How would you and I react if the cities and neighbourhoods where we live were, in a relatively short space of time, inundated with refugees?
Since the Syrian conflict began in early 2011, more than a million refugees have fled to Lebanon seeking sanctuary. This is an overwhelming number for such a small country. Today, one out of every five people in Lebanon is a registered Syrian refugee. As the conflict in Syria continues, and as thousands of Syrians stream into Lebanon every week, many Lebanese wonder what the future holds for their country.
Consider this; what is happening in Lebanon, based on the size of its population, is the equivalent of 16 million new refugees having streamed into the United Kingdom since the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. If you live in the United States, the situation is Lebanon is comparable to 80 million new immigrants having entered your country in the short period of time since the death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.
These new arrivals need somewhere to live. They are willing to work for low wages – lower than what you and I would work for – because they are desperate for money to survive. They want to have access to your schools and healthcare services. You see them in the streets of your towns and cities, aliens and strangers who are obviously in great need, but who also pose a threat to your way of life. Imagine how such a multitude would impact you, your family, and your community? How would you react? How would you respond?
This is the situation facing the people of Lebanon. Many Lebanese have been extraordinary in their hospitality and generosity towards refugee families. They have opened their homes to those with nowhere to go, and have shared food with those who have nothing to eat. The Lebanese Government continues to maintain an open border with Syria, graciously allowing refugees to settle freely inside Lebanon and escape the conflict that has enveloped their own country. However, it is clear that tensions are growing. The cost of rent in Lebanon is rising rampantly as landlords take advantage of the ever-growing demand for housing. There is fierce competition for jobs, and Lebanese workers are finding themselves missing out to their Syrian counterparts. Many Lebanese feel their nation is being taken over by foreigners. They see their communities being overrun by a people who, in the eyes of many, were once the enemy. The Syrian army occupied Lebanon from 1976 – 2005, and many Lebanese suffered terribly during this time. There are fears that the conflict in Syria will spill into Lebanon and that the country will descend into war once again. The people of Lebanon are carrying a heavy burden, and as the refugee population continues to grow, so too does the tension in the country.
In the centre of this tension stands the Church. It has been my privilege to observe Lebanese church leaders and volunteers in their service to Syrian refugees, and to spend time with them as they’ve shared about the challenges they face. These workers are persevering in a heartbreaking task. They are doing their best to respond to overwhelming needs, and offer what support they can to families who have no one else to turn to. Day after day they are confronted by new arrivals desperate for help, and they have the terrible responsibility of having to decide who they can and can’t help, given their limited resources. All this in a climate of mounting hostility and frustration, as their own communities – their own friends and neighbours – grow ever more anxious and angry about the impact of Syrian refugees on Lebanon.
For those of us who consider ourselves part of the global Church family, we need to be standing in solidarity with the Church in Lebanon. These wonderful men and women are tired. Many are exhausted. We should be incredibly proud of them, and we should be doing our very best to encourage and strengthen them. If you can support them financially, please do so. We should certainly be supporting them prayerfully! Why not even take the time to email LSESD and tell them that YOU are aware of what is happening in Lebanon and Syria, that you mindful of what these terrific workers are doing, and that you are praying for them. At this critical and difficult time, let us in the West not forget our responsibility to the Church in Lebanon.
Andrew Robinson from TEAR Fund New Zealand first travelled to Lebanon in 2012 to help with relief efforts in support Syrian refugees. He has just completed a month assignment with LSESD, helping assess the impact of our winterization project.