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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Crossing the Border

Syrians seek refuge in Lebanon

Although she has only moved a few miles down the road, Hayat Qarnous wakes up to a world vastly different from the one she knew just a few weeks ago. Back then, she was living in Rableh, a village on the Syrian side of the Syria-Lebanon border and once the center of a quiet farming community. But since the Syrian uprising started in March 2011, it has been anything but peaceful.

“War is like fire,” she says, sitting in her newfound refuge in Al Qaa, a Lebanese village just across the border from Rableh. “A fire eats everything before it. So does war. There is no peace anywhere.”

It is this lack of peace, and its consequences, that have pushed more than a million Syrians to flee their homeland since the beginning of the conflict.

About 320,000 Syrians have fled to neighboring Lebanon and registered with United Nations aid agencies there. But many observers believe equal numbers of Syrians have not registered with the authorities in Lebanon; among these are an estimated 10,000 Christians.

Lebanon, with its relatively large number of Christians — more than 30 percent of the population — is a natural choice for Christian Syrians seeking refuge. Beyond religion, most of the Syrian Christian refugees have chosen Lebanon for more pragmatic reasons. Many have family living in Lebanon, either as citizens or as laborers who have migrated to work in construction or farming since the Lebanese civil war ended in 1990. Others come to Lebanon, as in Mrs. Qarnous’s case, because it is the closest border to cross to safety.

“The journey between Rableh and Al Qaa used to take five to ten minutes before the war,” she says from a makeshift room she and her husband now inhabit in the hall of the Melkite Greek Catholic parish in Al Qaa. “Now it takes four hours.”

The trip is difficult and dangerous. Civilians have to navigate a complex landscape of warring factions, shelling and random attacks in order to arrive safely. Even after that, hunger, poverty and exposure to the elements await many of them in Lebanon.

The United Nations estimates that four million people in Syria, some 20 percent of the population, are in need of medical attention; a recent survey of Syrian refugees in Lebanon by Doctors Without Borders found that 50 percent live in substandard housing and 52 percent cannot afford treatment for chronic illness.

The poorest usually end up settling close to the border, often in UNHCR-administered refugee camps. Christians tend to avoid the camps because it requires registering as a refugee with UNHCR, something they are scared to do because many of them think the United Nations is not neutral. They fear appearing on a United Nations list may have dire consequences if and when they return to Syria.

“There are almost 140 Christian Syrian refugee families living in Al Qaa now,” says the Rev. Elian Nasrallah, pastor of its Melkite Greek Catholic parish. “Of them, only three to five families have registered with the UNHCR. They prefer not to have aid where they perceive political forces involved. They accept the aid of the church, but the needs of the Syrians are much higher than what we can provide.”

St. Elias Greek Catholic Church in Al Qaa is fuller these days as the village’s new Syrian occupants fill up the empty pews. Father Nasrallah chants as he walks among the congregation, which is roughly split by gender; men occupy the right side, women the left.

With the help of CNEWA and its operating agency in the Middle East, the Pontifical Mission, Father Nasrallah has been able to distribute food to the refugees and help them find places to live.

“They have an urgent need for stoves, fuel, covers and mattresses,” notes the priest, adding that the area, as with much of Lebanon, experienced an exceptionally harsh winter and spring. On top of this, the parish also runs a medical clinic, which offers gynecological, cardiac and laboratory test services to the refugees.

Still, the outlook remains grim.

“Nothing suggests peace is coming,” he says. “They are losing their country now. They talk of how their country is destroying itself.”

Some refugees have begun to move deeper into Lebanon. Many make their way to Christian-dominated towns, like Jounieh, just half an hour north of Beirut. As they face an indefinite and uncertain future, their thoughts have moved beyond mere survival to other concerns, like schooling.

Before the Syrian war started in 2011, about 10 percent of the students at the public Sahel al Alma School, a primary and junior high school in Jounieh, were Syrian. Since then, that number has risen to 70 percent.

The school is an example of how Lebanese society has adjusted to the refugee crisis. The government is allowing the students to attend public schools for free, as Lebanese students do, and is providing help to purchase books. Other aid has come from CNEWA, via Sister Sonia Samra, a Syrian member of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Jounieh.

“They lack sports clothes, uniforms, the annual registration fee [of about $70],” she says. “With the help of CNEWA, we could provide these things.”

As in many schools throughout Lebanon, the classes are in French. That has been a major obstacle for Syrian children. Typically, they only speak Arabic. The teachers have made some adjustments — first delivering instruction in French and then in Arabic. Most of the Syrian children have had to go down a grade or two to be able to keep up with lessons.

“The children weren’t aggressive or angry when they arrived,” says school administrator Amale al Hawa of the new Syrian students. “But they were quiet and unable to chitchat with the others. We noticed that, in most cases, they were closed in on themselves.”

