Crossing the Border

Fleeing war, Syrians find refuge in Lebanon

text by Don Duncan
photographs by Tamara Hadi

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Although she has only moved a few miles down the road, Hayat Qarnous wakes up to a world vastly different from the one she knew just a few weeks ago. Back then, she was living in Rableh, a village on the Syrian side of the Syria-Lebanon border and once the center of a quiet farming community. But since the Syrian uprising started in March 2011, it has been anything but peaceful.

“War is like fire,” she says, sitting in her newfound refuge in Al Qaa, a Lebanese village just across the border from Rableh. “A fire eats everything before it. So does war. There is no peace anywhere.”

It is this lack of peace, and its consequences, that have pushed more than a million Syrians to flee their homeland since the beginning of the conflict.

About 320,000 Syrians have fled to neighboring Lebanon and registered with United Nations aid agencies there. But many observers believe equal numbers of Syrians have not registered with the authorities in Lebanon; among these are an estimated 10,000 Christians.

Lebanon, with its relatively large number of Christians — more than 30 percent of the population — is a natural choice for Christian Syrians seeking refuge. Beyond religion, most of the Syrian Christian refugees have chosen Lebanon for more pragmatic reasons. Many have family living in Lebanon, either as citizens or as laborers who have migrated to work in construction or farming since the Lebanese civil war ended in 1990. Others come to Lebanon, as in Mrs. Qarnous’s case, because it is the closest border to cross to safety.

“The journey between Rableh and Al Qaa used to take five to ten minutes before the war,” she says from a makeshift room she and her husband now inhabit in the hall of the Melkite Greek Catholic parish in Al Qaa. “Now it takes four hours.”

The trip is difficult and dangerous. Civilians have to navigate a complex landscape of warring factions, shelling and random attacks in order to arrive safely. Even after that, hunger, poverty and exposure to the elements await many of them in Lebanon.

The United Nations estimates that four million people in Syria, some 20 percent of the population, are in need of medical attention; a recent survey of Syrian refugees in Lebanon by Doctors Without Borders found that 50 percent live in substandard housing and 52 percent cannot afford treatment for chronic illness.

The poorest usually end up settling close to the border, often in UNHCR-administered refugee camps. Christians tend to avoid the camps because it requires registering as a refugee with UNHCR, something they are scared to do because many of them think the United Nations is not neutral. They fear appearing on a United Nations list may have dire consequences if and when they return to Syria.

“There are almost 140 Christian Syrian refugee families living in Al Qaa now,” says the Rev. Elian Nasrallah, pastor of its Melkite Greek Catholic parish. “Of them, only three to five families have registered with the UNHCR. They prefer not to have aid where they perceive political forces involved. They accept the aid of the church, but the needs of the Syrians are much higher than what we can provide.”

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