A Visit to the Valley:
Life Among Refugees in Lebanon

Journalist Diane Handal reflects on reporting on Syrian refugees in the Bekaa valley.

Diane Handal visited Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley last fall and wrote about some of the work being done to help refugees there in the spring edition of ONE. Below, she offers some personal details from her visit.

On the drive to Bekaa, church steeples dotted the landscape and gold domes sparkled in the sun with matching minarets. Racy billboards of a scantily dressed woman wearing a hijab and fishnet stockings with high black boots advertised some French beauty product.

Lebanese soldiers stood guard at checkpoints holding AK-47’s every 10 miles or so — not bothering to check anyone, just waving cars on.

Passing the Sunni community, big posters of Rafic Hariri, former prime minister of Lebanon, appeared. Several miles later was a Shiite area. Hassan Nasrullah’s gray bearded face, wire glasses, and black turban boasted of Hezbollah’s presence to everyone passing. One poster had Nasrullah standing with the Syrian president, Bashar al Assad.

Posters of soldiers with machine guns and martyrs who had died in Syria draped the median, with Hezbollah flags on each side of the road.

Men walked with black and white checked keffiyehs (a kind of headdress) around their necks, a symbol of the revolution. Women were dressed from head to toe in black, a show of mourning.

They are getting ready for Ashura this week. It is the Shiite anniversary marking the martyrdom of Hussein, the grandson of the prophet.

The mountains shelter pretty little villages and farms, which extend outward to the roads. The Bekaa Valley is truly beautiful. But all is not as lovely and simple as it seems.

In Bekaa, photographer Tamara Hadi and I were the guests of Sister Giselle, Sister Micheline and Sister Rita at the convent in the vicinity of Deir el Ahmar. The area is filled with farms that grow hashish and the money made from this enterprise is enormous. The cartels come in from as far away as Colombia and a great deal of money changes hands. The mansions in this otherwise modest Christian area are self-explanatory.

I celebrated the Divine Liturgy at a Maronite church near Deir el Ahmar with Sisters Micheline and Rita. The villagers were elderly and dressed in dark grays and black. One woman wore an old-fashioned lace veil on her head. The liturgy was rich with song.

We stopped later — at my request — to find some milk for our tea and cocoa. Sister Micheline drove to the home of a family she knew had fresh cow’s milk. The family’s three children attend the nun’s school. Tobacco leaves hung in the garden, drying next to the clothes.

When we arrived back at the convent, Sister Giselle boiled the milk and it was delicious! The sisters were excited, as they never have real milk for their coffee — only powdered.

Sister Micheline is the founder and director of a fabulous school in the Deir el Ahmar area — and she’s one remarkable woman. At the present, there are over 200 Syrian refugee students attending school in the morning. The afternoon program is for the Lebanese children to do homework and, for some, remedial work. She was inspiring in her energy, her drive, her determination and her faith. She began with nothing and is now a legend in the region. People flock to her door daily and, sadly, she has to turn many away as the resources are limited.

But I had a sobering and very sad three days interviewing the Syrian refugees in Bekaa Valley.

Many had came over the border from Homs, Aleppo and other cities with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Now, they are living in tents, dependent on the kindness of strangers.

One mother with whom I spoke kept smiling as she told me that at night she feared the big rats that entered their two small rooms as the family slept on the floor.

I was truly shaken the first day. I had a hard time doing my job. It was all surreal and I felt nausea creeping over me.

But fortunately, for these refugees, Sister Micheline and CNEWA together are helping them as much as possible with blankets, food, mattresses and jackets for the winter season.

In the two videos below, Diane Handal discusses more of what she saw and experienced in Lebanon. You can read more about how Sister Micheline and others are changing lives in the Bekaa Valley, check out Syria, Shepherds and Sheep in the spring edition of ONE.

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