Syrian Refugees in Lebanon Try to Keep Hope

Nasser Chararah reports on a young Syrian couple in Beirut who have fled from the conflict in Syria and, despite the tough conditions, maintain optimism that they will one day return.

al-monitor Syrian refugees carry tools donated by humanitarian activists on the first day of Eid al-Adha in Beirut, Oct. 26, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Jamal Saidi.

Topics covered

unemployment, syrian, orthodox christians, orthodox, immigration

Jan 16, 2013

“Bless them, O Lord, as You blessed Abraham and Sarah. … Bless them, O Lord, as You blessed Joachim and Anna.”

The priest of the church in Jaramana, which is mostly Orthodox Christian, said the above verse as he presided over the marriage of a young couple from his flock. That was on a Sunday last September. Sinda and Tarek had been planning this moment for the past three years. But it never occurred to them that they would be getting married under the sound of bullets and shelling, and a growing feeling among the people of Jaramana that their future with their Muslim neighbors was no longer guaranteed.

Before the start of the events in Syria, Jaramana was for Damascus what Ashrafieh is to Beirut. Both Jaramana and Ashrafieh have a heavy Orthodox Christian presence in a mostly Muslim capital. Ashrafieh has a civil and bourgeois Orthodox Christian character amid a rural Lebanese Christian region, and Jaramana is similar in that regard relative to Damascus and its countryside. Jaramana’s restaurants, nightclubs and the arrival of Iraqi Christian capitalists made the town the go-to place for nightlife, even more so than Ashrafieh.

Few Iraqis remain in Jaramana as they were the first to leave Syria. The Iraqi Christians sensed, before the other Christians did, that what happened to them in Iraq was being repeated now in Syria.

Even before the terrorist bombings that killed dozens in Jaramana, Sinda considered herself lucky to be living during the development boom that happened in her hometown. A year ago, she caught her lucky break and became a media star throughout Syria within months. She became a TV presenter for political programs at Al-Ikhbariyya, which greatly impacted her life. The Syrian regime hastily established that TV station last year after it realized traditional media is incapable of defending the regime against the Western and Arab media, most particularly the pro-opposition Al-Jazeera. Sinda took advantage of her new post to liberalize her TV program and make it different than the cookie-cutter official news, which often begins with the words, “The president received ... ” and ends with, “The president said farewell to ... .” And in less than a year, Sinda became a popular journalist in Syria, compared to her colleagues in state television.

Today, Sinda sits with her husband, Tarek, and remembers the past. She is very far from Jaramana, at a cafe in Beirut. A few weeks ago she escaped the bloody events in her country. Just when she thought that she was on the road to stardom, fate took her away from Jaramana, whose air and nightlife she misses.

Today, Sinda fears that their decision to leave Syria could become permanent, because what the Syrian refugees need to return to Syria is a sense of security and civilized coexistence, and not just the return of security in the technical sense.

A late warning

Before Sinda and her husband rented a small apartment in the Beirut suburb of Hazmieh for $700 a month, they fell victim to fraud. A person claimed that he was a broker and swindled them out of $3,000 for an apartment before immediately disappearing.

Almost every night, Sinda talks to her mother, who chose to stay in Jaramana despite the constant threat of death. Sinda said that her father, who has been in America for years, is urging her to join him. She may choose to do so if she feels that she and her husband have nothing going for them in Lebanon. If that were to happen, she would have decided to change her status from “temporarily displaced” to “permanent immigrant” in America. As an alternative to Syria, she would have chosen any obscure country for her and her son, who is about to be born.

Seven weeks after arriving in Beirut, things do not look encouraging. So far, they had tried their luck at foreign media outlets, which all gave them the same answer, “You are applying for jobs while we are dismissing employees.” A few days ago, Sinda read a statement issued by the Lebanese General Security Service warning displaced Syrians from being targeted by fraudsters. Sinda smiled and said, “The warning is a little late.”

Sinda made new Syrian friends in Lebanon, who had been displaced from Kassa and Bab Touma, two Christian neighborhoods in Damascus. Most displaced Syrians have chosen to permanently migrate. They have started seeking visas to Europe and the United States to join their relatives. On Sunday, Sinda went to a nearby church in Hazmieh where the priest urged in his homily that worshipers embrace their fellow believers who have been displaced from Syria, so that they do not go very far away, which would make their departure permanent. He said that our presence in the Levant is a testament to Christianity, without which Christianity would lose its soul.

Good news!

A few days ago, Sinda’s phone rang and she received some good news. A Lebanese TV production company offered her husband a part-time job with a small salary that does not even cover their small apartment’s rent. She is trying to persuade him to accept it, but Tarek is refusing to let go of the ambitions that he had set in Jaramana. Tarek is less patient than Sinda, who has accepted her fall from media stardom to unemployment. She asks him to be patient, proposing that she becomes “like her grandmother, a housewife who prepares the food and awaits his return in the evening.” Sinda is trying to avoid permanent displacement in America. She wants to stay close to her dream of returning to Jaramana by being patient with the difficult circumstances in Lebanon.

During Sinda’s wait in Lebanon, she sees every day hundreds of “cases of resistance” by displaced persons from Kassa, Bab Touma and Jaramana. They want to stay close to Syria, waiting to return when the crisis ends.

But between facing harsh conditions in Lebanon and the decision of whether or not to start a new life in Europe or America, the options are dwindling for the thousands of the Syrian Christians in Lebanon, which has become a waiting station where they endure incredibly trying conditions.

Nasser Chararah is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Lebanon Pulse, head of the Lebanese Institute for Studies and Publications, a writer for multiple Arab newspapers and magazines, author of several books on the Hezbollah-Israeli conflict, and has worked for the Palestinian Research Center.

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