Can Lebanon continue to welcome refugees?, Evangelical Focus

The Lebanese authorities have declared that the country no longer has the means to continue to welcome the approximately 1.5 million Syrians on its territory and they call on the UN to take its responsibilities.

“Lebanon is no longer being able to play policeman for other countries, because we do not receive any help in this regard. The country is alone in this case and we carry all the burdensaid Labor Minister Mustafa Bayram.

Lebanon is in the midst of a serious economic, social and political crisis. The explosion of the warehouse in the port of Beirut two years ago, the Covid-19 pandemic and a new period of political instability, with large demonstrations and clashes between political and religious groups, have aggravated the situation in the country.

A World Bank report describes the situation in Lebanon as “perhaps one of the world’s three worst crisis episodes since the mid-19th century”.

Moreover, the first legislative elections since the explosion in Beirutresulted in a loss of Hezbollah influence and the entry of new parties, further fragmenting the parliament.

christian organizations, like Merath, recognize the seriousness of the situation in Liban and does not diminish its importance.

“The economic and social crisis in Lebanon has gotten out of hand,” says the organisation’s communications director, Sophie Nasrallah.

Nasrallah says inflation (which hit 400% months ago), the devaluation of the Lebanese pound, and shortages of gasoline and other basic commodities “affect everyone, including the already vulnerable. Syrian refugees, more than 90% of whom now live in extreme poverty, and migrant workers, stranded in Lebanon without rights or resources”.

But it is also affects more and more Lebanese families, with more than 80% of the Lebanese population now live in poverty“, She adds.

However, “with the approach of this year’s legislative elections, talking about the the refugee situation is a way to shift blame to the current situation and distract people’s attention,” Nasrallah points out.

Wissam Nasrallah, chief operating officer of the Lebanese Christian Society for Education and Social Development (LSESD), acknowledges that the Lebanese government’s complaints are “a way for the Lebanese government to put pressure on the International Monetary Fund by raising the specter trouble”.

Moreover, “the war in Ukraine also exacerbates the challenges that Lebanon has faced since about 90% of Lebanese wheat is imported from Ukraine and Russiaresulting in soaring prices and major shortages”.

A street in the Lebanese city of Tire / Radwan Skeiky, Unsplash CC.

For Wissam Nasrallah, it is impossible to deny that the reception of refugees strained an already struggling national infrastructure“.

The situation has also led to a increased insecurity in the territory. “The crime rate is on the rise. Almost every two weeks, we hear about people who have been kidnapped and their kidnappers have demanded ransoms to free them,” says Izdihar Isaac, head of “Together for the Family”, a refugee project in Lebanon supported by Alianza Solidaria in Spain.

While remaining realistic about the country’s situation, the Christian organizations call for continued service to those most in need who come to Lebanon in search of temporary refuge.

“The best thing that UN and western countries can do is be intentional to facilitate the return of Syrian refugees to Syria and continue to help them rebuild their lives there. This will place a huge burden on the Lebanese economy,” Isaac points out.

However, “there seem to be several political reasons that prevent this approach from taking place. God calls us all to be agents of love and express such love by offering all possible humanitarian, educational and professional assistance to refugees,” she adds.

Wissam Nasrallah points out that there has been “a drastic change in local Christian outlook in recent years. At first, most Christians were adamantly opposed to helping refugees. Like other Lebanese, they recognized the negative impact that such an immigration of people would have on their own lives and well-being”.

“To be fair, many Lebanese Christians were also deeply scarred and traumatized by the occupation of our country by Syrian forces during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). Many have seen family members murdered or abducted by Syrian forces. So for many there is still deep personal pain that was brought to the surface with the arrival of Syrian refugees”.

Despite all this, “we have seen God act in extraordinary ways. By his Spirit alone, we have seen him work through Christians to live the very real and difficult commandment to love your enemy. Some churches that started out as downright resistant or neutral to refugee aid have now thriving ministries helping thousands of refugees every week“says the head of the LSESD.

Sophie Nasrallah explains that in Merath, they “work with more than 20 evangelical churches in Lebanon. Since the beginning of the refugee crisis, they have felt the desire to reach out to the refugee community and help vulnerable families. We’ve helped them do just that for the past 11 years. Today, despite being affected by the crisis, these churches have continued to respond selflessly and tirelessly to the overwhelming needs around them”.

Merath’s communications director explains that “they don’t get into politics. They see people with dignity, regardless of their nationality or religious affiliationas human beings created in the image of God”.

“Thanks to loyal partners all over the world, they are able to help thousands of families each year, most of whom are refugeeswith food aid, hygiene kits, winter items, milk and nappies, education for out-of-school children, income-generating opportunities and shelter rehabilitation,” she adds.

For these families, “it’s much more than material help. It is a reminder that God has not abandoned them, that he cares about them and will take care of them. And that opens the door to holistic and authentic Christian witness.”

Can Lebanon continue to welcome refugees?

Image of an informal refugee camp in the Bekaa Valley / Russell Watkins, DFID, Wikimedia Commons.

Given the rapid reaction of the EU in receiving refugees from the conflict in Ukraine, it is appropriate to question the stagnation experienced by hundreds of thousands of Syrians in Lebanon for years.

According to UNHCR, only 6,341 resettlement applications have been processed so far this year, compared to 25,706 in 2021 and 76,943 in 2016.

“In our region, we know all too well what it is to experience war and to care for refugees and internally displaced people, and our hearts break for the people of Ukraine. We are happy for them, that they can at least experience such solidarity and hospitality. We understand, from a human point of view, that Europeans naturally feel closer to Ukrainians because they look like them,” emphasizes Sophie Nasrallah.

But she also adds that “as Christians, we are supposed to love our neighbors as ourselves, no matter how different those neighbors are. This is the whole point of the story of the Good Samaritan. Everyone is our neighbor on this earthand we must be a good neighbor to all”.

For Wissam Nasrallah, it is rather a question of “cultural affinity”, but he stresses that “as a church, we must not discriminate, especially when it comes to helping people in the need. We are reminded of this fact in Leviticus 19:33-34: When a stranger resides among you in your country, do not mistreat him. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native. Love them as yourselves, for you were strangers in Egypt. I am the Lord your God”.

Although, like Sophie Nasrallah, he is “so happy that Europe and other Western countries have shown solidarity with the crisis in Ukraine”, Isaac sometimes feels that “there is a kind of double standard to see countries that are suffering and to care for other refugees. We think of Yemen, Myanmar, Ethiopia and we remember the horrible war against Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan and we feel a kind of impartiality”.

He thanks “many people and churches in Europe who have not forgotten the refugee crises in other countries and who have been faithful in their prayers and financial support throughout the years”.

But at the same time, “we hope churches in Europe will continue to see other Christians in other countries as the one body of Christ and to extend love and passion to every human being regardless of sex, race or religion”.

Sophie Nasrallah asks the church in Europe without forgetting our part of the worldbecause the humanitarian needs have never been higher, and because the Ukrainian crisis will have a deep and lasting impact on us too”.

Keep praying for us and supporting us financiallyso that our partner churches on the ground do not have to abandon the families they have helped and with whom they have built strong relationships,” concludes Merath’s communications director.

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