ZAHLE, Lebanon—The plaque facing out on Richard Raya’s desk reads, “All Things Are Possible,” and quotes Matthew 19:26. A pastor at New Vine Church in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, Raya now finds himself running a school for Syrian refugees that’s nearly doubled in size since last October when it opened. Most days he needs that Bible passage.
Lebanon’s border with Syria is less than 10 miles from this valley city of Zahle, and Syrians fleeing that country’s 3-year-old civil war are coming across sometimes by the thousands every day. The influx is a growing burden for tiny Lebanon that most of the watching world has ignored. Reasonable estimates suggest about 1.3 million Syrians are now refugees in Lebanon, a country of 4.4 million. That’s the equivalent of 72 million refugees suddenly arriving in the United States, points out Bill Frelick, director of the Human Rights Watch refugee program.
The UN has formally registered 992,000 refugees here. But most of the Syrians I interviewed in Bekaa say they won’t register: They fear drawing public attention to themselves due to the war or they don’t trust the UN, they said. But UN officials said their programs to assist refugees are only 14 percent funded, anyway.
That’s why churches like New Vine are so important. With funding from the Lebanese Society for Education and Social Development (LSESD) and international organizations like Food for the Hungry, New Vine began delivering food parcels, stoves, and blankets to needy Syrian families a year ago. The church of about 100 members now oversees once-a-month food distribution to 750 families—more than 4,000 people. In visiting each family, church members quickly realized the pressing need for education. Many of the Syrian children have been out of school for two or three years. “Creating structure for them is creating safety,” Raya said.
Classes for New Vine School meet in the church basement, and just started a second shift to accommodate the growing demand. The school has grown from 125 to 208 students in kindergarten through grade 6, and has started classes in English and literacy for about 60 adults.
Raya has to turn many families away because he lacks the resources to school them. As we talked, a mother knocked on his office door wanting to register her children, something Raya says happens almost every hour of the day. Simply put, he said, “They need everything.”
Amal is a Syrian mother and also a teacher at New Vine School (only her first name is used for security reasons). Her story resembles many refugees: She and her husband fled Homs, where some of the worst fighting of the war began, with their children, now 7 and 10 years old. Her kids missed two years of school. Soon after they settled in Bekaa Valley, Amal’s husband went back to Syria to see whether their house and other property had survived the shelling. The family has not heard from him since, and Amal presumes he was kidnapped or killed. “Everything we have is gone,” she said.
Inside the classrooms, kindergartners are reciting their ABCs in English, and in a 5th grade classroom students are studying the geography of the Middle East. At the back of the room are stacks of mattresses, awaiting the arrival of the next wave of needy families.