BEIRUT, Lebanon — Christina remembers the day she found herself living in hell: Hell was a bombed bus of blood, smoke and the screams of refugees trying to escape Aleppo. For some reason, the rebels fighting government forces targeted her bus with a mortar and then machine-gunned the bus from a hilltop in order to massacre the survivors.
Christina (whose last name is withheld for her safety) is a Syrian-Christian refugee now living in Lebanon, where she spoke with the Register in Caritas Lebanon’s St. George clinic in Beirut.
“Something is still inside me from the bus that day,” she said.
Her hand shakes — shrapnel is lodged in it — as she recounts in the Caritas medical office how she nearly lost her oldest son from the bullets that tore into the bus.
“They told me, ‘Your son was supposed to die,’” she recalled. Five other people did die that day — and the body count would have been much higher if government forces hadn’t counterattacked to save them. More than 191,000 Syrians are dead from the civil war’s carnage.
But Christina’s story is not unique. She’s just one of 13 million refugees who each have their own story to contribute to the catalogue of horrors, atrocities and war crimes that have engulfed Syria and Iraq and are destabilizing the rest of the region.
The United Nations’ high commissioner for refugees, António Guterres, told The Washington Post on Nov. 17 that the Middle-East conflict is a “mega-crisis” that the U.N. refugee commission (UNHCR) does not have the funds to handle.
Already, more than 10 million Syrians — nearly half of the country’s population — are estimated to live as refugees, either living as internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Syria or having fled to Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan.
But the conquest of a third of Iraq by Islamic State militants (known as Daesh in Arabic) this year has resulted in 1.9 million IDPs in Iraq, with 225,000 refugees having left the country.
The UNHCR is short $1.8 billion for its overall operations, a funding gap of 49%. The tight budget means the agency is short the $58 million it needs to prepare nearly 1 million Syrian refugees for the winter with tents, blankets, fuel, food and cash assistance.
Refugees like Christina are very conscious of how much their survival depends on the U.N. and non-governmental organizations that are helping them. But there is also the feeling of being abandoned by the world.
“I lost everything in Syria,” she said. “Why is nobody feeling for us?
Near the Breaking Point
Absorbing refugees from Syria and now Iraq has strained neighboring Jordan and Lebanon to the breaking point. In both countries, refugees amount to 50% of the native population. According to information provided by Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in Lebanon, the government has welcomed 1.8 million refugees into a native population of 4.5 million. According to Caritas Jordan, the country has 6.5 million Jordanians, but a population of 10 million — due to the influx of refugees.
Both Lebanon and Jordan can no longer accept more refugees, which are taxing their countries’ economic and social life and civil services. The refugee influx has inflated rents and depressed wages with the supply of cheap labor.
“A Palestinian could make $28 a day as a laborer,” said Michael Constantin, regional director for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association and the Pontifical Mission in Beirut. The Palestinians are long-term refugees living in Lebanon, after their families were expelled from lands now part of the state of Israel. “When the Syrian [refugees] came along, it went to $14 a day.”
“The rents also went from $300 or $250 to $500 a month,” he said. The refugees will typically be 20 to 30 people sharing a small home on their meager incomes, “because when you have a family of seven people, you cannot afford to be on your own.”
Jordan has the same story: Refugees will work for half of what a Jordanian would be paid. Many of them have to work illegally.
“My husband is illegally working in a restaurant that sells juices for people,” said Samira (not her real name), a refugee living legally in the vicinity of Mafraq. “We have to; otherwise, we couldn’t afford the rent.”
Samira said her husband has to support their three sons and two daughters — the eldest is 15, and the youngest is five. He used to work in a supermarket before the civil war’s horrors came to Darra, when their house was bombed by the government and their neighborhood became a scene of street battles between tanks and soldiers. Her husband’s pay is how they hang on in Jordan.
“Mostly, I am fearful of having enough supplies and winterization — all the basic needs for my kids,” she admitted.
There is no going back to Syria until lasting peace returns.
“For now, everything that I had is a memory — I had a house, my house with my kids,” she said.
‘Bricks and Ruins’
Fatim Bohlak (her maiden name, not her last name), 52, and her husband, Issa (not his real name), 63, left Hama after their house was bombed to “all bricks and ruins.” They had already told their seven children and their families to get out of Syria.
Issa, a former civil servant who had retired in 2011, said that the Jordanians were very hospitable at the beginning, but after two years, he has noticed a change in attitude.
“I don’t know what the difference is,” he said, “but it is less [friendly] than before.”
Fatim said both of them have been relying on Caritas Jordan for aid, particularly for their medicines, while they try to find a new place to settle.
“We’re praying now for us to be able to resettle with my sons,” she said, explaining that two of her sons are living in Austria. Until then, they depend on their other children to help them scrape by.
“The main issue we need is to increase the monthly income the UNHCR gives us,” Fatim said. At their age, she wanted one choice: “Let me live my end of days in dignity.”
Some Jordanian Christians expressed sympathy for the Syrians living in their midst.
Zait Masri, 24, said they never hear about the Syrian refugees anymore. He helped assist the first refugees who came over the border.
“The last thing we heard in the media was Syrian women marrying Jordanians to get citizenship,” he said.
He didn’t blame most Syrians for avoiding the camps and trying to live in the cities.
