhabitants.
They are important for the Middle East
“The solidarity of the Lebanese is reaching its limits. They are losing patience,” Archbishop Darwish says. “Crime has risen sharply. In addition, the Lebanese are coming under pressure because of the cheap labour. There were already not enough jobs for the young Lebanese. For this reason, many Lebanese are thinking about emigrating. The burden is simply too great for such a small country as Lebanon. The government has therefore decided to refuse any further refugees admittance into the country.”
According to the archbishop, several families among the Christian refugees under his care have already returned to Syria, at least to those areas in which the situation has calmed down. “In this year alone, 100 Christian families were able to return to their places in Syria. That is good. However, many Christian families have since also emigrated to Western countries,” Archbishop Darwish says. “However, we encourage our faithful to stay. They are important for the Middle East. It has also become more difficult to emigrate to Australia, for example. The obstacles are very high.”
Those, however, who are thinking about leaving need to be given hope. “We try to find jobs for them. However, we primarily try to convince them that they have a calling as Christians in the Middle East. And this is not my opinion alone. There are Islamic scholars who say that the Christians need to stay here. The Middle East would not be the same without them.” According to the archbishop, the Christians bring the various groups together. “Sunnis and Shiites can talk to each other in my house. Where else is this possible? We Christians have a calling for reconciliation.”