In this, her first day at the refugee camps, Jennifer Merck details the sharp contrasts that depict Syrian refugee life in the Bekaa Valley.
The year is 1984. Depèche Mode is the band:
“People are people, so why should it be You and I should get along so awfully?”
Today, we visited with six refugee families in tent settlements in the Bekaa Valley, which is northeast of Beirut. Much of Beirut sits on a mountainside. We “switch-backed” over this urban mountain to the other side, where the valley lies beyond.
The Bekaa (or Beqaa, in Arabic) is arid and flat, punctuated by small vineyards. Without the tent settlements and in better financial times, this could be the terrain of resorts and wineries. Today, landowners rent small plots to Syrian refugees for up to $200 a month, which sometimes include a power cord connection and access to a water tank. The “tents” are small, wood 2×4 framed structures, typically covered in tarps. Tarps also create walls for an attempt at privacy. Some have roof cross beams; others do not. Some have tarps for roofs; some have wooden roofs. Each home we visited today mentioned fire as a constant fear. One family showed us the tent home of a neighbor that had recently burned. The mother struggled when she returned to retrieve her children. The youngest, an infant, died in the fire.
What struck me most today were the contrasts: beauty amidst ugliness, contemporary amidst the ancient, and familiarity amidst the unfamiliar.
People are people. I noticed these things today that felt familiar:
- Syrian refugee parents love their children. They would sacrifice their comfort, their health, and even their own lives to make a better life for their children.
- I was so impressed by the mothers and fathers and the ways they interacted with their children: kindly, tenderly, correctingly, nurturingly, jokingly. A mother of 6 rocking her 3-month-old to sleep on her lap and then laying her gently on the cushion right next to her. An uncle jostling a 1-year old niece, playfully tickling her chunky cheeks. A different mother of 6 gently comforting a sad 3-year-old girl. A young mother gently hefted the sweet & chunky 1 year old onto her lap: her daughter’s legs are cast in plaster for 3 months, with a cross-brace between the legs . . . treatment for hip dysplasia from birth.
- Each family welcomed us into their living space, offered us soft cushions to lean against, and served us beverages: hospitality is paramount.
- Mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles and grandmas and grandpas all cared for the children in the midst of the living space. The adult conversation was the focus, but the children were honored and included.
- Education is important. Parents spoke of wishing their children could go to school, or for those who do, their pride regarding their children’s performance was palpable. We met a 13-year-old girl today who is first in her class, according to her mother. The 13-year-old is the oldest of 6 and wants to be a lawyer.
- Several of the homes had much laughter. The children, especially, brought smiles and laughter.
And these things felt unfamiliar today:
- Uncertainty regarding work is commonplace. Some are unemployed. Some work in the vineyards for the equivalent of $1/day.
- Fire is a fear that is on the minds of every family.
- The future is deeply uncertain: wishing to go back to Syria, increasing uncertainty that this could be possible, wondering if moving elsewhere may be best.
- Several of the husbands we met have two wives. One has 14 children of his own, between the two wives.
- Medical care is challenging to find. Some areas have pediatric care available, but not much care for adults. A father told of bringing his cousin’s wife from hospital to hospital, trying to find someone to help her. Each hospital turned them away because they did not have any money. Finally, they found one doctor who would help them.
- Some of the homes seemed very dark and sad. The journeys they spoke of are almost unspeakable.
- Children playing in the streets have toy guns that look like pistols and machine guns. Not colorful imitations. Black, authentic toy guns. And one grandfather who has lived in the Bekaa for 14 years (likely initially as a migrant worker) sat and spoke to us with a machine gun against the wall behind him. The irony that this same man is blind from a bomb many years ago is not lost.
The families shared these prayer requests with us today:
- That their children could get an education.
- That their homes would be protected from fire.
- For one particular woman, Iman, who has wanted for 2 years to receive the blessing of a child.
- That they might go back to their homeland.
- That the war would be over.
- For one particular 9-year-old girl, that she would be healed of her “palsy” and be able to walk for the first time.
Would you pray with us for our hosts today?