HAMRA is one of the most vibrant quarters of Beirut. There are
hotels, universities, and shopping malls, which draw not only the
country's young and diverse population, but also tourists,
diplomats, and wealthy Arabs.
Today, however, there is something new: Syrian refugees. On
every street, Syrian women and children are begging; and at every
roundabout Syrian men wait for casual work.
Lebanon is facing a humanitarian disaster: the arrival within
its borders of one million Syrian refugees. As the British
Ambassador to Lebanon, Tom Fletcher, announced last week, that is
an equivalent to the UK's receiving 14 million Romanian
Up to half of those refugees are currently living in the Bekaa
Valley. I met a number of them last week, while on a visit to the
region for the UK charity Embrace the Middle East (formerly
BibleLands). We visited a family of seven who are living in a
one-room cellar in the basement of a warehouse. They had fled the
fighting in Aleppo, and arrived with nothing. There were 50
families in their building alone.
Embrace supported the local Lebanese Baptist Church in its
"Winterisation" project last autumn, providing blankets,
mattresses, and paraffin stoves to such families. Now, we are
financing food distribution, and saw at first hand some 60 families
receive their monthly food boxes, containing essential
Later the same day, we visited one of the many ad hoc camps that
have been set up in the valley, where families have built makeshift
tents from wooden frames and canvas. The stoic acceptance of the
situation was heart-rending. When we expressed sympathy and hope
for the future, the most common phrase we heard in response was
"Allah kareem" ("God is generous").
These people need much more than food and blankets. There are
now thousands of people without work, and thousands of children
without education. With no prospect of their returning in the near
future, these problems will soon become critical.
As with the Syrian conflict, the response of Lebanese Christians
to the refugee crisis is complex. Lebanese Baptists' response is
not typical: they have been criticised by other churches in the
area for encouraging the refugee crisis by giving handouts.
Another factor is that Syrian interference in Lebanon is widely
regarded as having been a destabilising factor for years. Now that
the tables are turned, many Lebanese feel that the Syrians are
getting a taste of their own medicine, and compare the present
conflict with the Lebanese civil war of 1975-92. The world allowed
Lebanon to destroy itself for 17 years; and there is every sign
that the international community is prepared to repeat its inaction
now over Syria.
One of the many smaller tragedies is the plight of one of the
oldest Christian communities in the world, the Armenians of Syria.
They came to Northern Syria after the genocide perpetrated by the
Ottomans during the First World War, and have stayed for nearly a
century. Now the internal crisis in Syria is forcing them out, and
they are fleeing to Lebanon as part of a greater migration that is
changing the face of the Middle East.
Embrace the Middle East has been supporting the Armenian
community for more than 150 years: sadly, their future now is as
uncertain as at any time.
The Revd Daniel Burton is a Team Rector in Manchester
diocese, and a former trustee of Embrace the Middle East.