Such is the case of 14-year-old Nour al Hassan. She has the body and gait of a girl but a depth and darkness in her face that suggests a young woman who has been through a lot — and she has been. With her father, Ammar, her mother, Shams, and her siblings Issa, 13, Moussa, 10, and Battoul, 5, they fled their home village of Al Houla north of the Syrian city of Homs early one morning last September. The shelling had become just too much to bear. Still, Nour misses home.

“The most difficult thing about being here is that I left everything behind,” she says. “My friends, my family, my grandparents, everyone I love. I left them there and we are alone here.”

After school, Nour and her siblings walk down the hill, pass through a chicken coop to a shack their parents have rented from a Lebanese landlord for the exorbitant price of $300 a month. When the temperature drops, they make do with blankets received from neighbors and an electric heater that barely works. Their landlord forbids them from using too much electricity.

Lebanon has a delicate relationship with Syria. In pre-colonial days, it was all the same country, known as Greater Syria. At the end of the Lebanese Civil War, the Syrian army remained in Lebanon, ostensibly to “safeguard the peace.” This military presence ended after the February 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, which prompted a mass mobilization of Lebanese in protest of Syria’s military presence. Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon in April of the same year. Today, the issue of Syria and its role in Lebanon is at the heart of the Lebanese political landscape.

Another layer exists in this complex political and humanitarian arena: the Armenians. Victims of mass deportation and murder in Ottoman Turkey during much of World War I, Armenians sought refuge throughout the Middle East.

Today, significant numbers of Christian Armenians live in Iran, Lebanon and Syria with smaller communities in Iraq and Jordan. As an already-displaced, vulnerable population, they are adept at negotiating the shifting sands of politics and remaining as neutral as possible in conflicts. Such is the case of Armenians today in Syria.

For many Armenian-Syrians, the Armenian quarter of Beirut, called Bourj Hammoud, is a natural destination. That is where Bedros Koujikian and his wife, Rana, found themselves after they fled Aleppo five months ago. In Bourj Hammoud, they knew they would find family and sympathetic members of the Armenian community to help them. They also found a series of Armenian aid institutions and church bodies that could help them keep hunger and the elements at bay.

“Of course I can’t cover my expenses here as the cost of living in Lebanon is huge compared to Syria,” says Mr. Koujikian in his cramped and nearly windowless two-room apartment in Bourj Hammoud. His brother in Qatar and his sister in France have been sending him money. “But,” he explains, “my brother is getting married and will want to establish his own family. I will have to find another way to cover expenses.”

For now, he has found occasional work repairing cars in the Beirut suburb of Daora, and he sometimes gets aid from a New York-based international relief and education organization for Armenians that has a local center in Bourj Hammoud. Since Syrian Armenians began to stream into Bourj Hammoud — they now number some 500 refugee families — this center of the Howard Karagheusian Commemorative Corporation has had to expand its mission. A place that originally provided care to children now offers assistance to mothers and families.

“We have more than 300 families registered with us,” says Zaven Teghlian, a Lebanese-Armenian who works at the center as a social worker.

“They come for vaccinations, general medical check ups, the dental clinic, the ophthalmology clinic and gynecological care.”

For other kinds of aid, there are various church missions, like that of the Armenian Catholic Church, headed by Bishop Jean Teyrouz. Together with help from CNEWA and other agencies such as Caritas, the church has been able to provide food, clothes, heating appliances, fuel and rent assistance to Armenian-Syrian refugees arriving in need.

Recently, the bishop received an email from a colleague in Damascus. The colleague had sent testimony from Christians in his parish, as they face an ominous new threat: kidnapping.

“A fear of leaving your home to go to work, to school, to the church, is settling in,” read the email.

While the bishop says he and the church are not eager to encourage emigration, he recognizes that all signs from inside Syria show that it is not yet the time to go back.

Meanwhile, CNEWA’s regional director for Lebanon and Syria, Issam Bishara, fears history may be repeating itself.

“I think in the back of the mind of each one of the Christian families in Syria, there is something that reminds them of the incidents that took place in Iraq not very long ago,” he says. “We know very well that the Christian families in Iraq were targeted because they were Christian. The fear is not only for now while there is fighting. The fear is also, ‘who will take over,’ if and when the regime falls?”

As the Syrian conflict enters its third year, many families who have fled to Lebanon are beginning to make plans to set down roots in Lebanon. Others hope to move to a more stable country, in Europe or North America.

In her cold shack in Jounieh, Shams al Hasan says she will not return to Syria unless the regime falls. She knows that might never happen. “Besides,” she says sadly, “there is no more Syria. Syria is now a place of shadows.”

Journalist Don Duncan covers events in Lebanon.

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