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Sister Wardeh’s World

Syrians fleeing war find peace, thanks to the work of sisters in Lebanon

by Amal Morcos

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Editors’ note: Several names have been changed to protect those involved.

The heat of an intense summer sun, combined with the noise and pollution from traffic on an elevated highway, creates a stifling atmosphere in Naba’a, a neighborhood located on the edge of the bustling capital of Beirut. Two Franciscan Missionaries of Mary — one middle aged, one a novice — wind their way through a narrow alley lined with convenience shops and small cinderblock homes. Local residents greet them. The sisters are here to visit a few of the hundreds of Syrians who have taken refuge in Naba’a after fleeing their nation’s three-year civil war.

But Naba’a is hardly a refuge. Since the government of Lebanon has decided not to build refugee camps, people find shelter wherever they can: in one-room homes, in crowded apartments, even in tents.

The Syrian refugee crisis has been described as the largest in a generation. Of the estimated 9 million Syrians who have fled their homes since the war began in 2011, the United Nations estimates that as many as 1.5 million will find a refuge in Lebanon — a tiny nation with a population of just 4.5 million — by the end of 2014. The large number has overwhelmed the Lebanese economy. The government, which, apart from opening its public schools to Syrian children, provides no social services to refugees. Lebanon has no national health care system, and limited public assistance programs. Violence has also followed Syrians into Lebanon, with fighting erupting between Shiites and Sunnis in the northern city of Tripoli and car bombs in Beirut.

In Naba’a, as in the rest of Lebanon, you are left to fend for yourself. But in a land riddled with clear and present dangers, the two sisters this day are bearing something often hard to find: hope.

Mariam, a young Syrian refugee who lives in a tiny room with her husband and three children, welcomes the two sisters. Short, cheerful and henna-haired, she laughs easily though her circumstances are very hard.

One year ago, a Kurdish militia forced her and her family to leave their home in the northern Syrian city of Hassake.

“In a way they did us a favor,” explains Mariam, a Syriac Orthodox Christian. “They warned us that ISIS was coming to the area and ISIS would have killed us.”

Mariam and her family fled to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, where she found work as a housekeeper. Her husband Gabriel got a job making sculptures from molds. But when their landlord gave their home to a family who could pay more rent, they were uprooted again, this time to Beirut, where they have had to deal with the stress of an expensive, turbulent city and the lingering trauma of what they endured in Syria.

“People ask me how I can be so cheerful,” Mariam says. “I tell them: ‘What am I going to do? Shall I make myself sick with being unhappy?’ ”

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