Hardship and Hospitality

One city in Lebanon copes with more newcomers and fewer resources

text and photographs by Raed Rafei

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In the chill morning air of a January Sunday, worshipers of all ages crowd into the cathedral. Wrapped in thick scarves and coats, they take shelter from the cold inside the massive stone walls of the church dedicated to Our Lady of Deliverance, which serves as the seat of the Melkite Greek Catholic archbishop of Zahleh, a city in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. The pews quickly fill and many latecomers stand by the door, trying to rein in their restless children.

“Those who escape their homeland,” Archbishop Issam John Darwich says of refugees in his homily — including many worshipers in attendance — “bear resemblance to the Holy Family who fled to Egypt out of fear of those who wanted to kill Jesus.

“Some Lebanese think the displaced are competing with them for resources,” he adds, “but empathy with the alien and the weak brings us closer to God.”

Hundreds of Syrian families have taken up residence in this largely Christian city of 50,000 inhabitants, nestled at the base of the mountain chain separating Lebanon from the raging war in their homeland.

The archbishop’s homily references a growing sense of unease in Zahleh, and the rest of the country, from the enduring refugee crisis. As the war in Syria enters its seventh year, many refugee families are fraught; those fortunate enough to have brought savings have by now exhausted their funds, and few job opportunities remain — especially in a struggling economy such as Zahleh’s, which had traditionally relied on trade with Syria with other nearby countries.

“I haven’t touched a paving slab in eight months,” says George Rizk, 51, a stonemason from Yabroud, a suburb north of Damascus and home to one of the oldest churches in Syria. After living in rented apartments in Zahleh for four years and working odd jobs, Mr. Rizk and his wife, Antoinette, feel they are at their “last breath.”

Antoinette, who had to sell most of her jewelry to help support the household, keeps a warm smile even as she speaks of the family’s hardships.

A year and a half ago, their daughter, along with her husband and two little girls, made the perilous journey by boat from Turkey to Greece, as have millions of refugees over the past few years.

“For a whole week, I did not know whether she was safe or not,” says Antoinette, who has been waiting for years to immigrate through legal channels to Australia, where her siblings live.

Today, she and her husband rely on the meager income of their 26-year-old son, Joseph, who works as a hairdresser for about $100 a week.

Since 2011, more than a million Syrians have fled to neighboring Lebanon. Scattered across the country in the poorest neighborhoods of Beirut and other large cities, as well as in tent encampments in the Bekaa Valley, the vast majority of refugees live in very difficult conditions. Today, despite government efforts to reduce their numbers, refugees from Syria constitute about a sixth of the country’s current population.

The Rizks are one of about 600 Syrian Christian refugee families living in Zahleh today, mostly in rented apartments or rooms. Many work in construction or find low-paying jobs in the service industry. To make ends meet, they rely on food donations and other forms of assistance.

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