“The camps are just bad,” he recalled. “Some of them would sleep out in the snow.”
Zait and his friends look out for Issm Darwish, 33, a “very decent man” who once had his own coffee shop in Darra. Now, he sells coffee to passersby on the streets of Amman, trying to support his wife and family.
“It’s almost impossible for them to find work,” Zait said. “It’s hard enough for us to get work.”
Most isolated of all are the Iraqi-Christian refugees, who are a people in limbo. They have left Iraq and are never going back: For them, Jordan is a place to wait until some country opens its doors and gives them asylum so they can have a new life.
“Even if Daesh leaves, they do not want to go back,” said Father Rifat Bader, general director for the Catholic Center for Studies and Media in Amman. The church adjacent to the center houses close to 60 refugees. “They say, ‘How can we be part of Iraq if the Iraqi people did not consider us a neighbor?’”
He explained the Iraqis have to first go to U.N. officials, who choose where they go to apply for asylum. They get an appointment with an embassy and then are told to come back in six months for a second appointment.
“Until that moment, they will have to stay in Jordan.”
Many of the Iraqis are living in church centers, where dividers have been set up to accommodate individual families. A family of seven might live in a cramped 10-by-20-foot space. The centers look almost like a camp sleepover — except that it is where people live, wash their clothes and congregate — with no end date in sight.
Catholic Relief Services is assisting Caritas Jordan to take care of 4,000 Iraqi refugees, providing $350,000 for an Iraqi response program. Caritas Jordan makes sure to have a staff member on site to coordinate food, medical care and psychological services to refugees, many of whom suffer some form of post-traumatic stress.
Nothing to Do
But the effort can’t solve the problem of having nothing to do.
“We want to move on,” said Maithan Nijab, a former engineer from Mosul. “The routine is killing us: It’s eating, playing backgammon and sleeping.”
Most of the young men pass the time smoking and fingering counting beads — a practice traditionally seen among old men, not 20- and 30-year-olds.
Sajeda Imad, whose husband was a general surgeon in the vicinity of Mosul, showed a picture of her house: a symbol of how so many Iraqi Christians went from a middle-class lifestyle to being penniless.
“We built it and prepared it, but didn’t live in it,” said the former mathematics teacher for primary and secondary school.
“I need to get out of here,” she said, her eyes filled with pleading desperation. “I have only a shower once a week. No one can live like that.”
George Hanna, 52, is determined to keep busy. George, a polyglot who knows five languages and studied reverse engineering in Romania, translates documents for Father Bader. He keeps up on his engineering research, waiting for some country — Canada, Australia or the U.S. — to open its doors.
“I threatened that I would walk back to Mosul if they didn’t give me something to do,” he quipped in a half-serious way.
George, with his wife and two sons, escaped from Mosul on June 10 in the dead of night. A friend tipped him off that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was entering Mosul but had not yet crossed the other side of the Tigris, where they lived. They had only enough time to grab their passports and a few possessions. They escaped the city by 6am, with only the clothes on their backs.
“We left our history,” George said. ISIS was the last straw in a country where, as a Christian, he felt unwelcome already. He should have lost his life several years ago — when a mortar round hit his truck, but only his leg was hurt.
George wants his children to have a future: His son Taif is a computer specialist, but his son Laith was one day from finishing his exams in engineering when ISIS came.
“We just want to work wherever we will be,” he said.
Keeping the Peace
Through all the trials, the Christian presence provides a force for peace and solidarity. Many refugees are grateful for the assistance from the Church, where different agencies and religious orders work together to coordinate a response. Without it, the region might have been even more volatile.
The Good Shepherd Sisters, for instance, are a presence of peace in the Bekaa Valley, a mainly Shiite area, where Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah militia maintains a strong presence. Sunni refugees move through the Shiite areas and settle in Christian villages, where they feel safer. But the Sunni refugees outnumber the local Christian population, and the sisters mediate between the different groups.
“If the sisters were not there, you would have major conflict in that area,” said CRS country representative Davide Bernocchi.
Sister Micheline Lattouff is director of the Social and Community Center of the Good Shepherd, which helps up to 9,000 Syrian refugees, alongside the local Lebanese population.
“Every month, we have 60 to 80 families,” she said. Many refugees take a treacherous three- to four-day trip through the mountains to get inside Lebanon.
“I saw one woman do it pregnant,” Sister Micheline recalled.
The refugees to which she ministers live in tents in “spontaneous settlements.” They are poor people from Syria, who once would come to the Bekaa during the summer as migrant laborers to work the fields before going back to Syria.
“They just want to survive,” she said.
The sisters’ school is funded by the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, while CRS takes care of direct humanitarian aid.
“Sometimes I feel sad — because I don’t have enough places to receive them,” she said, noting there is only a limited amount of food and a limited amount of pre-fabricated housing.
She knows that ISIS has its infiltrators among the Sunni refugees, but no matter the danger, she has no plans to leave.
“If they kill me, it’s not a problem,” she said. “Maybe another sister … will have the courage to continue the mission.”
“I am a Good Shepherd Sister,” she said, “I cannot close my door.”
Peter Jesserer Smith, the Register’s Washington correspondent,
traveled recently to Lebanon and Jordan with Catholic Relief Services,
along with other Catholic journalists, on the Egan Fellowship.