Syrian refugees in limbo

By Mercerspace on March 2, 2016

By Anne Glynn-Mackoul

A boy of 9 or 10 led us down the rutted, muddy main lane between tents, past women and men and other children headed in the other direction, back to his home. He proudly carried a stainless steel pot with his family’s hot meal while his mother carried a bag of fresh bread.

Reaching the tent ahead of his mother, the boy, Mohamad, kicked off his shoes just outside the threshold and entered. Khitam, his mother, beckoned to the visitors: “Ah’lan wa Sah’lan!” she said (“Welcome!”) — just as she might have had we been visiting her home near Homs, Syria, which she had left some 18 months earlier.

It had rained in this part of Lebanon—Akkar, north of Tripoli near the Syrian border—and snow had fallen in the mountains. The air was crisp and the ground muddy, so visitors knew to take off their shoes before entering the one room that serves as every room for this family of Syrian refugees.

The boy posed for photos between two of the three American visitors as all sat cross-legged on thin stacked sleeping mats that serve as seating during the day and beds at night. None knew whether to smile or look serious for the photographer recording images from this visit.

Our hosts seemed glad to see us, and we were honored to be there, so smiles seemed in order. But on this cold, wet winter’s day, we had just entered a tent — one among some 80 pitched in a farmer’s field — that served as shelter for an entire family. Scrap plywood supported the interior and provided insulation. A tiny heating stove worked against the chill. Our hearts broke at the sight of it.

The camp is one of the many informal refugee tent settlements housing some of the more than 1.3 million Syrian refugees that the United Nations estimates now are living in Lebanon. As the flood of recent refugees continues and time passes, the burden on this tiny, politically fragile country becomes increasingly challenging. Lebanon groans under the burden of refugees, this wave arriving while camps of Palestinian refugees from 1948 and 1967 still wait in limbo.

Some Lebanese communities have three times as many recent Syrian refugees as their original population, stressing local utilities and services, rendering both local communities and the refugees increasingly vulnerable. The Lebanese government, donor governments, and international agencies struggle to maintain health and safety, with partners from the vast array of nongovernmental and faith-based relief and development agencies that have established programs in the country.

One challenge is maintaining access to nutritious food. We visitors to this particular informal tent settlement in Akkar were from the Baltimore-based International Orthodox Christian Charities, a relief and development agency formed under the auspices of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America. Working with the blessing of local Orthodox church leaders, in cooperation with local governments and often with partner faith-based agencies, IOCC engages in a wide variety of relief and development projects.

Two kitchens established and maintained by IOCC, with the support of Diakionie Katastrophenhilfe, prepare and deliver hot meals to 1,100 Syrian refugee families as well as to vulnerable families in the host communities (following an assessment by IOCC, local authorities and social development centers, to identify families in the greatest need). Local IOCC nutritional specialists guide the community kitchen staff through regular consultations to set a healthy menu that is also culturally acceptable.

Six days a week, the cooks gather at the community kitchen to prepare large vats of hearty soups and stews that are measured out into family-sized hot pots and loaded into an IOCC delivery van for distribution to the refugees. Each beneficiary family receives one pot of hot food along with a bag of flatbread three times a week.

We had arrived at one of the kitchens, in Minyara, in late morning as the first batch of that day’s meal was nearing completion. A woman named Maha sautéed great quantities of minced garlic. Other Muslim and Christian women hired from the local neighborhood stirred four great vats of steaming yogurt-based broth, while four additional vats simmered nearby on the large propane-fed rings.

In a third room, spiced chicken cubes were being browned. We watched, as these locally sourced ingredients were finished, combined with additional spices, and the completed meal ladled into the waiting, gleaming stainless steel smaller, lidded pots. A commercial sized van had backed into the adjacent alley, and men quickly worked side by side with the women to fill the empty floor with hot pots, then, improbably, a second layer wedged between the handles of the lids of the first, and packages of fresh local bread. As soon as 81 pots had been loaded, the cooks turned their attention to the next batch for the next delivery of the day and we set off for the first delivery.

Three times a week, this van arrives to this field of tents. Local IOCC staff organizing delivery consults with the informal mayor of the community, comparing lists as women and children pour from the tents and form a line to receive this day’s hot meal. Our little boy and his mother had been first in line and agreed to show the visitors the inside of one of the tents: their home.

