Is it time? Can I finally share about my experience in the Syrian refugee camps? I’ve patiently waited until the repugnant things surrounding our country’s midterm elections were over. But I was getting impatient…
People are literally dying as the richest and most powerful country in the world spends millions of dollars on campaigning and fighting over leadership roles. Can’t we all just agree that people shouldn’t die violent deaths? Can’t we all just agree that people shouldn’t have to flee their country just to stay alive? Can’t we all just agree that children, orphans, widows, and those being oppressed should be cared for? Even if we don’t agree on who delivers that care, we DO agree they need care, right???
A few weeks ago I went to Lebanon and worked with a medical and dental team to deliver health care to Syrian refugees living in camps in the Baqaa Valley. I’ll be honest, I’m a political junky and watch and read all the things – both left and right – always trying to figure out where I land… So I can assure you, no one – and I mean NO ONE – was talking about the Syrian refugee crisis for the last two months. The biggest humanitarian crisis of our day and it’s not in the news?
ARE YOU KIDDING ME???
So I’d like to attempt to just give us a shot of reality in the arm:
Lebanon, a tiny country along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, with slightly more than 6 million people, now has within its borders over 1.5 million Syrian refugees. That’s one FOURTH of its population. That would be the equivalent of America taking in 81.8 million people (one fourth it’s population of 327.5 million). But, in reality, America has given a dismal 33,000 Syrians a place of refuge. That’s less than one ONE-HUNDREDTH of a percent! Does anyone else see a problem with this?
And whether we hear about it or not, the crisis definitely continues and is far from over. Every morning I would wake up and look east to the mountain range that separates Lebanon from Syria and shudder at the thought of what was happening just beyond my view. That very week, just over that mountain range, the Assad regime was pressing into the Idlib region of Syria with such force and violence that another million people or so were forced to flee.
We didn’t hear the gunfire, smell the fires, or personally feel any danger – but we didn’t need to in order to feel the reality of the tragedy. The traumatized faces of the Syrians gave us all the horrific details we needed to know.
My first reaction to the refugee camps surprised me. They weren’t quite as bad as I feared they’d be. To be honest, in terms of blatant poverty and extreme living conditions, I’ve seen people in the world who have it worse – but that’s not really saying much. Those sleeping in the streets of La Limonada Guatemala, Egyptians living off their “finds” in Garbage City, and inhabitants of the vile slums of Mumbai would maybe be grateful to live in such “fine” structures as these Syrian refugees.
Make no mistake, this was squalor. But even squalor has an unspoken caste system.
The Syrian’s “fine” structures are self-constructed tents made from government issued tarps (taken from billboards, I presume, because the walls of every home looked somewhat like a Wal-Mart ad) and pieced together by flimsy strips of scrap wood. Doors didn’t exist. Or windows. Or furniture. Nor did I see any kitchens – or anything even resembling a place to cook. Some homes had cement slab flooring; others were dirt. I shuddered to imagine how they survive winters where temps dip down below freezing and snowstorms are common. I never saw a bathroom either, but certain smells from certain areas told me they probably just go “wherever”.
I was also surprised to hear most of these Syrian refugees were actually just squatters – pushing the limits of the “goodwill” of the Lebanese. They didn’t live in government, or UN sanctioned camps (in fact, only about 10% of all refugees do), but instead, they simply erected their little clusters of homes on the perimeter of farmland, along deserted streets, or wherever they could get away with it. Many farmers and landowners charged them rent, and most of the Syrian squatters were paying someone something for either use of land, water or electricity. Paying them with what? I wasn’t sure. These people truly had NOTHING.
I anticipated busting into tears upon seeing their living conditions. Surprisingly, I didn’t. However, what brought me to tears, time and time again, were the stories. We heard innumerable accounts of loss, devastation and unspeakable violence.
