Close to Beirut, about an hour’s drive from the Capital, you find a city called Jbail, otherwise known as Byblos. Just before you enter the city from the motorway a banner greets you welcoming you into the ‘glorious city of Byblos’. The rest of the banner is filled with pictures of the ancient ruins that can be found there. For indeed the place has been inhabited since around 6500BC. Civilizations like the Phoenicians, Seleucids/Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, Mamelukes, and probably some more all lived there. All have left their mark on the place. Most prominently placed is the Crusader Castle dating from the 12th century. Yet there are other things as well. Remains of a Phoenicians and Roman Temples have been found as well as a Roman amphitheater. In 1920 a landslide revealed two tombs of Phoenician Kings and all what was found there can now be seen inside the National Museum of Beirut. However the history of the place always has a shadow side attached. The succession of dynasties never went peacefully and the history of the place is filled by violence and bloodshed. Both the Crusaders and Mamelukes acted in ways which we would now find disagreeable, to say the least. Even though the place is peaceful now the effects of violence are still present, be it perhaps a bit more hidden from sight.
As we all know there is still a war going in Syria and there are plenty
of refugees flooding into Lebanon. An estimated one million Syrians are living now inside Lebanon. Luckily there are plenty of NGO’s and other aid organizations who help but that does not mean that the situation in most cases isn’t urgent. In my experiment with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) I get to see and meet some of these people who are helped by JRS. Last Friday I went to this ‘glorious city of Byblos’ but there was nothing glorious about my visit.
I first visited the school run by JRS. Sadly the pupils weren’t in yet but I hope to meet them on another occasion. But I was told that they run two shifts: one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Each shift has about 300 students where they are being taught English, French, Arabic and Math. After I was shown around I met with the ‘home-visit-team’ who are funded by JRS. They told about their experiences in dealing with p
eople and what they identified as problems. Some of these are rather peculiar to be honest. For instance there is UNHCR that main
tains five different criteria for refugees in order for them to get help. They are based on the vulnerability of a persons’ situation. If people do not meet this criteria they miss out, it’s as simple as that. Now one of the criteria is that there is a child younger than 2 years of age. So guess what happens … It’s quite easy to get pregnant. The question then is if this is the better solution for the long term or do we need to come up with something different. One the benefits of the team is that is made up of Syrian refugees themselves, who get their income by working for JRS since finding a job as a refugee is as hard in Lebanon as in Europe. But the benefit of them being Syrian refugees themselves is that they lived the experience of being a refugee and therefore have a better understanding of what people are going through. It also avoids any tensions that might exist between some Lebanese and Syrians since prejudice is still part of everyday life. The home-visit-team is key for JRS because in a way they are on the front line, in direct contact with the refugees. So they are able to point out the needs of the people. They simply go to where the people life, assess their needs and are able to give foods or blankets, or to get them in touch with schools. They’re social workers in a way.
They took me to one of the families they visit. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t shocked the first time I saw where I was going. Far from the beautiful Crusader castle near the sea, high up in the mountains there is a house, or rather a tent, but in the end it’s something of a small self-made shelter where a family of seven lives next to a building site. Seeing their living conditions shocked me. We were greeted by the woman of the house, since the man was out working. She looked happy to see us, but as we were talking I could the weariness on her face. Life like this must be stressful. Her son and his wife were living there as well with their two children: a 9 year old girl who because of circumstances can’t go to school and a 1 year old girl. The little girl was happily playing away which reminded me that family can give joy and support in the direst situations. That even in what I perceived as horrific there was someone who could simply play and enjoy. The entire conversations was in Arabic but luckily I had someone who translated a bit so I could follow what was going on. I felt slightly uncomfortable being there because there is nothing I can do. When in the end they turned to me and asked if I had any questions I just did not know what to say. Being there made me silent and I didn’t know what to do. So I waved it off.
The experience, however brief, has made an impact which I’m not likely soon to forget. The weather on the day of my visit was very pleasant. But it has been raining and storming with thunder and lightning these last days and I wonder how a tent will hold in weather like this. Sadly, there somewhere in the mountains in the shadow of this ‘glorious Byblos’ there are many more families like this.