Even as former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan rushed to Damascus to meet Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad on March 10 in a futile effort to achieve a ceasefire, church aid workers were scrambling to find housing for hundreds of Syrian refugees fleeing the increasing violence. About 200 families made their way to the border town of Qaa in the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon on March 5 and were struggling in the region’s near-freezing temperatures.
The Rev. Simon Faddoul, president of Caritas Lebanon, said that “women and children and the elderly are coming out in the cold with nothing but the clothes on their backs.” The United Nations reported that as many as 2,000 Syrians crossed into Lebanon on March 5 and 6 to escape violence that has claimed hundreds of lives as President al-Assad continues a brutal crackdown on resistance to his regime.
Father Faddoul said most of the refugees arrived on foot from areas near the besieged city of Homs. “They are leaving the young men behind in Syria to guard their houses” from attack, Father Faddoul said. “These are people fleeing from war, their homes under bombardment.” Before the latest surge, about 100 families had fled to Lebanon and were receiving assistance from Caritas, the priest said. Father Faddoul estimated that about 40 of the newly arrived families were Christian; the rest were Muslim.
“This has nothing to do with religion. Whenever there is suffering, we have to be there with them and to help them,” he said. Father Faddoul said the availability of adequate housing in the poverty-stricken town of Qaa is limited. About 35 refugees are currently crammed into small rooms, but Caritas is collaborating with municipal officials to locate homes that three or four families could share.
Caritas Lebanon has had a regular presence in the Bekaa Valley, coordinating programs in agriculture to address the region’s poverty. “Now we have so many [new] concerns—how to find shelters, especially if the situation [in Syria] drags on,” Faddoul said. “We hope the situation doesn’t deteriorate further,” he added.
In Ottawa, Ontario, Carl Hetu, national director of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, said his agency was monitoring the situation of Christians in Syria. “Right now,” he said, “there are thousands of people who are displaced. Among them are Christians, but that has been because of the conflict, not because of direct attacks on them.” Many fear that as the uprising among Syria’s primarily Sunni majority persists, minority groups, like the politically powerful Alawites and the nation’s Christian communities, could become targets for sectarian reprisals.
“Christians are stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Hetu said. “They cannot show approval of the Assad government, but they have to be careful, because they can’t be seen to be supporting the rebels, either.”
Mr. Hetu said his agency was preparing for a possible massive influx of Syrian refugees to neighboring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, should the already tense situation grow worse. “Our offices in Jordan and Beirut are expecting the worst if the country goes into wide civil war or the Assad government falls,” he said.