Grapes of Wrath: Refugees Face Steinbeck Scenario in Lebanon's Napa Valley
Image: Jon Warren / Courtesy of World Vision

Faysal stands amid the rolling fields of the Bekaa Valley. Just down the road are award-winning, decadent vineyards—a product of the fertile agricultural region’s 5,000-year head start on Napa Valley. The Romans even chose to build their temple to Bacchus here. Above loom the snow-covered slopes of Mt. Hermon, where many today place Jesus’ transfiguration.

Surveying the sea of green plants rustling in a pleasant breeze, the 43-year-old describes what he feels: “A knife in my heart.”

For Faysal, a Syrian refugee, the scene is not one of grandeur but of guilt; in the field before him are three of his children—his 15-year-old son and 13- and 11-year-old daughters—bent in half as they weed potatoes instead of attending school.

“I have no choice,” says the father of six. In Aleppo, one of Syria’s most war-torn cities, his job as a truck driver once provided a four-room house and a middle-class, urban life. Now, having injured his back in his own efforts at day labor, he can’t pay the rent for their cobbled-together shelter on a farmer’s property. So he just stands and watches his children. And cries.

“As a father, what is the purpose of my life if I can’t provide for my children?” he says. “I’m ashamed of the present and the future.”

On the shores of the Mediterranean Sea just north of Israel, Lebanon once enjoyed a reputation as the Switzerland of the Middle East, a land of milk and honey. On the eve of Ramadan, Christianity Today visited with World Vision to witness how the Bekaa Valley now recalls John Steinbeck’s Great Depression–era description of the Dust Bowl and California. In the Bekaa, many refugees struggle to survive as tenant farmers, as did the Joads of The Grapes of Wrath. But unlike the Joads, many used to be urban, middle-class families.

Image: Bilal Jawich, Bottom right: Jon Warren / Courtesy of World Vision

While Americans agonize over plans to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees this year, Lebanon is straining under the weight of 1.5 million. And it’s a nation of only 4.5 million, smaller than Connecticut and with fewer people than Kentucky.

Today, 1 in 3 people in Lebanon is a refugee. As a Beirut taxi driver put it: “Now you fear that when you go home, you will find a refugee sleeping in your bed.”

On the Corniche, Beirut’s famed boardwalk perfect for watching the sun set over the Mediterranean, most of the evening crowd are not Lebanese or tourists, but Syrian refugees. Families fill the mosaic-covered benches while men fish for dinner from the algae-covered rocks at the seawall’s base. Stretching along the coast is the long ridge of Mount Lebanon. Its dense clusters of terraced white houses evoke snow-covered slopes even in the summer heat.

These days, most of the street vendors on bustling Hamra Street, one of Beirut’s main tourist strips for shopping, are refugees. At Cafe Younes, open since 1935 and famous for its specialty coffee roasts and the cigar-smoking communists always on hand to drink it, a dirt-streaked boy navigates the sidewalk tables in the leafy shade. About six years old, he is raggedly dressed in the colors of the Syrian flag: a red polo shirt, black pants that stop well above his ankles, and white-striped sneakers.

He repeatedly gestures to his mouth, saying “C’mon please” as he peddles green and yellow packs of Chiclets gum. Three sidewalk tables decline before two shoppers in a black Audi across the street finally say yes. A few minutes later, a girl around age eight with her hair in a frazzled braid starts retracing the boy’s path with just a bare, outstretched hand.

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