After a week of hearing hundreds of stories, there was no doubt that every single family had been traumatically affected by the atrocities of the Assad regime. Every single person we talked to had lost someone: mother, father, brother, sister, child, friend. Everyone knew of devastating loss. Usually by gunshot, burning, or slitting of the throat. Families were usually forced to watch the murders.
Can you imagine if EVERYONE in your community had either seen or heard of a violent death of a loved one? Can you even imagine the PTSD? Can you imagine the stone-cold faces of a whole community who have witnessed such evil? I can. I saw their faces.
An elderly man told us how the regime stormed into his village and led everyone out into the central courtyard. There, they slit the throats and cut off the heads of many leaders in the community. They forced the women and children to watch as they pounded the heads into stakes placing them all around the central square. Then they threw everyone out of their homes and burned the homes down to the ground. This gentleman was now blind from the smoke damage and trauma.
We heard from a young man who clutched his younger brother as he breathed his last breath after being shot by the regime. This happened after he had already lost both parents and two sisters to the violence.
One woman who had just given birth to her thirteenth child was sitting next to her 18 yr. old daughter who was also holding a new baby of her own, and she told us: “We must have lots of children, to replace all those we lost in Syria.”
We met a young man who had been ruthlessly beaten about a month prior because he had decided to follow Jesus. His jaw had taken so many blows, he could no longer fully open his mouth, chew or swallow. Our dentists assessed him, but could not provide the oral surgery he needed. He wept as we encircled him and prayed for him. He said, “I still chose Jesus over the religion that told Assad to kill so many.”
Our medical team treated many people with typically non-serious health issues like lice, scabies, high-blood pressure, asthma, diarrhea and bronchitis. However, with lack of proper treatment, hygiene, and follow-up, we knew many of these problems would keep coming back. It broke our hearts that we were unable to give them more than a months worth of medication. What happens after that month is up? I am personally on strong chemo-like medication that is keeping me alive. These Syrians? When their month is up… what then? We could only pray another medical team would come next month.
We gave a Syrian doctor medication for his high blood pressure. He said he couldn’t work in Lebanon because they would not recognize his Syrian medical license. He also had no equipment, medicine, or money and so he couldn’t even help the people who lived in the camps around him. He helplessly reached out his hand and thankfully accepted the months worth of free medication we could supply. His eyes were all watery.
We saw two young children with hydrocephalus, an easily treatable disorder where water accumulates around the brain. However, with no money and no hospital that will offer treatment like that for Syrians, the children suffer with heads about four times their normal size.
Our two dentists saw around 30 patients each per day. They have learned over the years that it’s too time consuming and futile to fill cavities, do root canals or place crowns. Most in the camps aren’t brushing their teeth – which could be from lack of toothbrushes and toothpaste, or just ignorance in some instances. I believe it is out of exhaustion and desperation that they’re simply allowing their kids to eat candy all day long. These were largely educated people (they were NOT stupid!) who knew about proper dental care and prophylaxis – but they were to the end of themselves. And they didn’t even care anymore about saving their teeth. A few months of severe tooth pain and you don’t care what kind of gaping smile you’ll have, you just want that tooth gone. So, primarily, our dentists pulled teeth. All day long. By evening, their arm muscles were twitching from the exertion.
Our medical team saw between 100 – 150 people per day. The Lebanese team we partnered with had developed a fairly advanced notification system where the clinic sends out just enough SMS texts into the camps to let them know exactly how many patients will be seen in any given day, hoping that only a couple hundred more than that would show up. Our team would triage the patients in the lower level of the church to determine who would, in fact, be seen that day and who had to be asked to leave. Most of the people said they waited about six hours before being seen – often outside in the hot sun. We did our best – but it was never enough. One day we sent away over 100 people. There was no way our team of 9 medical/dental people could meet the needs of all the refugees of the surrounding area in Zahle, Lebanon in the Beqaa Valley.
Our week was over quickly and we had to leave before everyone was seen or healed.
