BEIRUT, Lebanon — As waves of displaced Syrians pour into Lebanon to escape the continuing conflict in their homeland, their increasing numbers represent a humanitarian crisis to the Lebanese government and to the Church.
In its most recent figures, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said there are 200,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
But Father Simon Faddoul, president of Caritas Lebanon, which is now helping more than 1,000 families, most of whom are living in makeshift tents in the Bekaa Valley region bordering Syria, estimates that there are already 400,000 displaced Syrians in Lebanon.
That’s because not all those who have fled to Lebanon have registered with the UNHCR.
Of the displaced Syrians coming to Lebanon, about 92% are Muslim and 6% are Christian, Caritas says.
The massive influx threatens the already-fragile demographic balance of tiny Lebanon, with its population of approximately 4 million people, about 33% of whom are Christian.
For example, there currently are about 600,000 Palestinian refugees living in camps in Lebanon, descendants of the approximate 130,000 Palestinian refugees who fled to Lebanon in 1948. And there are also approximately 30,000 Iraqi refugees.
The presence of armed Palestinians in Lebanon was one of the factors responsible for the outbreak of Lebanon’s 1975-1991 war. And Syrian refugees in Lebanon could be easy prey for fundamentalist groups whose objective would be to arm them.
Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai, in his homily during Sunday Mass Jan. 13 at Bkerke, the seat of the Maronite Catholic Church north of Beirut, warned that it was "the duty of the Lebanese state to take the necessary preventive measures so that the hosting of the displaced and refugees doesn’t become a security, political, social and economic time bomb."
Noting that Lebanon "has opened our doors wide" — beginning with the Palestinians "and now for our Syrian brothers" — the Maronite patriarch called upon other countries to also help refugees "running from the fire of war" and urged for a peaceful solution to the war in Syria.
The same day, during an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo to address the Syrian refugee crisis, Lebanese ministers appealed for $180 million to meet the rising needs for assistance of displaced Syrians in Lebanon, calling the massive increase in the number of Syrians in Lebanon a "dangerous humanitarian situation."
Lebanon’s national government wants to avoid the possibility that when the war is over the Syrian presence in Lebanon would become a lasting one, like with the Palestinians.
"Certainly, the government is afraid to render the temporary situation [of displaced Syrians] a little more perpetual. This could be very dangerous for the demographic makeup of the country," Father Faddoul told the Register.
"What’s going to happen? We don’t know," Father Faddoul said. "It’s a very precarious, dangerous and delicate situation."
Meanwhile, Caritas Lebanon is providing assistance to displaced Syrians, mostly in the form of basic necessities for living, including mattresses, blankets, fuel-operated heaters, clothing, shoes, diapers, food kits and vouchers, hygienic kits, as well as medicine. Its mobile medical clinics directly visit Syrian encampments, with a volunteer pediatrician on board to examine the children, many of whom are sick and malnourished.
In Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, for instance, many displaced Syrians are renting out parcels of land and erecting tents constructed with scraps of wood, aluminum, burlap sacks and pieces of clothing. Through the help of the UNHCR, Caritas Lebanon was able to insulate 1,000 tents so they could better withstand the winter and high winds.
Alicia Hernandez, an American graduate student at John Hopkins School of Public Health, who was volunteering with Caritas Lebanon during her winter break, shared her experience of working with displaced Syrians in the Bekaa Valley.
Hernandez visited families in the settlements after the massive storm that hit the region the second week of January. That storm had begun with torrential rain, followed by freezing temperatures and a sudden accumulation of snow up to several feet in the Bekaa.
Huge puddles, like ponds, covered the area, and the already-poor sanitation was worse, with everything floating around, she told the Register. Said Hernandez, "You sense the frustration, helplessness and despair among the people."
In his homily, Patriarch Rai recognized how Caritas Lebanon "has poured its attention" on helping displaced Syrians, "working with the help of God" in cooperation with state agencies, the U.N. and social institutions.
Caritas Lebanon’s Father Faddoul made his own personal request for help. "I would like to appeal to our brothers and sisters in the Western world," he told the Register. Funding is needed "so that we can get our projects under way without hesitation, in order to help as many people as we can."
Doreen Abi Raad writes from Beirut, Lebanon.
To donate to Caritas Lebanon, go to its website (Caritas.org.lb).