16 November 2015
Hanaa Elia and her husband, Georges Habbash, sit in their home in Jdeideh, Lebanon, a year after fleeing the Nineveh Plain. (photo: Tamara Abdul Hadi)
In the Autumn 2015 edition of ONE, journalist Raed Rafei looks at the plight of Iraqi Christian refugees in Lebanon. Here, he adds some additional thoughts from his experience reporting the story.
When you see a man in his mid-thirties, a father of four children, crying, you cannot but have a twinge in the stomach. Sarmad, like all the refugees I interviewed for my story on Christian minorities who fled their towns in Iraq and Syria because of invasions by extreme Islamist militias, feels completely hopeless. After a year in Lebanon barely surviving, relying on charity from his Catholic Assyrian Church and philanthropists, he is at the edge of a breakdown. It is very harsh to witness people in limbo, especially ones who are responsible for their families. Many told me they are unable to picture the future unless they are granted asylum in a western country, a chance that only a small percentage of refugees here will eventually have. In Lebanon, refugees lead a very difficult life in the absence of stable jobs and social and medical public care.
I remember vividly the look in Sarmad’s eyes when I asked him if he would go back to Iraq. It was a very bitter gaze. He said, “Iraq! I hate my parents for being born there.” His honest answer made me very uncomfortable. It’s only when people are in their most desperate moment that they renounce their origins this way. But I could not blame him. What the refugees I’ve met told me is that they had witnessed a carefully studied plan not only to drive them out of lands they had lived in for centuries but also to wipe out their entire heritage. These refugees, who are very proud that they speak the language of Christ and practice ancient Christian rites, seem nevertheless hopeless that they could ever go back and rebuild their homes and towns. The sense of betrayal from their Muslim neighbors is strong. Many showed me, on their mobile phones, videos and images of ancient churches and convents purposely damaged and desecrated by fundamentalists. These were the churches where they held all their happy and sad ceremonies. I was particularly touched by the story of a father who told me how blessings from a saint in a shrine in his hometown in Syria cured his ill son.
Despite all the desperate stories I heard, I was moved by the unity I witnessed at a Sunday liturgy for exiled Catholic Assyrians. The church, which is rented for a couple of hours every Sunday to absorb newcomers, was packed with hundreds of people praying with their children. Even after having lost everything they had built throughout their lives, they were, at least, grateful they were now alive and safe. Afterward, the scene was very cheerful in the front yard of the church, with children playing and adults chitchatting.
I felt a real sense of solidarity in a community thriving and still standing; a bruised community, yes, but one that has not given up just yet.
Below is a video produced by Raed Rafei, showing the life of one refugee family in Lebanon: