A moment at a refugee camp reminds us of the human tragedy around us


Just over the nearest mountain stands the Syrian border (approximately 6 miles across the valley). The Beqaa valley, known for its wine and farms displays its fertility even through the Spring chill rain. The mud clings to your shoes as you step carefully hoping that it doesn’t suck your shoe off your foot. You move down the dirt road between the refugee homes and are at a loss for words as what constitutes a home.  A “home” is a plastic covered wooden frame covered in plastic wrap and weighted down by tires and other heavy objects. This is a “good” or “5 star” camp in that the homes sit on poured concrete and have diesel powered heater/stoves. You step inside of Ramy’s (not his real name) home where he sits with his wife and a younger relative. Ramy is 24 and has been married for just just one month longer than his 2 year stay. He fled his home, walked over the mountain and arrived in Lebanon without legal status. What would make him flee his home and leave his parents behind? He had a choice to either take up a gun and fight in the civil war or try to get to another location to find a better life. While he doesn’t worry about being killed in battle, life is not easy for Ramy. Ramy cannot work. To pass the time he volunteers in the camp children’s activities. For this help, he is given some small token gifts from which he has to pay rent to the camp leader (who in turn pays the local farmer who has rented the plot as a camp. 
The camp is a good one, comparatively safe and secure, and relatively clean. Of course, this day, everything is wet and dark, lighted by one bare bulb and the glow of a TV. (Yes, some homes have a TV). With nothing to do at the moment, Ramy sits drinking hot sweet tea his wife has prepared. We drink with him.

Ramy worries about his parents and extended family. He can talk to them by phone every few months. He learns they have very little food. Unlike well-to-do migrants, Ramy hopes for peace and the right to return to his home city. Here, he worries about his wife, getting enough food, and whether he can spare some small change to help an elderly couple who can do nothing to provide for themselves. 

Ramy’s relative Mohommed, just 17, rarely speaks or makes any eye contact. He stares off and mindlessly smokes a cigarette. Though he too has no legal status or right to work, he has found a way to make a bit of money on building sites when he is allowed to stay at the construction site to sleep. It is clear he has seen and experienced much that is not good. 

Saying our good byes and offering our blessings, we leave the dank cushioned hut and move on to a small hut, better lighted and full of laughter. An aid worker is teaching English to children between 7 and 14 and a few mothers as well. The children practice identifying letters and writing both capital and lowercase English letters. Through giggles and “Hello, and how are you? My name is…” We learn that the woman reciting English has 9 living children and 2 dead ones. She smiles easily but pain is not far away. 

Soon, our time at the camp comes to a close. We file back down the road as clouds race by and the stench of human waste burns in our noses. We get on the bus, wave good byes and realize how welcomed we were. From there we go to a cheap restaurant and make our way to a hotel overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Though we look out upon beauty, our hearts and minds are with the children and their parents preparing to sleep on cushions wrapped in a thin blanket and with no hope of it being any different tomorrow, next week, or ever. 

What can we do when our best options seem to be bearing feeble witness and trying to avoid the problems of tragedy tourism (a word used by our aid worker)? What can we know other than these few things:

  • this is not the way it is supposed to be 
  • few people outside this region given their pain a second thought (Think otherwise? Consider the “temporary” Palestinian camps swelling from 40,000 to 600,000 since 1948. These only come to mind today when a political leader is killed in a car bomb in one in Sidon)
  • while there are no simple answers and relief aid is not always the best solution, the human tragedy is still real. For this couple, that teen, those children, they suffer. 
  • And finally, and maybe most challenging, we know that God loves these refugees who do not yet know him. His heart breaks for them no less than it did for Ninevah. Our received blessings are not because we are more loved
  • We lament and ask again what can we do with what talents we have for the good of these brothers and sisters.

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Filed under suffering, trauma

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