EL-KAA, Lebanon – Two years ago, when Magida Yaacoub and her husband Ibrahim Zarzour left their village of Hamar in Syria, not far from war-torn Aleppo, their neighborhood was being bombed an average of ten times a day, with ISIS dug in some 500 yards from their home.
After enduring this situation for as long as they felt they could, finally it was a bomb that struck just 30 feet from their neighbors’ home which made them decide to close their small business, kiss their families goodbye, and never look back.
They fled to the small Lebanese village of El-Kaa, some ten minutes by car from the boarder with Syria. They drove from their city to the border, then walked for six hours until a Lebanese stranger driving by finally picked them up and took them to a place they today call home.
The couple left everything they owned behind in the hopes of finding safety and financial stability. Instead, what they found is a village that on the one side is virtually on the border with Syria, and on the other is surrounded by Shi’ite towns politically dominated by Hezbollah.
There are no daily bombings, but uncertainties still abound. As a result, today they’re ready for an option that many Christians here, in the land where Christianity was born, regard as tragic: Leaving the Middle East behind altogether and seeking a new life in the West.
The couple arrived in El-Kaa soon after a group of ISIS suicide bombers killed five men from the village, which made their arrival all that much harder: “They thought that since we are from Syria, we were terrorists too,” she told Crux on Monday, unable to hold back her tears.
On their arrival in El-Kaa, they lived with a Syrian friend of Yaacoub, who’d married a Lebanese man. Some months later, a family that left the town to go to Beirut allowed them to borrow their house, but today they live with a constant threat over their heads: The owners might want it back at any time.
When they fled two years ago, Magida and Ibrahim were newlyweds. As a result of the violence-produced stress she had to endure, she said, today they’re unable to have children. When they left Syria, they had hopes of being able to receive treatment in Lebanon, but when they struggle every month to make ends meet, a treatment that would help them have a child is a luxury they can’t afford.
El-Kaa is a small village of some 2,500 Lebanese Christians, plus approximately 1,500 Syrian refugees, all of them Christians, who’ve been arriving ever since the war broke out six years ago, and even more steadily after the growth of the Islamic terrorist group Daesh (ISIS).
Virtually every citizen in the village is Greek Melkite Catholic, and in an effort to guarantee their survival, they often help each other. However, translators and guides on Monday all had virtually the same response to explain why they couldn’t always do so: “We are all poor.”
Yaacoub acknowledged that the big influence of Syrian refugees in the small town has been problematic for the local economy. The newcomers are willing to work for less money, leaving the locals struggling to find work, when the availability was limited to begin with.
“I know the burden is too much, that our presence is hurting the Lebanese, but we have no choice,” she said. “Where else could we go?”
Magida and Ibrahim are the only two members of their families who fled Syria. The rest have stayed behind, in Homs, where bombardments are still occurring. They never fled because if they, who are only two adults, can’t find a way to sustain themselves, those who have children would fare even worse.
Today, they only sporadically communicate with those who stayed behind, since they don’t have a Lebanese number, and have to depend on their neighbors’ phone.
Today, Yaacoub says she’s had enough.
“I can’t imagine a future for at least ten years,” she said. “Everything has been destroyed, there are no jobs, and we can’t wait.”
Meanwhile, she said, there are few economic opportunities in Lebanon, not to mention the precariousness of not knowing month to month whether they’ll still have a place to a live. As a result, she said, she feels they have no choice.
“The priority is to be outside Lebanon or Syria, anywhere in the West,” she said.
Back in Syria, she said, her family members are working with the United Nations, hoping to gain refugee status to move to Australia, “because there are already many Syrian Christians in Australia.” Another option they’re open to is Argentina. Magida’s father went there once for three months, to learn Spanish, and she grew up hearing stories about Pope Francis’s country.
Last year, the government of Mauricio Macri committed to welcoming 3,000 Syrian refugees, but so far, only several hundred have arrived. Earlier this year, he also pledged the country would give university scholarships to 1,000 Syrians in the next five years, so the Yaacoubs could, technically, relocate to this South American nation.
However, Argentina’s own economic crisis led to one of the Syrian families that had been relocated, going back to Aleppo, finding it to be a “safer” place.
Without foreign help coming in from agencies such as Aid to the Church in Need, Catholic Relief Services, the Knights of Columbus or the German-based Misereor, the situation facing Christians across the region would be even more desperate. Aid to the Church in Need is currently trying to find a group of people in El-Kaa capable of coordinating, with the help of the Greek Melkite Archdiocese of Zahlé, the arrival of foreign aid.
As it is, the village doesn’t receive outside help from anyone.
Nadine Debiani, a resident of Kaa, is also a volunteer on a local team hoping to work with the global Catholic foundation Aid to the Church in Need, which supports persecuted Christians, on supplying heating oil for village residents to make it through the winter.
Longer-term, however, Debiani has a bigger dream: Attracting foreign support to help the women of El-Kaa to open their own food service business, drawing on a local tradition of excellence in the kitchen. With approximately $100,000, she thinks she could supply jobs for about 50 women, helping then supplement their household incomes.
In her eyes, providing such opportunities is key to maintaining the Christian presence here.
“If you want the Christians to stay, you have to give them opportunities, something to help with the poor economic situation,” she said. “Otherwise, it will be impossible.”
This reporting is sponsored by Aid to the Church in Need-USA, a pontifical foundation serving persecuted Christians around the world. www.acnusa.org.