More than two-thirds of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are living in extreme poverty, according to a United Nations study released in December. In the second of three articles, Lindsay Shaw from SAT-7 UK, describes visiting refugees in Zahle, Lebanon, where he saw their precarious existence on the margins of a society where 1 in 4 people is now a refugee.
Church community worker Nazih is driving his ageing saloon car along the main road from True Vine Church to fields on the outskirts of town. There, a hundred or more Syrian refugees have set up home.
As we pass a tractor and follow a pick-up truck out of town, Nazih explains how he became involved in this work. Three years ago, the first wave of destitute families arrived. Nazih told his pastor he wanted to help but had no money. The pastor told him to trust God and step out in faith. He did and the church, supported by several Christian NGOs, has been delivering monthly gifts of food, hygiene products and other items ever since. Now Nazih has a passion to serve these people and can never see a time of going back to his old job as a carpenter.
Zahle nestles in the Bekaa Valley at the foot of the Lebanon Mountains. True Vine Church – its name inspired by Jesus’ “I am” saying in John 15 – is aptly chosen for this centre of the grape and wine industry. The refugee families that we are going to visit are living among the vines. But in late November there is no lush greenery to see and we know winter is only around the corner.
As we cross scrub grass and duck under vine-trailing wires, we see the makeshift tents of timber, polythene and cast-off materials that the families are surviving in.
The road from Damascus
Warde, a mother of seven, is the first to invite us in. Her family, including her paralysed husband, fled the Damascus suburb of Darayya at a time of chaotic violence when several hundred were killed.
“Human beings lay like dead dogs,” she says, “The house was destroyed, my friends and family died.” In Syria her family was always poor, but now she does not have enough to feed her children. Most of the monthly money the UN provides is taken as rent by the landowner for a tent that gives little protection from the elements. Last winter, she says, “The tent was flooded. We were swimming like fish. We had to stay within one square metre.”
In common with the other families we speak to, Warde tells us how the her seven children went to school in Syria but for two-and-a-half years in Lebanon they have had no education.
Warde’s seems to be one of the needier families that Nazih and the church is assisting. But despite this, her oldest, 16-year-old daughter serves us coffee and Warde wishes us love and God’s protection. Although a Muslim, she is happy for us to pray for her.
We cross to another tent, where we meet Zeinab and I introduce myself as coming from Britain. “Take me with you!” she quickly quips. She and her husband, their two boys and two girls, aged 7 to 14, left Aleppo in 2012 when their home was destroyed.
Unlike Warde’s husband, hers is able to get agricultural work and, together, they harvested the vines and cut them back for winter. Last winter snow and rain collapsed their tent so now they have rebuilt a new, stronger shelter it using breeze blocks and cement.
Loss of family
Despite the meagre living conditions, it is the absence of close family that hurts her most. “The main difference between life here and in Syria is that there we had our family, friends, people helping us,” she says. Her mother, brother and sisters are still in Aleppo and are in danger. She says she wants to go back, and remembers how “People used to live in perfect peace there. You didn’t know who was Muslim and who was Christian: there was no conflict at all.”
Zeinab has made several attempts to get her children into local schools but was told by one that they weren’t accepting Syrian children. She has completed all the papers for another school but hasn’t had any reply. When we tell her about SAT-7’s My School programme she is keen to ask Nazih about it.
Zeinab appears has a surface calm about her, but pain is not far below the surface. When we ask what one thing would make life better, she seems lost for words. Tears are in her eyes when she says, “I only want God to help us.”
Aleppo was home for Nadera too. She and her family of five came to Lebanon in 2013. “The bombing was getting serious. We were under siege and couldn’t get food or water,” she explains.
The family crossed the border by car secretly, making a two-day journey to the Bekaa Valley. “We love our country and want to return,” she says, “but financially we cannot. If we go back, how will we buy food? We have nothing.”
Life is lived from day to day. Nadera’s priority for her children is only “to feed them and keep them warm”, she says.. But having been unable to send her children to local state schools, she says, “I talked to Nazih about the school the church is establishing. He said he will take care of the children’s education and I am counting on this plan.”
Nadera and her family face a precarious future. Yet, like all the families we see, she has welcomed us into the 5 square metres of her home. Despite the obstacles and uncertainties her family face, when we leave she wishes us safety and that we will “always have happy times with our families”.
- Ask God’s protection and provision for Warde, Zeinab and Nadera and their families, especially during the cold winter months.
- Pray for the outreach by Nazih and True Vine Church and ask that God’s love may become real to increasing numbers of refugees living in the area.
- Pray that families will be able to watch SAT-7’s MySchool and other programmes, and ask that local schools will help have a change of heart and help to give Syrian children opportunities to learn and socialise.
In the first article of this series, Lindsay met refugees who had begun a new journey of faith after being shown practical care and love by Christians in Zahle.
In a final article later this month, Lindsay visits a Beirut church where 80 per cent of those in the Sunday congregation are refugees, and Christians share how caring for them has brought a new dimension to their own lives and faith.