CNEWA Canada

Voices From the Pandemic: Life in a Refugee Camp in Lebanon

Elias Habib lives in the Dbayeh Refugee Camp in Lebanon. He serves as director of the Joint Christian Committee (J.C.C.), an ecumenical organization that works to improve life in the camp.

Similar to the world since the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, my community was forced to stay at home to protect our children and to keep our elderly safe. People isolated themselves in their houses and precautions were taken following the recommendations of the Ministry of Health; in addition to wearing masks and gloves, sterilizing the goods, etc., our youth volunteered to sterilize the streets and neighborhoods to assure everyone’s safety.

I am a 50-year-old Palestinian man, father of four, born and raised on Lebanese grounds within a camp called Dbayeh Palestinian Camp. Around 530 families reside at the camp, divided among 350 Palestinian families and 180 Lebanese families.

Most of the bread earners are people with limited education and job opportunities and thus work as daily laborers — fisherman, waiters, security personnel, etc. The pandemic had no mercy on these people and posed great challenges in finding ways to secure bread and basic food for their families and children.

Lebanon, a tiny country of five million people, is home to more than one million Syrian refugees and other Syrians who are residents. It is also hosting around 400,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants. Palestinians cannot own businesses in Lebanon and are banned from most decent-paying professions, including medicine and law; an estimated two-thirds of Palestinian refugees live in poverty. Palestinians are treated as second-class residents — restricted from working in most fields, banned from owning property, forced to live in run-down camps and barred from formal education.

Being the center director, I had obligations towards the staff and the whole community; the Joint Christian Committee (J.C.C.) center was established at the camp in the year 2007 to respond to the needs of the community. People needed hygiene packages to sanitize their houses, along with food packages to survive during that period. Children had to continue their education not to miss their academic year. A group of staff, volunteers and myself set a working plan to contact organizations seeking support, gather information (social and financial) on the residents, coordinate a tutoring schedule and follow-up between teachers and students.

On the personal level, I was at risk of getting infected with the novel coronavirus, after one of the people I had contact with during a trip in March tested positive for the virus. I remember when I first received the news. I was scared, frightened of the possibility of being infected and going through the symptoms and suffering of the thousands of people. Luckily, days had already passed since the contact without experiencing any symptoms. As per the recommendations of the doctors, I isolated myself, even when I returned home, to protect my family until I completed the recommended quarantine period. What broke my heart is that all through that period I could not see my mother, an 86-year-old widow suffering from heart disease and diabetes. 

During these hard times, we all raised our prayers asking for the Lord’s mercy and help. This pandemic taught us many things. People in the camp during the quarantine started reading, playing, spending more time with their families, and strengthening family bonds. COVID-19 and its consequences deprived people from going to churches, as social distancing was necessary to limit the spread of the virus and control it within the camp: Every house became a place of God.  Parish priests played an essential role in raising awareness. It started with closing churches and asking people to pray from home through broadcast Masses and prayers on TV and social media. Additionally, the priests gave lectures on TV reminding us about the Gospel and urging us to hold on to faith and hope.

“What is God telling us through this pandemic? There is no single answer to this question. The rapid evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic is a test and a challenge for the country and its churches.”

Elias Habib

Worry and anxiety are what I feel and live everyday; as a father it is hard not being able to do anything about the situation. Enduring these surreal times was my ultimate concern; I tried always to spread hope and positivity at home and within our community as well. Holding on to faith was my main weapon, especially after returning home safe from my trip, while the pandemic was in its early stages.

What is sure is that the situation in Lebanon will worsen as the pandemic ends. The deterioration of the economy will resurface with tens of thousands of people laid off their jobs and thousands of medium and small businesses shut down. The currency has been dramatically devalued and the cost of goods increased by more than 50 percent. More people will lose their jobs, including more workers from my impoverished community. The poor will become poorer, unable to provide medication to their elderly, cover their children’s tuition fees, and even provide food on their tables.

What is God telling us through this pandemic? There is no single answer to this question. The rapid evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic is a test and a challenge for the country and its churches. As a community in the camp, we put our efforts together to overcome this phase. Today, our planet is living through a moment of darkness; this is the time where we should turn to the Virgin Mary and pray for the salvation of the world. No more plans, no more “my country first,” at the expense of others. The reality is that we are one.

COVID-19 has rapidly developed into a global health crisis and its impact on many countries is heartbreaking. What we need at this time is our collective goodwill and generosity of spirit to care for and support one another.

We are grateful to all those who are risking their lives, some of whom have even died, in the course of duty. We offer our condolences to the families who have lost their loved ones as a result of this outbreak, and we pray for healing and grace for those who are infected and affected.

Since 2013, CNEWA has been supporting the J.C.C. through programs and classes for Palestinian/Lebanese students, along with remedial classes and psycho-social support for vulnerable refugees escaping war in Syria.

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