I never thought about it before, but Jesus, too, must have felt sick to his stomach whenever he left a city – leaving behind so many sick and hurting, lost and lonely, giving up hope. Many just desperate to just touch the hem of his cloak.
Desperation. That’s the thing we felt the most in Lebanon. Desperation veering into hopelessness. I knew we could offer some medical attention to a lot of people, but I had no idea how we’d extend hope. We listened to their stories whenever we had the chance and, I think, that was sometimes better than the medication we handed out.
For seven years this complex, devastating, and dehumanizing civil war has raged on in Syria. Many of these refugees have just been sitting for seven years. Sitting and waiting. For years they have waited, hoping their country would simmer down and they could return home. Their wait turns to boredom and desperation. They have depleted all their life’s savings and they are skunk poor. Many Syrians do try to seek work in Lebanon. Most are rejected. Due to historical ill will between the two countries, the Lebanese are not very welcoming or loving to the Syrians. Some will, however, be fortunate to find hard field labor the Lebanese don’t want to do. Sometimes they get paid, sometimes they don’t. Some of the luckiest Syrians find work in the towns, but they never get paid enough. They will gladly work all day for a half-days wage just to work. But there just isn’t enough work to go around.
But, tragically, most Syrians just continue to sit and wait…. Wait in their tents made out of advertising tarps. Wait while drinking contaminated water and watching their children die from preventable diseases. Wait for the dental team to arrive so they can get their rotten teeth pulled. Wait for the UN or some generous NGO to bring in food supplies. Wait for the local church to open up their clothing warehouse so they can clothe their kids. Wait, huddled around an indoor fire in the middle of a tent while the snow flies outside. Wait while their old people die of diabetes and other treatable illnesses. Wait while dad gets older and weaker, mom grows grey and tired, and while their children grow up without toys, without birthday parties, without ice cream, without parks or museums, without books, without an education, without hope.
Wait, wait, wait…
Whenever I had the chance, I would ask the Syrians, “What do you want us, as visiting Americans, to learn? What do you want us to take away from this encounter with you?”
Without exception, they would answer, “Tell your people, tell TRUMP and tell everyone you know that they must do whatever it takes to stop this war! We just want to go home! We are desperate. Please, Miss, please. Tell everyone. We just want to go home.”
I’m well aware how the enemy of our souls has attempted to create an impassable chasm between the worlds’ religions. It is from the pit of hell when people of differing religions chose hate as their default instead of a posture of humility, love, and a longing to understand. I personally feel it is entirely irrelevant that the Syrian crisis largely involves Muslims. Did you know, incidentally, many Christians are refugees, too? Approx. 85% of the Syrian population is Muslim, 12% Christian and 3% Druze. The bottom line is this: There are humans – image bearers of the one true God – suffering unspeakable atrocities as we sit here in America and spend countless hours gripped by unwinnable social media debates, ridiculous political posturing and antics of a leadership that has become the laughing stock of the world.
In C.S. Lewis’ book, the Screwtape Letters, the demon Uncle Screwtape is coaching his demon nephew, Wormwood, on the subversive art of keeping Christians from being and doing good in the world. A paraphrase of Screwtape’s message is this: “If you can’t get them (Christians) to sin, then just keep them busy and preoccupied. No matter how petty the preoccupation, distraction is the best tool to ward off participation. This will keep them from doing that which the enemy (God, in this case) has called them to do.”
Dare I suggest we’re more distracted by ridiculousness than ever before in history?
So what is God up to, calling us to, inviting us into, that Satan would work such long and hard hours to keep us from seeing???
Syrian refugees anyone???
If you desire to learn more, I strongly suggest the reading of these two books:
“We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled: Voices from Syria” – by Wendy Pearlman
“A Hope More Powerful than the Sea” – by Melissa Flemming
And if you feel so led to donate to the ongoing work of the medical/dental teams that continue to serve in Lebanon four times a year, you can give here: Global – Living With Power