Zahle, Lebanon — A funeral mass many not sound like a festive occasion, but it is one of the initiatives by charities and churches to alleviate the suffering of Syria’s Christian refugees in Lebanon this Christmas. “Many people had to flee before being able to bury their dead,” says Issam John Darwish, archbishop of the Melkite Catholic diocese of Zahle. The funeral will commemorate more than 300 people.
The diocese is also distributing heating fuel and food packages to the 400 families that have registered with Zahle’s more than 130 local churches. Christian charities such as Caritas are distributing clothes to Syrian refugees to mark the holidays, and World Vision has organized Christmas plays through which refugees are encouraged to find the holiday spirit.
But many refugees say they have little to celebrate. “I don’t feel like there are any holidays," says 24-year-old Talej Hallak. She fled the bombs falling on Qusayr, just across the Syrian border in March. It’s the first time she is experiencing Christmas outside her country and without her relatives. Her father died “during the war,” as she refers to the 22-month-old conflict, images of which flicker on the TV screen behind her. And there will be no gifts for 5-year-old Ibrahim or 2½-year old Pamela either; the family is scraping by on what her husband, Khoder, makes as a painter.
Ten percent of the Syrian population is Christian, and more than 100,000 of them have fled since the beginning of the conflict. Many choose to come to Lebanon, a country which still harbours a large Christian population. A recent arrival is Ninwa Chamoun, who fled the island of Harake near the Turkish border two months ago. She tells stories of Christian persecution, saying she found leaflets which threatened to kill anybody who wasn’t veiled. “We ran for our lives” she says, lamenting how well Christians and Muslims used to live together. Now, she says, pictures of Christ are torn from churches and stepped on.
“I am worried about the Christians in Syria,” says Darwish, the archbishop. He expressed fear for a similar scenario to Iraq, where there are hardly any Christians left. He spoke of targeted killings by Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliated group who the United States labeled a terrorism organization last week. Earlier reports of targeted killings of Christians, in the Homs province, have been convincingly disputed.
Although struggling to get by, at least Chamoun, and most Christian refugees like her, have shelter. The Christians, in general, are doing better than the Muslims, says a local NGO worker. Many Muslim refugees live in crowded apartments; several families crammed into a single room in an unfinished building in the border town of Arsaal. Other refugees, such as on the outskirts of Zahle, live in tents, as communities struggle to provide shelter for a relentlessly increasing number of people.
More than 500,000 Syrians have fled their home country, according to UNHCR, and they expect this number to increase by a million over the next six months. More than 120,000 have flooded into neighboring Lebanon. The Lebanese Prime Minister finally admitted that his country is having difficulty coping with the huge influx of refugees earlier this week, labeling it a “major humanitarian crisis.” He appealed for $300 million from the international community, adding that he does not expect the stream of refugees to be abated soon, while fighting in Syria continues.
This week saw 2,800 crossing into Lebanon in two days, as more than half of the residents of the Yarmouk Palestinian camp on the outskirts of Damascus relocated in the wake of Monday’s bombing, according to the UN.
Lebanon has so far refused to set up refugee camps to accommodate refugees, such as done by Jordan and Turkey. However, a proposal by Saudi Arabia to set up temporary shelters on the border was welcomed at a meeting Prime Minister Miqati held with potential donors this week, according to a diplomat who attended the meeting.
The influx of refugees is making people nervous; Lebanon has a delicate balance between more than a dozen sects. The large influx of refugees,the Palestinians, is blamed by many for the start of the Civil War. “You cannot blame the people of course,” says Dunia Geha, who volunteers at the local church. “But of course we are worried, it’s a burden. Not only on us, on them too,” she says meaningfully.
Petty crime is on the rise in the town and people are complaining that aid is going to the Syrians. “We have so many poor people here,” says Geha. They are worried the Syrians will stay, further saturating an economy with few job opportunities. “And there’s not enough jobs for Lebanese as it is,” her daughter chips in.
Indeed, it seems some refugees are here to stay. Former apple and apricot farmer Georges fled from the border village of Rableh almost two years ago. He has no plans to go back. “Even with the regime, there is raping, killing and kidnapping. If the regime falls, how will it be different?” he says. The house he rents makes a settled impression: The living room boasts a 1-meter-wide TV, icons decorate the walll and a large statue of the Virgin Mary sits next to an empty magnum bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label. “Of course, we will cook our traditional dishes,” says his wife about their upcoming Christmas celebrations. Many family members have also relocated to the area, so they will be able to celebrate Christmas together. His two daughters are receiving Christmas presents at their local school; the school fees are sponsored by Caritas.
Yet despite this semblance of normalcy, fear prevails. Georges refuses to give his last name and expresses worry about his brother, who is unable to get out of Rableh. Ten people were kidnapped there last week. “It doesn’t feel like Christmas,” he says.
Fernande van Tets is a journalist based in Beirut. She has written for the Economist, the Interdependent and Executive Magazine, as well as being regularly featured in Dutch national newspapers such as Trouw and het Parool. She has a MA in War Studies (distinction) from King's College, London. Follow her on Twitter @fernandevtets.