In the aftermath of last month’s attacks in Paris, people turned their attention to the at-first overlooked bombings in Beirut the day before. A pair of suicide bombers killed 43 people and wounded 239 others in the Lebanese capital, once known, ironically, as the Paris of the Middle East.
As we look more closely at the ongoing refugee crisis on the other side of the Atlantic, Lebanon is a crucial part of the story.
This small country, just north of Israel along the Mediterranean Sea, has seen its share of conflict—particularly during a civil war from 1975 to 1990. Lebanon also suffered border crises with its Middle Eastern neighbors, most notably Syria, which had troops occupying the country through the early 2000s. Perhaps this violent history, and our tendency to expect terrorist activity in that region, are reasons why Beirut’s attack ended up with far less global coverage.
But the current situation in Lebanon, one I witnessed firsthand just weeks before, captures the desperation of millions of refugees fleeing the only homes they know and the hospitality of neighbors willing to take in people who once were their enemies.
World Vision has offered aid and assistance in Lebanon since the civil war began there in 1975. Patricia Mouamar, communications director for World Vision Lebanon, remembers living for a time in an underground garage, her family homeless due to the fighting.
Now, the Syrians don’t come with armies and guns. They’re the ones helplessly fleeing the violence in their country. Over the past four years, some 200,000 people have been killed in Syria—with Christians targeted, tortured, and kidnapped.
Lebanon has taken in more than 1 million Syrian refugees. That number is particularly remarkable in comparison to the tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands welcomed by places in Europe or elsewhere. But it’s even more striking when you consider Lebanon itself: a tiny country, smaller than the state of Connecticut, with a population of 4.5 million. In other words, one out of every five people living in Lebanon is now a Syrian refugee.
Talk about a drain on limited resources. Lebanon—with its own needs around poverty, children, and education—has become flooded with people from a country that long represented conflict, exploit, and violence toward them. Why do it?
Lebanese Christians like Patricia will tell you they are convinced this is what Jesus would do. They take seriously Jesus’ admonition to care for the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and oppressed, to welcome in the stranger.
Half of Syrian refugees to Lebanon are children. In the Bakaa Valley of eastern Lebanon, I watched art therapists and counselors talk with older children about their dreams for the future. One boy said, “I dream that everything is back as it was…I want to see my relatives who have traveled to different countries, and I wish that our house is back like it was before.” Hung on the walls are before and after pictures drawn by the children. On the left, bucolic scenes of family life before the conflict began, mothers watering their flowers, children playing with toys. On the right, bombs dropped from airplanes and dead family members lying in pools of blood.
Their parents share the dream of returning home. Many still carry the keys to the houses they fled in Syria, symbols of their hope that one day they will return. I meet a mother of five who lives in an informal tent settlement since there are no official refugee camps in Lebanon. She left Syria over a year ago, driven out by starvation and a chemical weapons attack on her village. She was shot in the leg by sniper fire as she fled with her children. Her house in Syria had three bedrooms, a kitchen, and a fence around the yard. Her current dwelling is little more than a collection of plastic tarps secured over a fragile wooden frame.
I ask her what dreams she has for her daughters. “To grow up and go to university and get degrees.” Then through her tears, she struggles to say, “They haven't seen anything from life yet.” By now Patricia, who is acting as our translator, is also weeping.
Somehow, in spite of the difficulties, in spite of the fear of terrorists, Lebanese Christians have opened themselves to share in the pain, to listen to a mother who is raising her children in a tent, in a field, in a country not her own.
This empathetic willingness to enter another’s pain reflects the Good News of the Incarnation we remember each Christmas. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) and experienced all of the pain and suffering we will ever face.
The people I met in Lebanon showed me it was possible to change the paradigm of “us vs. them” and “good vs. evil” into a recognition that we all have been given much and still remain in need of a Savior. Our brothers and sisters in the Middle East do not downplay or overlook how challenging and frightening this situation is. And yet, they choose to tell the world, by words and actions, that “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).
Renee Stearns is the co-author of He Walks Among Us and God’s Love for You, both written in partnership with her husband and president of World Vision, Richard Stearns. Since the beginning of the refugee crisis, World Vision has helped more than 2 million children and adults in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. In Europe, World Vision is providing aid to refugees in Serbia and recently expanded its work into Turkey.