Of all the items in the two-room apartment in Sin el Fil, Lebanon—the low, hard couches, the folding table covered with bags of food, the single bed, the stack of votive candles covered with pictures of saints—the most heartbreaking is the pants. Made of thin, tan cotton and covered with faded images of the Peanuts character Snoopy, they could be worn by any child, in any country. But this pair covers the legs of Mark, a 6-year-old Chaldean Iraqi refugee who lives just outside Beirut.
I sit on one of the couches in the midst of a small pack of journalists traveling with the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. We are on an immersion trip to learn about Christians in the Middle East. I have been on press trips before, and while they have been illuminating, sometimes it seemed we were shown only the “best” aspects of a country—a famous landmark or cultural attraction—with little time to talk with the local people.
This trip would be a bit different, I hoped. We had time for conversations with the heads of Eastern churches and university professors and for visits to ministries for the poor, disabled or sick. Still, as we climb a dark stairway to the apartment, I am not prepared for the story I will hear.
Amal Toma, Mark’s mother, wears her dark hair pulled back from her weary face, as she sits on the couch beside Mark, whose attention wavers between the group of strangers in his house and the television set. Amal tells us that in 2005 Mark’s brother Fadi, then 9, was kidnapped. Little is known about the identity of the kidnappers, but Amal believes her family was targeted because they are Christian, a minority with no political power in Iraq.
When Amal and her husband Fouad Habou could raise only $5,000 of the $20,000 requested by the kidnappers, the kidnappers released the boy and took Fouad instead and demanded the remainder of the ransom. But the family had already given all their money.
The kidnappers told Amal: “Consider yourself a widow.” She took her children north from Baghdad to Mosul, living there for four years before even that became too dangerous. They fled to Lebanon, hoping to find work.
But life in Lebanon has not been easy. Amal cleaned offices until problems with her joints became too debilitating. Because of his epilepsy, Mark does not go to school. Neither do Fadi, 15, and their sister, Donia, 13. Both siblings work in a chocolate factory, often for more than nine hours a day, to support the family.
As she tells us her story, Amal holds back tears. As I listen, I do too. Before traveling to the Middle East, I knew the lives of Iraqi Christians were in danger, but I did not know much about those lives, the depth of their loss and fear.
The following day we visited Ignatius Youssef III, the Syrian Catholic patriarch, who tells us: “For many years we encouraged our people to stay. Now, what can we tell them? To be slaughtered like sheep? To flee? It is a dilemma.”
And yet, somehow, in the midst of this dilemma, Mark’s life continues, in some ways much like that of any 6-year-old. He squirms in his seat, watches Japanese cartoons and rolls a blue rubber ball across the floor. As I watch I wonder about the best way to react to a world in which such suffering exists, a world that sometimes can seem so bleak.
Amal’s reaction is clear. She has not given up. She looks lovingly at her children. “I am still a believer,” she says. “I have faith in God, and I have hope accordingly.” And with those words, I see that this press trip has been, in one way at least, just like all the others: Through our visits to the teachers, to the leaders, to the refugees, we have, in fact, seen the very best aspects of the country.