ZAHLÉ/EL-KAA/BEIRUT, Lebanon – Lebanon is an endlessly fascinating and complex place, and to pretend to have mastered its subtleties after just one week in the country would be pretty close to an act of madness.
However, just a few days in this nation of a little over four million, a number now swelled by at least 1.5 million refugees from Syria, are enough to bring home five points:
- Lebanon is not the rest of the Middle East. Christians aren’t a tiny minority, but a robust 35 to 40 percent of the population, and so are less inclined simply to “go along to get along.” The Christian community is also big enough to allow itself to have some fierce internal disagreements, such as what to make of Bashar al-Assad in Syria or Hezbollah in its own backyard.
- The Catholic Church here is doing heroic work in supporting the refugee population. Over and over, one hears from Syrian Christians that however hard their lives may be, without the Church things would be infinitely worse.
- Syrian refugees are in an agonizing limbo, unable to go home and unsure what the future may bring. Some are determined to stay, others desperate to get out.
- Perhaps the deepest casualty of the Syrian war has been social trust. Many Lebanese are increasingly resentful of the Syrians, believing they’re responsible for the country’s economic woes and worrying that they’re changing the culture forever, while many Syrian Christians say they may never be able to live among Muslims again without fear.
- Despite the misery in which many refugees live, one can also find remarkable moments of joy, especially among children who seem to have an irrepressible ability to find delight even in the most objectively wrenching circumstances.
The Christians in this country are made up of many denominations. From Maronite and Greek Melkite Catholics, to Orthodox, Protestants, and both Orthodox and Catholic Armenians. They represent a centuries-old Christian presence in the Middle East. Despite the conflicts, invasions, and wars the country has seen, they remain strong in numbers and influence.
However, in the Christian town of El-Kaa, some ten minutes away from the Syrian border and surrounded by towns run by Hezbollah, their views of both Syrian president Assad and Hezbollah – deemed a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department – is very different than those middle class Christians in Beirut might have.
The former see both Assad and Hezbollah as a protection against ISIS, the Islamist extremist organization that’s perpetrated a genocide against Christians and other minorities in Syria and Iraq. When four ISIS suicide bombers attacked the town, killing five people, it was Hezbollah who scared them away.
Similarly, Assad is viewed as no one’s idea of a saint, but having first-hand knowledge of the alternative, those on the Lebanese border would rather he stay put.
However, Christians talking on background over egg-fried rice and spring rolls at an upscale Chinese restaurant in Beirut had very different views. Ready to acknowledge they have Kalashnikovs under their beds, they perceive Hezbollah as a dormant threat, ready to take over the country once they’ve outnumbered the Christians.
Having felt abandoned by Rome and the rest of the Western world during the 1970s Civil War, these Christians say they’re ready to fight for themselves.
One point both groups share is disdain towards United Nations-sponsored refugee camps, acknowledging that Christians aren’t safe there. Another is that if Islamic radicals were to stage a war, as ISIS did in neighboring countries, they’d be on their own.
“We’ve been forgotten,” Antoun Fadel told Crux in El-Kaa. “We’ve been forgotten by other Christians, and we’ve been forgotten by the big international players. Christians on the outside should help us to be able to preserve Christian lands.”
Despite this, he said, they’re not going anywhere: “Christianity was born in the Middle East, Christians have always been in the Middle East … We’ve survived wars, we’ve survived everything, and we will survive to the end.”
Seeing the fear refugee Syrian Christians have of life in the refugee camps, the local Catholic Church, with the material help of international charities such as the international papal foundation Aid to the Church in Need and the Knights of Columbus, is going far above and beyond the call of duty to assist them.
In Zahlé, perhaps the most firmly Christian city in Lebanon, the Greek Melkite Catholic Church spends an average of $2 million a year on refugees, with initiatives that go from subsidizing their rent to full scholarships in the diocesan schools, free medical attention and a soup kitchen that serves 1,000 hot meals a day.
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. They arrived with very few possessions.
Had it not been for the Church, “we would be crying tears of blood,” Mountanha told Crux.
Despite the Church’s best efforts, there’s little the institution can do in terms of helping the refugees think about their future. Their situation is bad, and although most haven’t lost hope of regaining a sense of normality, it’s not entirely in their control.
The influx of 1.5 million refugees in a small country such as Lebanon has strained the local economy, so job opportunities are hard to come by. Syrians’ willingness to work for less has also caused friction with the local community, that has seen unemployment rates go up.
“I know the burden is too much, that our presence is hurting the Lebanese, but we have no choice,” said Magida Yaacoub, a refugee in El-Kaa. “Where else could we go?”
In addition, the cost refugees have to pay to stay in Lebanon is at times too high, but the two obvious alternatives are no one’s idea of a prosperous future. On the one hand, Syria is still at war. Although it’s lost much of the power it once had, ISIS is still a looming threat, and many of the refugees fled because they saw their houses being bombed, burned, or seized.
Even if peace is achieved and the areas of the country decimated by war are rebuilt, there will be social tensions among Muslims and other minorities that will take time to heal. Understandably, hatred and resentment, with no small dose of fear, is high.
Hana, one of many refugees who spoke to Crux on the condition of having her identity protected, offered an emphatic “no” when asked about her ability to forgive those responsible for her situation. Together with her husband, she fled to Zahlé in 2011, when ISIS wasn’t yet fully formed. Nevertheless, what motivated them to flee was Islamic extremism: They heard a call from a local mosque that all Christian men were to be beheaded and all Christian women sold into slavery, while armed battles were raging around their town.
“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.
Moving on, however, to countries such as Australia or Canada, is not easy either.
“People see that those who left for Western countries are not in heaven, so most don’t want to travel anymore,” said Zeina Ammoury, headmistress of the Saint Rita School, run by the Greek Melkite Archdiocese.
Last year, she opened up her school for some 100 Syrian Christian refugees. “The most important thing is to guarantee that they’ll be educated, so they don’t have to flee to Western countries,” Ammoury said. She was referring not only to national stability, but the importance of maintaining the Christian presence in the Middle East.
Yet despite the hardship and the challenges Christian refugees living in Lebanon face, they remain strong in their faith. Not a single one of the dozens who spoke with Crux blamed God for their situation. On the contrary, they consider God to be the reason for their survival.
“The Lord will help us, he won’t leave us behind,” said Ramola, one of the refugees. “God is the one who helped us escape Syria to find peace here,” she said.
This reporting is sponsored by Aid to the Church in Need-USA, a pontifical foundation serving persecuted Christians around the world. www.acnusa.org.