Raed Rafei explores the challenges Syrian refugees are facing in Lebanon in the current edition of ONE. Below, he describes one couple he met:
When I arrived to Zahleh on my reporting trip, I expected to hear the same resentful discourse toward Syrian refugees that I hear all over Lebanon. With refugees constituting more than one fourth of the Lebanese population, the public outcry over this irregular situation — one that has been continuing for several years now — is palpable everywhere.
In this pretty Christian town, people I talked to speak mainly of a stagnant economy and say that with refugees willing to earn very little, competition over jobs has been fierce. You see the impact everywhere. As in the central streets of Beirut, Syrian children, sometimes as young as five, beg on the streets. When I stopped for coffee at a random café, the waiter was expectedly Syrian. His story was one I had heard many times over. In Syria, he was a university student but because of the war, he had to abandon his studies and his country.
So when I finally met Eli and Lina, my encounter with the couple was heartwarming. Eli is a struggling Lebanese technician who supports his aging mother, Aida. Lina is a Syrian refugee who fled with her family from the bombing of her hometown in Syria. A couple of years ago, they met at a clothing shop in Zahleh and swiftly fell in love with each other. Today, they are married and have a child, Michael.
It was delightful to see that, despite the surge in racism against the Syrians among the Lebanese, love between people from these two neighboring countries was still possible. Relations between Lebanon and Syria have traditionally been very complicated. During the Lebanese 1975-1990 civil war, Syria was heavily involved in the conflict. People in Zahleh in particular still harbor animus feelings towards Syria because their city was placed under siege for weeks by the Syrian army during that period. It is true that since then, the proximity of Zahleh to the Syrian border has turned Syria into a vital trade partner and calmed the minds. But the conflict in Syria has strangled the city’s economy. And with the influx of Syrian refugees, relations between the two cultures entered a complicated new phase.
When I asked Eli and Lina if they heard disapproving comments from friends or neighbors about their marriage, they simply shrugged their shoulders. To them, their love story came about naturally. On my second visit to their modest home, I saw on the wall an assemblage of their photos in a frame decorated with hearts and the word, love. They looked like a happy young couple in the photos. I asked Lina about the new frame. She smiled and said it was a gift from Eli for Valentine’s Day.
Like all parents, Lina and Eli worry mostly about the future of their child. The brunt of the devastating war in Syria is still present, But, as Lina explained, the only focus today is on how to provide the best education for Michael, who is set to enter school next year.
Life, she said, goes on.
Read more about Hardship and Hospitality in Lebanon in the June 2017 edition of ONE. And meet Eli and Lina in the video below.