A little girl curiously pokes her face out of the tent then darts back in to the bare walls of her squatters home. Covered with a patchwork of plastic tarps and even a canvas that looked like it once was a banner advertising shampoo, the flimsy hut held up by two by fours and scrap wood taken from discarded pallets is typical of most Syrian refugee tent settlements in this bleak valley. The thin, plastic-covered walls offer little more than a token defense against the creeping cold in this populous valley nestled along the Syrian border at 3,000 feet above sea level. Other children run around on the mud paths in donated shoes or barefoot, and a single bare road leading out of this tent settlement heads across a lonely field off towards the towering snow-capped mountains framing this scene.
This is the third, fourth or even fifth winter for some of the Syrians who now reluctantly call this portion of Lebanon home. One family invited us in out of the chill to the warmth of their single heated room, kept that way by a bare metal stove with a vent pipe snaking across the doorway and out the roof. As long as they have enough fuel for the stove, the cold outside is kept at bay. While they prepared the obligatory hospitality of sweetened black currant tea the wife, who was well educated in Syria and spoke English and French, explained with her husband that they came here from Syria expecting to return in just a few months time. That was almost 5 years ago now. Everyone thought the internal troubles of Syria would blow over and life would get ‘back to normal’ in their beloved homeland. But now they, like millions more packed throughout this valley and the more metropolitan scene of Beirut on the other side of the mountains, sit and wait for a grinding sectarian civil war to one day grind to a halt.
They are similar to many Syrians we meet here. Not clamoring to abandon Syria for the allures of Europe, but patiently and somewhat hopelessly waiting to return to the only home they ever knew. Their children scamper and weave through the maze of tents, clotheslines, water barrels and other hubris of refugee life, many of them so young that they never knew any other life. Those who remember, often try to forget the horrors of war and desperation that were pounding around them while their family fled for refuge. Some refugees have shared with us that they rarely sleep through the night, haunted by a persistent, though now irrational, fear the ceiling will collapse on them from a barrel-bomb hurtling through the sky. The memories of collapsed homes and pulling loved ones from the rubble is all too real to forget. Others have withdrawn from life into a secluded hell that only those who’ve tasted the post-traumatic stress of active armed conflict could relate with.
This family sits in the shadow of the mountains, hemmed in on one side by the range leading to Syria, and the other that leads to the modern tangle of streets and buildings in an increasingly unwelcoming Beirut filled with Lebanese who wonder when these intruders are going to leave. The unwanted of the region are also the unwanted of the world as Western backlash from the unscrupulous and foolish actions of recent immigrants to Europe slanders the name of all who fled the region for their lives. As the first storms of winter dump snow, rain, ice and sub-zero temperatures on a sprawling mass of plastic and plywood tent cities, the hopes of returning home in ‘just a few more months’ grow even colder with the increasingly hostile rhetoric between the two regional powers fueling the Syrian war – Iran and Saudi Arabia – and so these families dig in for another refugee winter. It has become an all too normal way of life.
Yet among the silent suffering of the millions who remain just on the fringe of the borders waiting to return home one day, light breaks through the darkness. The compassion of total strangers for other total strangers – even strangers who by all means should be considered hated enemies – shines forth to give hope amidst hopelessness. The labors of numerous Christians, both local churches and foreign-run NGOs, comes as the primary supplement to beleaguered and increasingly under-funded UN efforts to bear the brunt of the needs. That such people would come to this bleak, gray, chilled valley to share just a little in their sufferings, and try to help them through just another day of cold hopelessness, speaks loudly to them.
That some of these volunteers are from the same countries in the West who broad-brush all Syrians as ‘terrorists’ or ‘criminals’ helps to mend tattered bridges. That some of these same workers also speak of One who Himself came to earth to suffer for and among His people, and die on their behalf, intrigues and even captivates some with such a Savior who loves. The God many of them know from their own country and people is not one who loves, but one who hates, not one who forgives, but one who drives his followers to blind vengeance, not one who gives life but one who spreads death like a dark cloud rolling over the land. That people love these strangers enough to come to help even in a small way gives a real validity to the message of One who Himself loved and came to help in the greatest way possible. This is our hope in our own small efforts out here, to convey such a message of the Gospel in both word and deed.
I would just ask you this winter to pray that these helps given to these refugees, and the life lived among them, and the message delivered to them, would bear such validity and reality to turn many from the desolate darkness of sin and the horrors they left behind, towards the light of grace and truth in Christ that for many is now heard by them for the very first time. Pray we could seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God in these days of great need and great instability in this region. God alone can do what is impossible with man, and that is what is needed most.