ZAHLÉ, Lebanon– If you ever encounter Rana, Victoria, Ramola, or Mona in downtown Zahlé, they will tell you that their lives as Syrian refugees in Lebanon’s most firmly Catholic town are very hard. However, what they’d also tell you is that without the Catholic Church, life wouldn’t be hard, it would be impossible.
Ramola and her husband Elias fled Zabadani, in southwestern Syria, in 2012, because they were being threatened by Islamist extremists who eventually bombed their house, turning it into rubble. A car ride that should have taken them a mere three hours became an entire-day ordeal, as they were robbed along the way and the regions they drove through on the other side of the border were being bombed too.
After their house was attacked, “We had no choice, we had to flee to live,” Ramola told Crux on Wednesday. The conversation took place in a small, one bedroom apartment that costs $350 in rent, money they don’t have, so the Greek Melkite Catholic Archdiocese subsidizes it for them, paying half of the sum every month.
They also have to pay $100 a year for their water supply, and an average of $45 a month for electricity. Also hanging over their heads is the sum of $235 a year, per person, they have to pay to be able to stay in Lebanon. Their family is composed of 8 people, including two toddlers.
Back in Syria, Elias used to be a mason, supporting their family as their son went to college to become an economist. However, upon arriving in Lebanon, Elias suffered a heart attack and has been too weak to work, forcing their son to abandon his studies and start working as a photographer to support their family.
Had it not been for the Tel-Chiha Hospital in Zahlé, operated by the local Greek Melkite Archdiocese, Elias wouldn’t have been able to pay the medical bills, and if it weren’t for the archdiocese, he wouldn’t be able to afford the $130 in medicine he has to spend each month. Even with the Church’s help, however, there are times he goes as many as 20 days without taking his pills, causing severe heart palpitations.
From Monday to Friday, the family eats at the “St. John the Merciful Table,” a free hot meal service run by the archdiocese with the help of a local chef.
Victoria’s situation is, in many ways similar to that of Ramola and Elias: The local bishop helps her by paying half of the rent for her small house, and she eats at the diocesan meal service. She has two children, and every year, she struggles to come up with the money for the legal residency permits to stay in Lebanon.
However, there’s one key difference: She doesn’t know where her husband Abed is. Back in Syria, they lived outside Aleppo together with their kids. However, two years ago Abed, a mechanic, was transferred to a city that was soon under siege by ISIS.
She hasn’t heard from him since, and if he’s alive, Abed has no direct way to contact her, so she relies on neighbors and his employers to relay the message of where the family fled.
When their son Evan turned 17, she made the choice to leave: He wanted to join the Syrian army, to fight for his country but also as a way to support the family. She couldn’t live with that idea of her son getting drawn into a war she sees as madness.
Today, Evan and Michele, 15, stay at home all day, because several neighbors have warned Victoria not to bother with sending them to school. She said he’s heard a rumor that because they’re Syrian refugees, the teachers in local public schools, which is all she can afford, won’t let the Syrian children pass exams.
Ramola and Victoria clearly agree as to why they had to flee Syria, and have no trouble naming those responsible: “Muslims, ISIS,” Ramola said. There’s no doubt in their minds as to why they were attacked either: “Christians were especially targeted. They threatened to rape our girls if we didn’t join them, and our son was beaten because he wouldn’t do so.”
If Syria ever finds peace again, Ramola said, she would like to go back, but since their home was destroyed and her husband wouldn’t be able to rebuild it, she’s accepted that she’ll probably live the rest of her life in Lebanon.
Even though she fears that uprooting her children once again would ruin any hopes of their husband ever finding them, Victoria doesn’t see a future for her children in Syria nor in Lebanon, and would like to leave the Middle East if the opportunity presented itself.
Despite the hardship, her faith in God has grown even deeper: “The Lord will help us, he won’t leave us behind.” Ramola doesn’t see Him as responsible for the suffering the family has gone through in recent years. On the contrary, “God is the one who helped us escape Syria to find peace here,” she said.
An Orthodox Christian, Ramola has nothing but gratitude for the local Catholic Church: “If it weren’t for the archbishop and Aid to the Church in Need, we wouldn’t have been able to make it.” She broke into tears as she told her story.
Every night, Ramola prays for peace in her country, hoping that everything “goes back to normal.” With that in mind, she tells the toddlers of the house about the life they once had, about the happy life they once shared in Syria, but she won’t hide the truth as to why they had to flee.
Above all, she said, “we’ll teach them to be thankful to God. He’s the reason why they survived.”
Pana and her husband Akram fled Syria in 2012 with two girls, and have since then welcomed a third into their family. Like the others in the group, they receive aid from the Church to meet the monthly rent, and eat at the soup kitchen.
The couple’s two eldest kids, who are now nine and five, go to the St. Rita School, run by the archdiocese, which offers full scholarships for Syrian Christian refugees. The education the girls are receiving, she said, is the primary reason she wants to stay in Lebanon.
Pana’s entire family has left Syria, and they are now scattered throughout the region.
Yet despite it all, she’s still happy and her faith is strong: “God is the one who saved us and brought us here, so I don’t blame him for anything.”
Crux has learned that with the various programs aimed at helping refugees, the local Greek Melkite Catholic Archdiocese spends an average of $2 million helping meet the needs of Syrian refugees. With this money, which they raise through international agencies, particularly the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need, they are able to help put a roof over the refugees’ heads, a hot meal to keep them from starving, medical attention, and education.
Despite their best efforts, they haven’t yet been able to find a program to tackle the biggest challenge they face, and the necessary precondition for these refugees ever to return home: For the region to find long-lasting peace.
This reporting is sponsored by Aid to the Church in Need-USA, a pontifical foundation serving persecuted Christians around the world. www.acnusa.org