After the hot food had been distributed to all, others returned clean pots from the previous delivery. Only once had a pot gone missing (we asked) and the residents of the camp, distressed, had turned the place upside down until it was found, forgotten, in a corner of a tent.

All of the questions that might fill a mother’s heart flooded mine. How is it possible to keep a child safe, clean, warm, fed? My adult daughter, back in the U.S., had navigated a childhood of catastrophic food allergies (including to milk products, so she would not have been able to eat that day’s yogurt-based meal), and asthma that required daily medication. Would she even have survived in a similar scenario?

When the mother through our interpreter thanked us profusely for the hot meal they receive from IOCC kitchens three times each week, I responded in halting, rudimentary Arabic, a phrase I had remembered from classes audited years before: “La shuker ala wajib,” which means something like, “thanks are not needed for what is my duty.” We were, frankly, stunned by the needs that are not being met, as these folks wait, as they already have waited for some 18 months in these tents, for the day they will be able to go home.

The community kitchen project, though, is one that is a win, win, win. Local staff are hired for the jobs of cooking and delivery, locally baked bread and locally sourced ingredients are used, supporting the local community; rented and loaned facilities are renovated to meet commercial standards, leaving infrastructure improvements that will remain after the current emergency subsides; the project benefits Muslims and Christians, helping to reinforce the integration of the local communities. We were proud of the project, and devastated by the extent of needs yet unmet.

As we drove over the snow-covered mountains on the road from Beirut into the Bekaa Valley the next day, we noticed highway billboards that were bare, missing the advertisements. Then, scattered across the winter landscape, we saw here and there the isolated shelters built from sheets of plastic that bore ads for toothpaste, clothing, cosmetics—broad, smiling commercial photographs stretched across scavenged frames, far from the reach of our kitchens, very far from home.

Over the past 14 years, as a member of the board of directors of the IOCC and as a representative of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch to the World Council of Churches I have traveled often to Syria and to Lebanon. The patriarchal seat of the church remains, as it has been since the days of the early Church, on the street called “Straight” in Damascus, mentioned in the account of the conversion of Saint Paul.

My early visits occurred during a time before the war in Iraq, and the war in Syria, when it was possible as a visitor to wander in the Old City through the souk, to visit churches and mosques, to shop for embroidered fabrics and marquetry, and to dine at famous restaurants tucked into the courtyards of traditional homes.

It was remarkable to witness that the famous Orthodox monasteries, including the women’s monasteries in Ma’aloula and Saidnaya Syria, drew Muslim pilgrims alongside Christians— particularly women hoping and praying to conceive. A climate of mutual regard characterized relationships among Christians and Muslims, with each community respecting the other’s particularities. Major holidays were respected by all, and cultural interdependence reflected centuries of co-existence. In those days, many Americans seemed surprised to hear that Christians, with roots in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Israel/Palestine—living descendents of early Christians, there since the time of Christ and the Apostles—were still such a large and integrated proportion of the citizens of those countries.

When refugees from the war in Iraq began to stream into neighboring Syria, IOCC, with the Department of Ecumenical Relations and Development of the church, began to develop programs and projects to assist Iraqi refugees and to build the capacities of host communities to do so. The partnerships forged during that period placed IOCC in a unique position to help inside Syria when war arrived there, and with refugees from Syria in Jordan and Lebanon. Now, IOCC has hundreds of staff in the region, responding to tremendous needs.

Some years into the response to the Iraq refugee crisis, we visited Damascus with an IOCC team and from there traveled to Al-Hasakeh in the northeast (where the local population spoke Aramaic) and then, by bus to Aleppo. Our packed itinerary during that visit did not allow for a detour to the famous Aleppo souk, but colleagues on the local staff promised that we would visit there next time. Now Al-Hasakeh is under control of Daesh and the Aleppo souk, along with much of the city, has been destroyed.

More information on IOCC’s programs is online at iocc.org.

Anne Glynn Mackoul is a 28-year Princeton resident who has served on the board of directors of International Orthodox Christian Charities for most of the past 14 years.

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