28 November 2016
One of the young people at Lebanon’s Dbayeh Refugee Camp is Abed, who hopes to learn French so he can be accepted into the Lebanese school system. (photo: Anna Fata)
Editor’s note: This year for #GivingTuesday, CNEWA is encouraging our friends to support our education programs, including those at the Dbayeh Refugee Camp outside Beirut. You can learn more about how to help on our special Giving Tuesday page. Below, Anna Fata, a friend and advocate of CNEWA who works with the Holy See Mission to the U.N. in New York City, describes visiting the camp earlier this year.
On a recent trip to Lebanon to visit my family, I got to encounter some of the people CNEWA helps: a small number of the estimated 1.5 million refugees living in Lebanon. I visited the Dbayeh Refugee Camp on the outskirts of Beirut; it is home to more than 4,000 refugees, most of whom are Palestinian Christians. It is also home to the Little Sisters of Nazareth, one of many local congregations with whom CNEWA partners to offer relief and assistance to those displaced within the Middle East.
I had seen enough pictures of refugee camps to expect the run-down buildings and rusted playground. But what I didn’t expect — and what truly surprised me — was the resilience and generosity I discovered among its residents.
I visited in the summer, while many refugee children were attending one of the summer camp programs supported by CNEWA. The leader of the summer camp is a Palestinian refugee named Elias. He was born in Lebanon and has lived at the camp his whole life. The other summer camp workers were also refugees, many of whom recalled attending the camp in their childhood. For various reasons, Lebanese law prohibits refugees from working in professions such as law, medicine and engineering. As a result, unemployment is one of the major issues refugees face there. Elias, like many of the other camp workers, makes a living by serving the children in his community.
The ongoing conflict in neighboring states has brought an influx of Syrian and Iraqi refugees into Lebanon, as well. Elias told me the Palestinian Christians who make up most of Dbayeh’s residents accepted the Syrian refugees — many of them Muslim — into their community with open arms, sharing resources and jobs. In a country where until recently most neighborhoods and towns were segregated by religion, the Dbayeh camp is an exceptional model of harmonious interreligious living. Despite cultural and religious differences, Syrian and Palestinian children learn and play well together at school, as their parents educate them and socialize together, as well.
I don’t want to paint a rose-colored picture of their lives. Refugees are stigmatized both legally and socially. For example, I spoke with a 17-year-old camp counselor named Tania who spoke flawless English, loved math and aspired to work in finance. I was heartbroken to discover that her status as a refugee prevents her from working in her desired field. There are also laws that make it difficult to make basic home repairs to the “temporary houses” these families have lived in for more than 70 years. (An elderly couple I spoke with, for example, said the tin roof on their home always made noise, especially when rain fell on the leaky roof.)
Despite their troubles, everyone I met treated me with characteristic Middle Eastern hospitality and warmth. The children offered me their snacks, and poor families who had little to give invited me in for tea.
The more I learn about the situation of refugees in the Middle East, the more complex the issues facing these groups appear. I’m no expert on the Middle East and cannot begin to fathom solutions that would give the refugees a place of permanence. But I think there is an appropriate human response that we — whether Christians, Muslims, Jews, or none of the above — need to choose. It is a response that the Little Sisters of Nazareth are living every day. We can be part of the solution by following the example of the sisters and the refugees themselves — to respond with the same openness and generosity they have shown one another, despite differences in beliefs and culture.
As we celebrate this holiday season with our own families, we need to remember those who will be far from home for the holidays — including those who are internally-displaced and cared for by local congregations in the Middle East. Some may even celebrate their first Christmas in a refugee camp, separated from loved ones they may never see again.
The political and economic instability in Lebanon and surrounding areas makes the work of organizations such as CNEWA all the more vital. The refugees I met make up just a tiny fraction of the men, women and children CNEWA serves. There are so many more — and the needs are so great. This holiday season, please remember these and others CNEWA is working to uplift and support.
Visit this link to learn how you can help. To read more about refugees in Lebanon, check out Lebanon on the Brink from the Spring 2015 edition of ONE. To learn more about the selfless work of the Little Sisters of Nazareth, read A Sister Act Hard to Follow. And take a moment to watch the video below for a poignant glimpse into the lives of refugees in Dbayeh.