In June 1976, Syrian troops entered into Lebanon and kicked off 29 years of an oppressive occupation that ended in 2005. The pretext was a civil war that many believe the Syrian regime had fomented in order to take control of the country. Lebanon’s lush Beqaa Valley was the staging ground for the entry of Syrian troops that would lead to the violent oppression of Lebanon.
Syria’s occupation and desired control of Lebanon played out in shifting alliances to maintain the nation’s political instability. Originally aligned to, and supporting Lebanon’s Christian community, Syria ultimately turned on that community resulting in the bombing of Christian areas in 1978. Those communities were brought to their knees as homes, businesses and churches were destroyed. That subjugation continued until 2005.
In our time the Beqaa Valley has been flooded by Syrians yet again. But the Syrians that now reside in that valley are not troops seeking to control the people of Lebanon for their own gain, rather they are victims of a civil war within Syria. They are refugees in need of help from the people their own nation had oppressed for nearly 3 decades.
For those of us looking on, the cruel irony is obvious, but as the refugee crisis has unfolded since 2011 it is an irony that has hardly been mentioned by the international media. For the Lebanese Christian community and the Syrian refugees, the despised ‘other’ has had to become ‘brother.’
As I look at the situation through the lens of Tearfund NZ’s work, I see hope. While much of Lebanon understandably treats the Syrian refugees with suspicion and, in some instances, hostility, Tearfund’s support of Lebanese churches, once destroyed and oppressed by the Syrian military, is showing the power of forgiveness and what it means to see someone you may have once considered an enemy, as another human in need of help. It’s no small thing for Lebanese local churches to selflessly support those they could easily see as their enemy. It would be easy for anger and resentment to reign supreme.
Lebanon, with its population roughly equivalent to New Zealand, has absorbed over 1 million Syrian refugees. The risk of a new type of destabalisation within Lebanon is high and it grows as the needs of the refugees grow.
According to the World Food Programme, the average Syrian refugee family in Lebanon, if they are not receiving assistance from the United Nations, now has a household debt of USD $1,079. That debt grows as they struggle to pay for rent and food. To cover the basics they are accessing credit to pay for food, cutting down on meals, reducing health care spending and removing children from education so they can beg or find work. Their situation is dire.
The work of local churches in the middle of this crisis is desperately needed. They are making a difference.
The Beqaa Valley is now home to thousands of tents that informally house Syrian refugees. This is where Rachael lives with her five daughters. She fled Syria as ISIS began to attack her family’s village. At the time she had her two year old son in her arms. An ISIS bullet took his young life and she carries a scar on her arm from that bullet. It was 2013 and she lost everything.
Rachael’s husband stayed behind to defend their village. From time to time he crossed into Lebanon to give his family some support but once the border controls were tightened, that support stopped.
Winters in the Beqaa Valley create desperate circumstances but Rachael’s dire situation has been eased by the support of the local Baptist Church that, thanks to New Zealand donors and the New Zealand Aid Programme’s generosity towards Tearfund’s work, has been able to assist Rachael and so many others.
Thanks to the selfless work of the local church Rachael has received blankets and mattresses, the ability to heat her tent, and supplies to feed and clothe her children. Two of her daughters attend a school for Syrian children run by the local Lebanese Baptist church and Rachael participates in a community space they have provided for Syrian women to meet together.
In Rachael’s own words: “The word ‘thank you’ is so little, because our situation, and the situation of refugees in general, is very difficult. We were living day by day, and wondering ‘what will happen tomorrow?’ But when the church started helping us, I started having hope. I thank you a lot for the support and help, for all the items I received. It has made a big impact and change in my life.”
It’s the Church doing what the Church does when it is at its best. Look around New Zealand and you’ll see education facilities, foodbanks, social programmes, housing provision for the disadvantaged, budgeting services, city missions and so much more operated by churches. Now imagine doing that for refugees from another nation that had a hand in the oppression of your own country and your own community.
I am in awe of Lebanese local church leaders and their congregations who are supporting those refugees and I am grateful for the support New Zealand is showing to that generosity of humanity. Some of the most powerful stories are witnessed when the ‘other’ becomes ‘brother.’
Check out Tearfund’s video that captures the thoughts and feelings of the Pastors who are working hard to help the Syrian refugees. It’s powerful.