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Religion and Society

The deadlocked lives of the Syrian refugees

For the 150 children between two and ten who run around freely in the camp, this is a happy, undoubtedly basic but fun place to be in. It does not matter too much whether they can change their clothes or not as they are concentrated on playing, painting their faces and being with their playmates. Their eyes are full of the desire to live, just as their mothers’ are empty, lost in a sea of desolation. Life in the Syrian refugee camp in the periphery of Zahle, a few kilometres east of the frontier with Lebanon and Syria in the region of Bekaa, a place of absolute misery: two hundred families have sought refuge here, most of them coming from the outskirts of Homs.



The plight of the escape from the bombs and kidnappings ends up here, on the beaten earth, among the makeshift rag and cardboard shacks put up by those gradually arriving. While in the summer the main problem is to create shelter from the sun, from the very first days of September the first cold nights have set in which does not augur well for those who will spend the coming winter here.



The face of Rasha, 26, is still, like porcelain, framed by the black of a tight veil which mingles in with the dress she is wearing. She shows no emotion and only from her voice can you understand how her youth has come to a halt before an uncertain future: her husband was killed in the Homs bombing, she took her children and fled with her brother-in-law’s family. Her house no longer exists and is just a pile of rubble. Now she is here, in the refugee camp, waiting. She waits for the evening to come, for the war to end. This is the point: the war could last for months or years, there’s no deadline, while in the meantime she can only wait for help from Caritas which punctually arrives through volunteers or operators.



Hundreds of other people share Rasha’s journey in this suspended world. Their shacks have just a few mattresses thrown onto the ground, some plates and pans to cook with, a shard of mirror attached to the wall, children’s toys here and there... Between one tent and another are some water cans for communal washing and perhaps shortly they will have solar panels to supply the camp with electricity.



But the reality of the Syrian refugees is not just here. It would be too simple to reduce all the complexity of the question to a monolith. Each story, each person that has crossed the frontier, brings with them a unique burden that cannot be likened to the others.



The country effectively accepts them even if official camps for the Syrians do not exist. The UNHCR registers them but many prefer to keep in the background for fear of reprisals. Caritas Lebanon and Migrantes tries to accompany them, case by case, as far as possible.


In the primary school building in the village of Dayr Zanoun, in Bekaa, twenty families from Aleppo have been accommodated. They have at least a roof over their heads and four stone walls, running water and electricity for two hours a day. But their agitation is all consuming as they almost attack the Caritas social worker who explains to them that in a few days school must start and the rooms must be cleared. While they distribute the boxes of foodstuffs, the volunteers are overwhelmed by the refugees’ protests: they do not accept the fact that are being sent away from the school like parcels, and ask for their rights to be respected, they claim attention, help, a decent place to be found...



The headmaster of the school goes around the rooms with a concerned look, and seems to be summing up the damage caused by these troublesome guests: the classrooms have become bedrooms and kitchens together, the blackboards are full of hairbrushes and soap, the desks are all piled up in a box room, while the children eat rice sitting on the floor and the garden is used as a toilet. A young father of three, in his long shirt, a carpenter by trade, explains that he left Syria because he risked disappearing like his brother. He has no news of his brother and is searching for him, but it is not easy to understand what is happening in his country. But at least he saved the lives of his wife and their three children. As soon as the situation calms down they will go back home. When they do not know: even to get news of the situation is no easy task. Their life is blocked between the days of violence left behind them, a hazy tomorrow and a miserable present, without work, nothing to do, in too close a proximity with others, not chosen, in a forced intimacy.


There are also refugees with more luck along the border villages and in the big cities, who have managed to find a house and can pay the rent of 200 or 250 dollars a month. They can afford this as at least one member of the family has found work, above all in the countryside of Bekaa. They are often family nucleuses that share the same flat and the common affliction. The houses are empty, there is no furniture, they have the bare minimum, living almost on the floor.



One also comes across paradoxical stories among the refugees, interwoven in a gratitude and solidarity that last in time: one Syrian family, in which the mother has no news of her husband and father of her four children, was welcomed by the very same family in Lebanon that she had hosted years ago, in Syria, when they had temporarily left Lebanon overcome by a period of violence.



In the intertwining of these events the victims of violence, to whom the Holy Father never ceases to convey his thoughts and his concern, as he did during his trip to Lebanon, it is difficult to identify a guilty party, on which the side the bad or the good are. The kidnappings, the rounding up of the villages, the killings, the destruction of the houses take place at the hands of both parties to the conflict. But from the faces of those who have fled from the war and are on the verge of extreme despair clearly emerges the urgent appeal for help, in which is to be found the most radical question on the sense of all this. The Pope ‘pilgrim’ in this land, with his presence and testimony, never ceases to indicate the way to the answer in the Resurrected Crucifix.