“When can we go back?”
This plaintive question of refugees since time immemorial was asked again of Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire at the United Nations High Commission on Refugees intake center in Zahleh, Lebanon, overlooking the vast Beqaa valley, now dotted with refugee camps wherever we look. The Mussalaha Delegation [International Peace Delegation] is spending longer than expected in Lebanon because of visa delays to Syria. However, if we wanted to find the effects of the war, Lebanon has plenty to show. There are one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, which itself has a population of only 4.3 million. Many are from Syrian minorities, drawn to Lebanon by its large Christian and Shiite communities.
Most of the camps fail to meet the minimum standards for hygiene and housing. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) claims it cannot keep up with the numbers, but there is reason to think that it may be dragging its feet in order to pressure its donors for more funds and supplies. Similarly, the Lebanese government does not want to encourage a greater influx, and is therefore slow to accommodate arrivals. They have their reasons, but the refugees are pawns in these bureaucratic and power games, which only increase their suffering.
At the UNHCR registration center in Zahleh, overlooking the valley, the backlog is as much as four months. One man told me that he and his family, including a newborn, had been living for more than two months in the space between two cars with whatever canopy they could manage and a few chairs. Others were living twenty to a room in warehouse space with mattresses taking up most of the floor space at night. To a very great extent, refugees are on their own, negotiating their accommodation wherever they can with whatever resources they have.
Most of the men and some of the women do not want to be photographed, but the children don’t mind. Several people from Qusayr, a town on the Lebanese border said that when the demonstrations first began two years ago, they were nonviolent and the local officials would even clear the roads for them. However, as they became more violent, the central government failed to act and the town was eventually overrun by armed local elements and foreign fighters from Chechnya, Azerbaijan and other places. It was only after the population fled that Syrian troops finally came to quell the rebellion, which has apparently not yet been fully accomplished.
I have no way to assess the accuracy of these stories, nor to generalize them, but at least my modest Arabic skills allow me to strike up conversations with whomever I want, and there are no government minders in Lebanon. Nevertheless, we all want to meet with groups that have a very different story to tell, and Mother Agnès-Maryam has included such opportunities in our schedule, even Jabhat al-Nusrah, the al-Qaeda affiliate, with whom none of us expected to be able to speak.
I have to say that Mussalaha exceeds our expectations, and that this is largely due to the leadership of Mother Agnès, as tough a nun as you could ever want to meet. She is fearless, tireless and relentless. Patience is not her forte, but compassion is, and without regard to the identity of the person in need. For this reason, Mussalaha has earned the respect – sometimes grudgingly – of a very wide range of communities in and outside Syria. Although Mussalaha has strong Christian orientation, its president is Dr. Hassan Yaacoub, a Shiite politician who belongs to the mostly Christian party of General Michel Aoun, who is allied with the Hezbollah party. You may be forgiven for finding that none of this agrees with whatever assumptions you may have held until now.
We have also had numerous meetings with religious leaders of the various faith communities in Lebanon, including the major Christian denominations, as well as the Shiite and Druze spiritual leadership. They are all in touch with the Syrian members of their faith, and had much to say. The message: first stop the fighting, then sit down together, push your agenda by peaceful means, and be ready to compromise. Regrettably, the grand mufti of the Sunni community in Lebanon had to reverse plans to meet with us. We have reason to believe that he might have conveyed the same message, but his community is divided on some of these issues, which makes it difficult for him to say anything at this time.
It is regrettable that former Congressman Dennis Kucinich did not join us. However, the presence of Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire – another fearless and compassionate woman – provides inspirational strength and prominence to our group and brings us the exposure that we need. The rest of the group brings an excellent balance of skills and experience, and for such a diverse group we find ourselves working remarkably well together.
The next dispatch will be from Damascus, but I won’t say when, and I will have another after I return to the U.S. Syria needs a miracle, but these folks believe in such things.