Social worker Rachelle Beaini visits Syrian refugees in Zahleh, Lebanon. (photo: Raed Rafei)
Father Elias Ibrahim serves Syrian families at the Table of St. John the Merciful. (photo: Raed Rafei)
Aida Yassin, a Lebanese widow, sits with her son, Eli; her daughter-in-law, Lina Barakat; and her grandson, Michael. (photo: Raed Rafei)
The predominantly Christian city of Zahleh lies in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon. (photo: Raed Rafei)
Ms. Beaini dances with Syrian women during a social event hosted at the soup kitchen. (photo: Raed Rafei)
In the chill morning air of a January Sunday, worshipers of all ages crowd into the cathedral. Wrapped in thick scarves and coats, they take shelter from the cold inside the massive stone walls of the church dedicated to Our Lady of Deliverance, which serves as the seat of the Melkite Greek Catholic archbishop of Zahleh, a city in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. The pews quickly fill and many latecomers stand by the door, trying to rein in their restless children.
“Those who escape their homeland,” Archbishop Issam John Darwich says of refugees in his homily — including many worshipers in attendance — “bear resemblance to the Holy Family who fled to Egypt out of fear of those who wanted to kill Jesus.
“Some Lebanese think the displaced are competing with them for resources,” he adds, “but empathy with the alien and the weak brings us closer to God.”
Hundreds of Syrian families have taken up residence in this largely Christian city of 50,000 inhabitants, nestled at the base of the mountain chain separating Lebanon from the raging war in their homeland.
The archbishop’s homily references a growing sense of unease in Zahleh, and the rest of the country, from the enduring refugee crisis. As the war in Syria enters its seventh year, many refugee families are fraught; those fortunate enough to have brought savings have by now exhausted their funds, and few job opportunities remain — especially in a struggling economy such as Zahleh’s, which had traditionally relied on trade with Syria with other nearby countries.
“I haven’t touched a paving slab in eight months,” says George Rizk, 51, a stonemason from Yabroud, a suburb north of Damascus and home to one of the oldest churches in Syria. After living in rented apartments in Zahleh for four years and working odd jobs, Mr. Rizk and his wife, Antoinette, feel they are at their “last breath.”
Antoinette, who had to sell most of her jewelry to help support the household, keeps a warm smile even as she speaks of the family’s hardships.
A year and a half ago, their daughter, along with her husband and two little girls, made the perilous journey by boat from Turkey to Greece, as have millions of refugees over the past few years.
“For a whole week, I did not know whether she was safe or not,” says Antoinette, who has been waiting for years to immigrate through legal channels to Australia, where her siblings live.
Today, she and her husband rely on the meager income of their 26-year-old son, Joseph, who works as a hairdresser for about $100 a week.
Since 2011, more than a million Syrians have fled to neighboring Lebanon. Scattered across the country in the poorest neighborhoods of Beirut and other large cities, as well as in tent encampments in the Bekaa Valley, the vast majority of refugees live in very difficult conditions. Today, despite government efforts to reduce their numbers, refugees from Syria constitute about a sixth of the country’s current population.
The Rizks are one of about 600 Syrian Christian refugee families living in Zahleh today, mostly in rented apartments or rooms. Many work in construction or find low-paying jobs in the service industry. To make ends meet, they rely on food donations and other forms of assistance.
To visit Zahleh is to see a microcosm of how the refugee crisis is affecting Lebanon and other host communities; in Zahleh, one sees social services strained and charities overwhelmed as those in need continue to stream into the country.
“The archeparchy tries to help as much as possible, but our budget for aid is shrinking while the demands are increasing,” says Rachelle Beaini, a social worker of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church.
A relatively thriving Christian enclave surrounded by Muslim towns, Zahleh has attracted many Christian refugee families from Syria, especially those who lived in towns close to the Lebanese border and who have always entertained historical relations with Lebanon.
But even though many Syrian families say they feel generally welcome in Zahleh, local communities routinely express their exasperation with refugees. The stagnant economic situation, the protracted refugee crisis and grudges stemming from the Lebanese civil war — during which Syrian troops laid siege to Zahleh for three months — exacerbate tensions between the two communities.
“We encourage reconciliation initiatives to ease the tension between the Lebanese and the Syrians,” says Michel Constantin, regional director for CNEWA, which provides assistance to refugees and those in need from the host communities through the local churches.
One of these initiatives is a soup kitchen called the Table of St. John the Merciful, named after the seventh-century patriarch of Alexandria famed for never turning away a supplicant. Founded by the church a year ago, this program offers hot meals from Monday to Friday to nearly 350 refugees, as well as poor Lebanese citizens. People from around the city volunteer to staff the kitchen, which receives food from a large number of restaurants, bakeries and more prosperous local families.
On a recent Sunday, the Table received Syrian refugee families after the Divine Liturgy, offering chicken, meat, rice and salad as well as pizza for the children. Those at the gathering enjoyed music, dancing and even, for those of age, a bit of their favorite beverage. Such small comforts mean much to people in need, whether exiled from home or not — bringing a measure of cheer and a much-needed reprieve from their many worries.
