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Syria, Shepherds and Sheep

Good Shepherd Sisters serve refugees in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley

by Diane Handal

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Under a tranquil, cool blue sky, families trudge across Syria’s border with Lebanon, frightened and frantic, desperate to escape the fighting that has riven their country for three years. For many, the border crossing comes as a last resort after several attempts to find a peaceful refuge in their homeland.

A sea of makeshift dwellings covered with plastic — the only protection against the cold, wet winter — sits on a field in the Christian town of Bechouat in the Bekaa Valley. Sumaya Suleiman, a young mother in her 30’s, recently arrived from Talbiseh, Syria. She traveled with her four children and little else; her husband arrived later. “The Syrian army shelled our home,” says Mrs. Suleiman, dressed in the traditional hijab (headscarf) and djellaba (a robe-like overgarment) of Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority. “At first we moved to a cousin’s house in the same village, but his house was destroyed, too.”

Desperate, they moved from Talbiseh to Nabak, finding refuge in the home of a stranger. Finally, from nearby Ara, a man brought her to Arsal, Lebanon, for $300.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 2.2 million people — about half of them children — have been displaced by the war in Syria since it began in March 2011. Though many refugees do not register for fear of reprisal, the latest records suggest some 900,000 Syrians have fled to Lebanon, the smallest of the bordering nations hosting refugees with an estimated population of 4.5 million.

Large rocks anchor tarps to Mrs. Suleiman’s new dwelling, holding the elements at bay. Inside the tiny structure, a gaping hole in one wall exposes the rear room, dominated by a purple couch. Two single beds sit opposite, stacked high with blankets. Mold tints the walls and the floors are dirty and cold.

Just yards from the Suleimans’ temporary home looms a mass of garbage nearly two stories high. The stench from the charred remains of tires permeates the area. Screws, syringes and various scraps of rusted metal lie scattered nearby in the red dirt, some of which may call out to a child in search of a makeshift toy — such as one of her own: Ahmad, 9 years old; Esma, 7, missing her two front teeth; Mustafa, 4; and Adnam, 2.

Mrs. Suleiman has repeatedly pleaded with the municipality to clean up the dump. Rats enter their home after nightfall, and at times the stench becomes unbearable. Still, she says, they ignore her requests. Instead, the municipal authorities often treat the refugees as an embarrassment. Recently, they ordered several families to move because their dwellings were too close to the road — an eyesore for people entering the village, which has been a pilgrimage destination for Lebanon’s Christians for more than a century.

Such indignities, however, remain far preferable to the conditions in Syria. “Two cousins were killed in a bombing,” Mrs. Suleiman recounts. “And a niece and nephew died in an air raid.” Her brother, a university professor, has been in prison for two years.

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