ZAHLÉ, Lebanon – Speaking with Christian refugees driven from Syria by ISIS and its precursors and now finding shelter in neighboring Lebanon, two things seem clear. One is that they’re deeply grateful to Lebanon, especially the local church and its international Catholic supporters, for giving them a safe haven; and the other is that, despite the help, their lives are hardly a walk in the park.
Hana offers a typical story, one which could stand in for probably tens of thousands of people now scattered up and down this small nation of just over six million, where Christians represent roughly a third of the population and exercise tremendous social influence.
Today in her mid-50s, Hana was living with her husband, Charbel, and their three children in a mid-sized Syrian town about an hour and a half away from the border in late 2011, when the first rumblings of what would become the Syrian Civil War began to sweep through her community.
(Like every other refugee with whom we spoke, Hana asked that her last name not be used. In part, that’s out of fear of personal retribution, in part concern for members of her family still in Syria, and in part just a general fear of everyone and everything produced by being caught up in what would eventually be classified as a genocide.)
At the time Hana and her family escaped, ISIS wasn’t fully born yet, but the various jihadist movements and militias that would become its core were already baying for blood. One day, Hana said, they heard a call from a local mosque that all Christian men were to be beheaded and all Christian women solid into slavery, while armed battles were raging around town.
Hana and her husband undertook a dangerous car ride across the border into Lebanon, dodging gunfire until they left Syrian territory behind, and eventually arrived in Zahlé, a heavily Christian town where their children had already settled. They endured three months of “utter poverty,” she said, living on a steady diet of nothing but fried onions with bread, until her husband found limited work as a house painter and food help from the local Greek Melkite church of Saydit Al Najat began to arrive.
They’re currently living in an apartment subsidized by Aid to the Church in Need, a global pontifical foundation that assists persecuted Christians, but they have to pay about $400 a month in rent, and it’s tough to make ends meet – especially because, as Hana explained it, they’re seeking residency permits to stay in Lebanon, and “it costs money we don’t have.”
Another Syrian Christian refugee explained that under a new Lebanese law, obtaining a residency permit requires a Lebanese citizen to provide assurances that the applicant won’t be a danger to society. If you don’t have anyone to do it for you, she said, there’s a flourishing black market of locals willing to sell their guarantees for prices that can run as high as $1,000, which can represent almost half of the typical refugee family’s annual income.
Hana said right now she’s deeply worried about what will happen this winter, when heating costs go up and day work of the sort her husband is now forced to perform is in short supply. The family depends upon the Greek Melkite Catholic Church under Archbishop Issam John Darwich to help them with food, she said, or otherwise they would go hungry.
Lebanon on a per capita basis has faced a more massive refugee crisis as a result of the Syrian conflict than any other place on earth, with roughly one-quarter of its entire population now being composed of Syrians. That’s led to considerable resentment and mounting pressure to compel the refugees to go back, including from some Christian leaders in the country, and Hana says she understands it.
“They’re right,” she said, “the Syrians are becoming too many, and taking all the jobs.”
The problem, however, is that she said her family couldn’t go home even if it wanted to. They don’t have the money to rebuild a life there, and in any event, the threats against Christians may have receded slightly in light of ISIS’s recent military setbacks, but it hasn’t gone away.
For now, therefore, Hana and her family are stuck between an old home to which they can’t return, and a new one in which they sometimes don’t feel welcome.
It’s not entirely clear how many of the estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees living in Lebanon are Christian, though everyone agrees it’s well out of proportion to the roughly ten percent of the Syrian population overall that’s Christian. Since Christians were the primary targets of genocide by ISIS, they fled in much higher percentages.
What is clear, however, is the difference in lifestyle between the Christian and Muslim refugees in their new host country.
Muslims from Syria have tended to congregate in refugee camps, administered by a coalition of NGOs and often under the aegis of the U.N. In one such camp on the outskirts of Zahlé, some 500 Muslims have been living in roughly 75 “tents,” though some by now are crude wooden or tin structures, since 2011, with no prospects of either going home or moving anywhere else in the new country.
The economics of their situation are daunting. Just building a “tent” costs about $2,000, according to camp administrator Ibrahim Abdullah, 39, who’s part of the group. That’s usually enough, he said, to wipe out whatever meager savings with which residents arrive.
Despite the NGO sponsorship, residents are required to pay $100 a month in rent for a space that’s often no larger than the interior of a midsized car, along with $70 a month in utilities. Since the mothers generally remain in the camp with the children, families rely on the father’s income. Abdullah said most of them work as day laborers on construction sites, and are lucky to bring home about $200 a month – leaving just $30 for food, medicine, clothing, and other essentials.
Abdullah said that without food vouchers from the UN many people would starve, and he’s deeply worried that assistance is beginning to dry up just as winter arrives. When asked if the camp is safe, Abdullah offered assurances that there are “no problems,” but others told stories of not wanting their children to grow up there due to danger and rampant criminality.
Christians, however, almost never settle in such camps unless they’re truly desperate – in part because they’re just not anybody’s idea of a good place to live, in part out of general concerns over what happens to young people, but also because as Christians they feel specifically unwelcome and at risk. (The camp in Zahlé is entirely Sunni Muslim, organizers explained, because many Shi’a Muslims would feel similar anxieties.)
As a result, Christians rely on relatives, and failing that, on the church.
Elias and Mountanha, for instance, arrived in Zahlé with their son and daughter roughly a year ago, after having abandoned Syria in 2012. Back home, Elias was a successful electrician, but when Islamist forces occupied their town, their home was burned to the ground and all their belongings destroyed, so they crossed the border with little more than the shirts on their backs.
Shortly after arriving in Lebanon, Elias developed a chronic illness related to ulcers, which produces steady internal bleeding and leaves him anemic. He needs regular medicine and a special diet to cope with the condition, but because of limited funds, his wife said, he often goes 20 days or more without his medicine. According to Mountanha, essentially he’s experiencing a sort of slow death. That’s all on top of a hearing condition that also makes it difficult for Elias to understand what’s happening around him.
They too are living in housing subsidized by Aid to the Church in Need, paying roughly $300 a month in rent for a two-room home, which included a kitchen, accommodating four people. Mountanha emphasized how much different the support from Aid to the Church in Need and the local Greek Melkite church makes.
“Without it, we would be crying tears of blood,” she said.
All the Christian refugees stressed that as bad as their present situation is, it’s preferable to life in the camps amid an overwhelming Muslim majority.
Given how scarred these refugees have been, it’s perhaps no surprise that they react differently when asked if now, several years after the experience, they can forgive their attackers.
Hana offered an emphatic “no.”
“I feel great hatred towards these people,” she said. “They took our land, our car, the much bigger and more comfortable house in which we were living,” explaining that she had to sell a treasured piece of family land in Syria at essentially blackmail prices just to buy a couple of rundown couches for her rudimentary two-room apartment in Zahlé.
She couldn’t actually finish the story before beginning to sob over what the family had lost and was unlikely ever to see again. She said she still has family in Syria, her only communication with them is by phone, and, although they tell her they’re safe, she always wonders if they’re free to tell her the truth.
Mountanha was more prepared to say goodbye to the past.
“May God forgive them,” she said of her persecutors, “and I forgive them.”
She did, however, attach a footnote to that forgiveness: “I just want to go home. We are Syrians, and Syria is part of us.”
This reporting is sponsored by Aid to the Church in Need-USA, a pontifical foundation serving persecuted Christians around the world. www.acnusa.org.