In a refugee camp at Tel Abbas in northern Lebanon, three miles from the Syrian border, a Syrian family of six is preparing to travel to Beirut on May 2 and from there take an Alitalia plane to Rome early the following morning. Sami Al Aabayan, 41, his wife Ghazala, 27, and their four children are on the list to travel to Italy prepared by the “Humanitarian Corridors” project, an Italian ecumenical initiative operated by three Christian communities—the Community of Sant’Egidio, the Federation of Italian Protestant Churches, the Waldesian Table—in collaboration with the government of Italy.
When I met the family in the refugee camp on the afternoon of April 30, I found Sami and Ghazala excited and overjoyed because they are convinced that their youngest child, Raghad, now stands a chance of being cured. Raghad, an exuberant 3-year-old girl, is suffering from a severe form of thalassemia, an inherited blood disorder. Right now she has to get a blood transfusion on the 19th day of every month, and this is an enormous and complicated problem in the camp.
Furthermore, her mother Ghazala has a mild form of this blood disorder, and there is evidence that one of the other children—two boys, Maher, 10, and Ahmad, 9, and a girl, Manahel, 7—could be suffering from the problem, too. But there is little possibility of verifying, much less properly treating this disorder in their precarious situation.
Their camp consists of an assembly of huts made from wood, cardboard and plastic. It stands on land owned by a Saudi Arabian who has assigned responsibility its management to a Syrian man. There is a hall in the camp that serves as a mosque. Each family pays to live here, and each gets a two-room hut, with running water and electricity, an electric fan and small television, but no furniture of any kind. The families sit and sleep on a carpet and cushions. They own nothing else except the clothes they are wearing.
When Francesco Pioppi from the Federation of Italian Protestant Churches told Sami that each member of the family is entitled to bring with them a case weighing not more than 23 kilos, Sami by way of response went into the other room and returned with one medium sized case. “No problem! We are ready, we have everything in this,” he said with a wry smile.
Sami and his family have come from Homs, a Syrian city over 50 miles from here where he was a taxi driver. Ghazala was still a teenager when their first child was born. “When the bombing started, the situation became very complicated, we feared for the safety of our children,” he said. They moved from one place to another, but then his job as taxi driver disappeared.
They decided to leave Syria for the sake of the children and because Raghad needed blood transfusions and treatment and came to this camp three years ago. But the situation in the camp is precarious at the best of times, especially since Sami had an accident in a factory where he worked.
Because of the desperate situation of Raghad, someone put the family in touch with Maria Quinto from the Community of Sant’Egidio. She took their case seriously, had an Italian doctor examine the girl and concluded their situation represented a truly “vulnerable” one. She and her colleagues organized the family’s travel documents and humanitarian visas, and bought their plane tickets to Rome.
The Humanitarian Corridors project is also paying for the family to come by taxi from the camp to Beirut, as they have no money.
Ghazala cannot contain her joy, nor can she wait for Monday when they will all leave the camp. She tells us, “Now we will no longer be living in a situation of insecurity, my daughter can get proper treatment for her problem, the children can go to school and hopefully Sami can again get a job as a driver.”
The camp where Sami and his family lives is home to 50 other Syrian families, some 500 people in all who have fled from the war in Syria. Indeed, across Lebanon today 1.5 million Syrian refugees are scattered in more than 1,700 temporary shelters in "localities" across the country, where they live in apartments, collective shelters, tented settlements, unfinished houses, garages, warehouses or worksites. There are hundreds of camps across the Bekaa Valley where the Jesuit Refugee Service (J.R.S.) is active, seeking to provide kindergarten and schooling for refugee children, Father Michael Zammit, the Maltese-born regional director, told me. J.R.S. is at the cutting edge in this matter because, according to the United Nations, more than 400,000 refugee children cannot go to school. The Lebanese government, which is very sensitive as to what is being taught in the schools, has promised with the assistance of international aid to provide education for 200,000 of them. But that still leaves a great number unschooled.
It’s worth mentioning that there are no really big refugee camps in Lebanon, none with more than 500-600 people. This is because Lebanese government does not allow any permanent refugee camp to be constructed in the country today as it does not want a repeat of what happened with the Palestinians in the 20th century. The Palestinians came and built camps, some quite large like Sabra and Shatila, which are in fact real neighborhoods today with their own security forces.
In actual fact, there are roughly 600,000 Palestinian refugees in the land of the cedars today, many dating back to 1948; they live not just on the outskirts of Beirut but also along the coast, in places like Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city. Indeed, when I was last here in 2012, I visited Sabra and Shatila camp and learned that the Palestinians were providing shelter to over 1,000 Syrian families, for a small rent. This is still the case, not only here but also in Tripoli and in other places.
Lebanon is about one-third of the size of Maryland, but with a population of more than 5 million people it hosts over 2 million refugees, of whom 1.5 million are Syrian; 600,000 are Palestinian and 100,000 are Iraqis. This small country is sheltering all these refugees despite its complicated internal political dynamics and the extraordinarily complex geopolitical conditions in a region where Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, Syria, Turkey, the United States, Russia, the European Union, China (to some extent) and Israel all have interests of one kind or another.
This is the situation in which the Humanitarian Corridors project is operating today. The organizers hope to bring 1,000 refugees to Italy over this year and next, at a total cost of roughly 2.5 million euros. Reviewing this figure, Francesco Pioppi of the Federation of Italian Protestant Churches, commented, “If the European Union had used differently the 6 billion euros that it has agreed to give Turkey to manage the flow of refugees, it could have brought 3 million refugees to Europe to settle among the 508 million population of its 28 member states.”
Gerard O'Connell, America's Vatican correspondent, is traveling this week with members of the Community of Sant'Egidio in Lebanon.