A RETIRED vicar has spoken of the “practical hope” that is being given to some of the more than 1.5 million refugees in Lebanon through the work of Embrace the Middle East. The charity has been partnering with churches and Christian partners to provide education, food, and shelter to generations of refugees in the country who have been dispersed by civil war.
The Revd Christine Collinge has been volunteering as a speaker with Embrace since her retirement in 2012 as Team Vicar of Stantonbury, in Milton Keynes. She had previously travelled to Israel and Palestine with the charity, and returned from her first visit to Lebanon last Friday, accompanied by Jill Bell, a fellow volunteer and member of the congregation at St Mary’s, Wexham, in Slough.
“The capital of Beirut has clearly been rebuilt, with high-rise buildings, wide roads, and streaming traffic,” Mrs Collinge said on Monday. “But we also saw little shacks along the river: windowless apartments that looked as though people were living in them; so there was huge disparity between rich and poor.
“It was moving to be in the city and remember what had happened during the civil war. One shopkeeper told me that the people survive by forgetting what happened.”
Refugees are estimated to make up a quarter of the population in Lebanon. More than one million are Syrian, and about 450,000 are Palestinians who have been displaced there since the 1948 and 1967 exoduses.
“The Palestinian people have been in Lebanon 69 years this year,” she said. “When they first inhabited the camps, their hope was to go back; so they did not buy the land offered to them, and have now lost out. The Syrian people are also looking to go back to Syria, and so rent the land on which their camps are built.”
Embrace has formed a partnership with the Joint Christian Committee (JCC) in Beirut, which has been working with refugees since its inception in 1950, to educate Syrians in the hope that, qualified to work, they can one day return home.
“Everything being done is with a view to enabling people to move on — or move back, in the case of the Syrian people — to be qualified to work if or when things settle down again.”
This includes vocational training, for example in IT or health care; and educating young women and mothers on their rights, as a safeguard against abuse and early marriage. JCC also offers a library, nursery, and a centre for disabled and vulnerable adults.
Mrs Collinge went on to visit camps along the Bekaa Valley, about 50 miles from the capital, on the Syrian border, where the fighting continues. Embrace has helped to set up a primary school in the church for about 300 Syrian children, many of whom have been traumatised by war.
“Eight per cent of the staff were refugees themselves, and others had left their old professions to train as teachers,” Mrs Collinge said. “So there is hope, but it is a practical hope, built on recognising the gifts of the refugee people.”