“The aim is not only to serve food but to create lasting bonds and harmony among the people here,” said the Rev. Elias Ibrahim, a priest of the cathedral parish. Father Ibrahim oversees the operations of the center and serves also as a spiritual counselor for refugees.
Aida Yassin, a 76-year-old widow, is one of several struggling Lebanese who eat regularly at the Table.
“It’s not only about receiving food. I feel the warmth of two communities eating side by side,” says Mrs. Yassin, whose severe osteoporosis limits her mobility. She relies on help from the church for food, medicine and heating oil.
The income of her only son, Eli Yassin, 41, is barely enough to cover his needs and those of his family. Eli earns $530 a month performing maintenance on generators at an aluminum factory, a job he has held for the past 16 years.
“The prices have been going up steadily and my salary is still the same,” said Mr. Yassin, who married three years ago and worries that in the near future he will not be able to afford schooling for his 2-year-old son, Michael.
“When I ask for a raise, my boss tells me: ‘If you’re not satisfied, just leave; I can easily replace you,’” he says.
With job opportunities generally on the decline and competition with Syrian workers increasing, especially over low-income, unskilled work, many feel the precariousness of their condition.
While the Bekaa Valley — and Lebanon in general — has always been a magnet for Syrian migrant laborers willing to work in agriculture or in construction, an influx of newcomers has flooded the job market in this small country. Refugees now work as plumbers, painters and repairmen, and perform countless other manual jobs throughout Lebanon.
In Zahleh, as well as the rest of the country, it has become very common to encounter Syrians — recognizable from their accent — serving coffee in cafés or carrying grocery bags. They sometimes go entirely unpaid, relying only on tips.
Moreover, circumstances have reduced many Syrians to beg — sometimes as young as 5 — in the streets of every city in the country.
This overwhelming new situation has caused an uproar in Lebanese society, which for years regarded Syria as an oppressing power.
Although in October 2014 the Lebanese government closed its borders to refugees, adopting stricter regulations for Syrians wishing to reside and work in the country, many among Lebanon’s poorest have worried that while Syrians receive aid from the United Nations and charity groups, citizens will be left to their own devices. This has fueled deeply rooted feelings of resentment of Syrians and has nourished a growing antagonism toward the refugees. Reports of abuse and hostilities between locals and refugees are commonplace, even if violent incidents tend to be kept in check. Accordingly, most aid groups are very careful not to fuel such sentiments.
“Every aid program that helps Syrian or Iraqi refugees in the country makes sure to support poor local Lebanese communities as well,” says Mr. Constantin.
Nevertheless, love remains, transcending such raw emotions and fears.
Three years ago, Eli Yassin met Lina Barakat, 35, from the town of Zabadani in southwestern Syria, located close to the border of Lebanon. She escaped with her parents and brother under heavy bombardment.
“In the beginning, my father insisted for several months on staying,” she says. “Then one day the shelling was unbearable and there was smoke all over the apartment. So we had no choice but to leave in a rush,” adds the Greek Orthodox refugee, who studied photography and filmmaking in Syria.
After crossing the border in a taxi, she stayed with her family at her aunt’s residence near Zahleh. Four months later, Lina Barakat met Eli Yassin at a clothing store. They fell in love, and after a few months they married.
Today, the couple and their son live with Mr. Yassin’s mother in a modest apartment off an alley in a poor Zahleh neighborhood.
“I did not care which nation she was from. She was a good girl who would make my son happy,” says Aida Yassin, smiling at her daughter-in-law.
Although they feel grateful, they wish they had the means to have another child.
“Mike gets lonely. He loves to play with other kids, but I cannot afford to send him to a child care center,” Lina Barakat says.
Several miles away, Mrs. Barakat’s parents and brother reside in a one-bedroom apartment. Her father Elias Barakat, 54, suffers from ulcers and remains unemployed after a decades-long career as an electrician in Syria. Her mother, Montaha, 53, battles diabetes and is likewise unemployed. They depend on their son Issam, 33, who earns $20 a day painting homes in the Lebanese capital of Beirut. His income, however, is erratic, leaving gaps when there is no work or when he falls ill.
Issam spends up to three hours commuting to work each day. In addition to rent and other daily expenses, Issam pays an annual fee of $600 to the Lebanese General Security Office to be able to work in the country.
Asked if he would like to get married, he smirked.
“How can I? With what money?”
As do many refugees, Issam dreams of traveling out of the region altogether, to a Western country. But resettlement is very difficult. The fraction of refugees integrated into most European countries, Australia, Canada or the United States remains very small.
Many others hope to go back to their hometowns when the situation improves, even if they see no prospects for a political solution in the horizon. However, Christians in particular say they fear for their lives back in Syria with extremists in control of many areas still.
This leaves many with no choice but to stay in Lebanon, which, according to officials and aid workers, has reached alarming limits in its capacity to integrate refugees.
Yet life must go on.
“I still make kibbeh,” Issam’s mother, Montaha Barakat says, referring to a Levantine dish made of bulgur or cracked wheat, minced onions and finely ground meat. “But very often I replace meat with mashed potatoes,” she adds.
“What I miss most is making meals for my family and friends.”
A frequent contributor to ONE, Beirut-based Raed Rafei is a journalist and independent filmmaker whose writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Forbes Arabia and The Lebanese Daily Star.