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.
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.
On a weekday morning the church, a nondescript building off a dusty side road, is a hive of activity. Perhaps not surprisingly, Raya keeps a plaque prominent on his desk quoting Matthew 19:26: “But Jesus looked at them and said to them, ‘With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’”
Each month for more than a year the church has been distributing food boxes to Syrian families, a total number of at least 3,000 people. As the numbers grow, True Vine is starting to give food vouchers worth $80 a month instead of actual food. A Syrian resident of Lebanon and member at True Vine, not named for security reasons, coordinates the new church ministry. It’s become a full-time job for him, he told me, and at night he falls asleep with his cell phone at his ear because the work isn’t done.
Church members have organized committees to visit each family as well. That’s how Raya and others began to understand other pressing needs the refugees face, like education. Many schools in embattled areas of Syria have been closed for three years. Refugee children were falling behind in their studies, desperate for structure, and healing from war trauma.
Last fall True Vine opened a K-4 school. Now it’s K-7 and has 208 students, plus language and vocational training for adults. The school operates out of the church basement, in classrooms that double as storage areas for food, mattresses, and other refugee supplies. Most of the teachers are Syrian refugees themselves, and many classrooms have two signs on their doors: This spring the school opened a “second shift” of classes in the afternoon to accommodate more students.
All the churches I spoke to say they place no conditions on providing relief, and work equally with Muslim and Christian refugees. The True Vine School includes Muslim and Christian students. Raya said some of the Muslim families now come to the church as well.
“This is very hard work,” said Raya, “but we’re encouraged by the feedback of parents, who appreciate what we’re doing.” As we speak, a mom knocks on his door, wanting to know if she can register her children for school. It all started to help Syrian families, said Raya, but the church is benefiting too: “I believe God will open our vision for other things.”
Funding the ministries at True Vine is the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development (LSESD), an aid group that partners with 18 churches across Lebanon and also partners with churches inside Syria. LSESD in turn receives grants from Food for the Hungry and other Western groups.
“Churches are learning to work together,” said Alia Abboud, director of development and partner relations for LSESD. “It’s not that we are pushing them, it’s that churches are being changed through what is going on.”
At True Vine School, Fayez Khoury’s geography class is filling in a map of the Middle East in English. Khoury arrived as a refugee from Maaloula last November after the ancient Christian city came under days of shelling and was captured by the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front.
Most of Khoury’s students are from Aleppo, Idlib, and Damascus—places where nearly all had to survive traumatic house-to-house fighting and face serious deprivation—days without electricity, water, and often food. In the beginning, he said, the students were very nervous and jumpy. Shutting a book too loudly could make some of them cry. A few students vomited every day for no apparent reason. Now, Khoury said, “they have a routine and a schedule. They are making friends. They are settling.”
Raya told me that for all the students, “structure is creating safety.”
I visited Syrian families living in tents, in apartment buildings, in the apartment building utility closet, and in shanty-like quarters by the side of the road. In every case the floors were swept clean, what dishes there were were stacked in a corner, and hot tea always was offered, sometimes twice during a visit. One family told me they spent $600 for a taxi to Lebanon, and nearly everyone had lost or spent everything they had getting out of Syria. Some sold wedding bands to pay for a driver or a rental deposit. At first they were afraid to go outside, afraid to speak to new neighbors, afraid of planes flying overhead. Now they are trying to fashion routine and structure out of their temporary, substandard living situations.
Malu is a young mother who fled Syria with her husband and children ages 8, 6, and 4 (only first names are used for security reasons). The kids have coughs and no shoes. They are living in a tent at the edge of a lettuce field and drinking from a stagnant marsh next to it. Two years ago they arrived in Lebanon from Homs, where the war’s worst fighting began. Their home was destroyed, and they left Syria with nothing.
The children have not been able to get into a school, but True Vine Church is helping with food, blankets, and other supplies. Their tent is plastic-sided, one room, with a small back kitchen. A squat wood stove is the only heat, and when I visited them they’d been without firewood for over two weeks—even though nights still dipped below freezing. They hope to return to Syria someday, and stay in contact with a dwindling number of friends remaining in Homs. All their extended family has gotten out.
Hayet and her family, including grown children, arrived three months ago. The family, along with others from Aleppo, are living in Zahle in makeshift concrete-block buildings with plastic sheeting for a roof. The four-story apartment building they shared in the northern Syrian city was destroyed by shelling and bombs that ripped the building apart from the fourth floor to the ground, with many killed.
“We had no food and nothing to drink,” said Hayet. “We had to take apart pillows to burn for fuel. When the pillows were gone, we burned our clothes.”
In Zahle, Hayet’s family of six lives in one room. They have a cistern and receive food from True Vine and some assistance from the UN. Her husband has been able to get odd jobs too.
“The Syrian people are left out of this war,” Hayet said. She and her husband expected the government to protect them, but that didn’t happen. “At first you don’t think you will have to leave your country,” she said, pausing and looking away. “I cry when I think that I left my country. But we thank God that we are still alive.”
Many Lebanese can identify with the Syrians’ trauma. “Yes, memory of the Lebanon war helps,” said Alia Abboud at LSESD. “I know what it’s like to be dependent on others.”
Abboud and her family became refugees—fleeing to Syria’s capital, Damascus—in 1975. Before that, she remembers her father telling her and her siblings, with snipers ruling the streets where she lived outside Beirut, “Run as if your life depends on it—because it does.”
She and many Lebanese also know what it’s like to wait for a future no one yet clearly sees. Dependency on others cannot continue indefinitely, Abboud and other aid workers acknowledge. God is doing something new, one pastor told me, but the burden on many churches is for now overwhelming. Animosity flares between Syrians and Lebanese. And most Syrians want to go home someday: We will have tea in Syria, they say. But today, said Abboud, “they don’t have any other place to go, and where they are now is not a good place.”