‘How can you say no?’
Something strange and new is happening on a little hill just 12 kilometres north of Beirut. Veiled women are walking around the narrow alleys of a little Christian enclave. In tow are their children, skipping around. Every once in a while, the radio blasts out Qu’ranic verses that startle the Christian residents, who are more used to hearing their Sunday church bells.
Lebanon is accustomed to veiled women. While not officially admitted, the number of Muslim Lebanese exceed Christians. But while some areas boast both religions living side by side, most remain largely separated.
And so it was a bit of a shock at first for the Christians living in the little Dbayeh camp to wake up and find themselves neighbours with Syrian refugees, especially Muslim ones. In the early days there were some minor disagreements. But once the shock wore off, there was really nothing to do but welcome them in. After all, the 500 residents of Dbayeh know what it is like to be refugees: they and their families have been displaced for over half a century.
Their story began in 1948 when they fled their homes in the wake of the creation of Israel. Catholics from around Galilee in northern Palestine, they were labelled as refugees and denied many rights by the Lebanese government. To this day, a Palestinian cannot own property and is barred from working in over 70 skilled jobs. They continue to be unwelcome and remain the subject of resentment. Dbayeh camp has slipped into poverty.
The arrival of the 50 refugee families in the camp was contentious. On the one hand, Palestinians could sympathize with the Syrians. But on the other, they felt they were losing out. The arrivals had come because their husbands had found unskilled jobs in the area – by working at lower wages.
‘There is no denying that Syrians are taking our jobs,’ said Elias Habib, a Palestinian refugee who resides in the camp and oversees the JCC (Joint Christian Center), a small NGO which caters for Palestinian refugees in Dbayeh. ‘And I know that this camp cannot possibly take in any more people. But how can you say no? They need us.’
Once the shock wore off, there was really nothing to do but welcome them in
Soon, clothes and food began flowing to the Syrians. But there remained one significant problem: education. With nearby public schools only able to offer spaces to Syrian children once all Lebanese students have registered, many refugees found themselves excluded.
Seeing the Syrian children wandering aimlessly around the camp, the JCC took it upon itself to turn its small building into an unofficial five-room schoolhouse.
‘What they are doing here for us is a godsend,’ said Fatima Ballout, who travelled with her children from Idlib in northern Syria. ‘There is no place for my children in the Lebanese public school this year and we don’t have the money to send them to a private school.’
It is a struggle for Ballout to abide by the tough new government rules. She must now find fees every year to renew residency permits, which can run to $1,000 for a family.
Her story is like that of countless other Syrian women. Her husband was working as an unskilled labourer in Lebanon before the war, and sent for her and their children when conflict reached their home town two years ago. She now shares a three-bedroom flat with three other Syrian families.
Yet every morning, Ballout’s children are among 91 pupils who attend the JCC school. Four teachers – three Syrian and one Palestinian – hold classes all morning. Parents pay a symbolic fee of $6 per month and all materials are provided.
‘We teach the Syrian curriculum in the hope that they can one day go back to continue their education there,’ said Habib. ‘We don’t have books, so we make do with photocopies.’
In the afternoon, the classroom is turned into a community centre for the camp’s children. All are welcome to join choir, storytelling hour, dancing and, during the summer, camps and field trips.
‘I have been touched by the way the Palestinians welcomed us here,’ said Rania Merjeh, whose house in Aleppo has been completely destroyed. She and 30 other women had just arrived at the JCC centre for a meeting with Habib about their children’s progress.
‘They are doing their best to make us comfortable,’ she continued. ‘But we want to go back to our homes in Syria. I want to rebuild my house and replant my garden. I don’t want to emigrate to a strange land. I just want to go home.’
Habib looked at her sympathetically. ‘You know, Rania,’ he said slowly, ‘we have been waiting for 67 years now. But don’t you despair. At least when your war is over, you will still have a country. Look at us. Our whole country was taken away and nobody really wants us.’
The Palestinian and Syrian refugees looked at each other pensively for a few moments. There was really nothing more to say.
‘Bless you,’ Merjeh finally said, as dozens of children raced in for afternoon activities. ‘Bless you.’