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A 31-year-old Syrian refugee and her 9-month-old daughter, malnourished due to war in Syria, outside their tent in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley on March 11.
Associated Press/Photo by Bilal Hussein
A 31-year-old Syrian refugee and her 9-month-old daughter, malnourished due to war in Syria, outside their tent in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley on March 11.

Staying alive

Middle East | Syrian refugees and their hosts in tiny Lebanon battle a big humanitarian crisis with grassroots, church-based help

Issue: "The GOP’s Greg Abbott," May 31, 2014

BEIRUT and ZAHLE, Lebanon—Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley is storied. Despite decades of Syrian occupation, and vistas that stretch from a tense Syrian border east to a contested Mount Hermon south, the land is lush and shimmers in noonday sun. Red cabbages are forming in the fields outside Zahle, the main city, and rows upon rows of strawberries are setting too. The fertile valley is at once an agricultural powerhouse and resort-like, a mecca for foodies in the region. And it is ground zero for one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.

For tiny Lebanon it’s hard to comprehend the crisis currently in progress. The country of 4 million people, which sits on a stamp of land about the size of Los Angeles County, is now hosting over 1.3 million refugees from Syria’s civil war next door. In sheer numbers they threaten to overtake a host country caught between hostile neighbors Syria and Israel and in recovery from its own devastating civil war.

“The number of displaced Syrians has exceeded the logic,” said Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil at a recent meeting in Berlin. His counterparts from Germany and other nations agreed that Lebanon is bearing the brunt of the Syrian refugee crisis.

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Syria’s civil war, now into its fourth year, shows no sign of imminent end or cease-fire. It has killed 150,000 Syrians and forced about 3 million residents to flee in fear, and simply to stay alive. 

Hundreds of Syrians continue to arrive at the border checkpoint near Zahle every day. They come in families, some by taxi and some on foot. They come with next to nothing, in many cases not even a change of clothes or a toothbrush. In the winter’s coldest weeks, children arrived in pajamas and without shoes. They fled because a barrel bomb smashed their home or a missile killed the neighbors next door or a sniper killed a brother running the streets in search of bread.

A comparison helps to explain the ferocious nature of Syria’s current conflict: In 15 years of civil war in Lebanon (1975-1990), battle casualties stood at 144,000, and it was called brutal. In under three years Syrian casualties reached that level. For most Syrians, who’ve not chosen sides between the Assad government and rebel groups, there are no more adjectives, there is only finding a way out.

Complicating the situation for Syrian refugees is Lebanon’s bloody past. Decades of the Palestinian refugee crisis in Lebanon, where the PLO took root in UN refugee camps and launched attacks from there, have led officials to refuse to set up further refugee camps inside Lebanon (and to refuse to sign the 1951 Geneva Convention that would require them to do so). 

Given the challenges in neighboring Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp—now the world’s largest and where violence and rioting forced the UN to open a second camp this month—many Syrians prefer to take their chances in Lebanon. According to Hala Naufal, professor at Lebanese University, about half the Syrians in Lebanon live in rented housing. The rest move about in nomadic tents, become squatters in empty buildings, or live on the streets. 

In Bekaa Valley that means refugees are living in tents on the edge of fields and marshes or camped outside a fertilizer plant. At least one family is living in a stable. Elsewhere I saw families who found apartments to rent, a family living in a windowless utility closet of a luxury apartment building, and some who found refuge in the unfinished concrete-block spaces of high-rises under construction. I also learned to recognize Syrians on the streets of downtown Beirut, begging.

While over 1 million Syrians in Lebanon are formally registered with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), only a little over half of those receive regular UN food vouchers and other assistance. The upside for the refugees in Lebanon is they are free to make their own way. The downside is that failing to do that, and with so large a refugee influx, official pipelines for assistance are much harder to tap. That’s left an open door of opportunity for nongovernmental organizations, and especially for church-based groups in a country that is about one-third Christian. For pastors like Richard Raya it means long hours and little sleep. 

Richard Raya is the assistant pastor of True Vine Church in Zahle, a Baptist congregation of about 50 people who are currently serving over 750 Syrian refugee families in Bekaa Valley (yes, 750) and running a school for Syrian refugee children. Raya is the school's principal.

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