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Lebanon struggles to cope with influx of Syrians

26 April 2013

Daniel Burton has just returned from a visit to refugees in Lebanon

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 refugees.

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 non-perishable items.

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.


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