Lisa Pearce is deputy CEO of Open Doors UK and Ireland, which works with partners worldwide to support Christians who are under pressure for their faith. She traveled to Lebanon in April to meet with Syrian Christians who have fled the violence in their homeland. Here are some of her observations:
About 30 kilometres outside Syria’s western border, the Lebanon town of Zahle is full of refugees: Many make it across the Syria-Lebanon border and not much farther. With new refugees arriving every day, it seems that every spare building, shed and patch of ground is being rented by families or groups of families, at crippling prices. Even those leaving Syria with money can afford almost nothing in Lebanon. Before the uprising, Lebanese prices were several times higher than those in Syria. A colleague in Beirut, 90 minutes from the border, used to travel to Syria to shop for clothes because it was so much cheaper. Now, with more people competing for the same land, rooms or bunch of bananas, prices in the border town have rocketed, putting many essentials out of reach of desperate refugees.
On arriving at a church to meet our host for a few days, I was struck by how tiny it was: All we saw was a network of small rooms. And with only 50 members, it was greatly outnumbered by the refugees flooding into the town. Even so, they started going out to sit with a few families and understand their needs. They gathered what food, blankets and mattresses they could, and gave them to the families. They arranged for a doctor to come and visit the sick; They prayed with those who wanted prayer. And they visited more families, found more clothes, more mattresses. Two weeks before our visit, a large crowd of desperate, newly arrived refugees gathered outside the church and demanded food, mattresses and cooking materials. The church team were ‘five minutes from calling the police’. It is not easy. That little congregation now has been given funds from a partner organisation (which my organisation is working with inside Syria), and are helping many hundreds of families.
As we walk down the street, a refugee comes up to our host, and embraces him. He tells us how, since meeting Christians and being cared for by the church, he’s spiritually richer than he has ever been – despite having ‘lost’ everything when he left Syria.
But many people are just numb. The family living 17 in a room – plus a small place to cook – come to mind. There were no windows, just gaps where windows should be. The previous day the father discovered, from the little television that is constantly on in the corner of the room, that two of his cousins had been killed in Syria. The news showed a man weeping over two bodies – both the bodies were his cousins. We had been sitting with the family, on the thin mattresses round the edge of the concrete floor, for about 20 minutes, when we noticed someone completely covered by a blanket. It was the man’s teenage son, who couldn’t face the day ahead. Talking quietly, the man explained his gratitude to the church for providing for his family’s basic needs – but also the humiliation he felt in not being able to provide for his family, not being able to send his children to school. “I feel like I’m dying every day”, he said.
On the outskirts of the town, we were led up two sets of partially made stairs in an unfinished building in pitch black, emerging two stories above the ground. There three sisters, their husbands and children lived in two concrete ‘rooms’ with gaps where doors and windows should be. The ‘rooms’ are surrounded by an outdoor area, with just a two-foot wall all around it. As we sat deep in conversation with the family, one of whom had arrived from Syria only the previous day, a young girl cried out and pointed. One of the toddlers had managed to climb up and get his leg fully over the wall and was trying to get the other over. Several people ran to grab him – because on the other side of the wall was a two-storey drop. The mothers have no way to protect their children.
For so many people, life has just ‘stopped’. No jobs, no school for their children, no way to start re-building their future. We met with Christians who had been pushed out of their towns because they were Christian, and mothers who had dressed their daughters in the hijab to avoid them being raped. We met others who’d not been specifically targeted and left simply because of the ravages of war on their communities and families. Most of our work is with Christians inside Syria who are desperately trying to stay, and be a light in that dark place. What they all have in common is that now, God really is all they have to cling to.