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By Liam Toland
Amman, the capital of Jordan, is a city of about 2½ million people, a human labyrinth of religions and nationalities that has been swollen by the arrival of refugees across the border from Syria. Those who have sought refuge in Jordan and Lebanon are estimated to also number 2½ million, and so represent a huge demographic bulge that the two countries have had to absorb.
On the flight from Dublin last week, on a trip to Jordan and Lebanon as a friend of Trócaire, I was seated beside a Sunni woman named Narmin, who has escaped Iraq with her family during the 1991 Gulf war. Also seated beside me was a Roman Catholic priest, Fr Charles Lachowitzer, from St Paul, Minnesota, in the US, who was was leading 40 American pilgrims into the Holy Land. For five hours I fired questions at them, many centred on President Bashar al-Assad, who was heavily involved in Syria’s past Lebanese occupation and has latterly forced more than a million Syrians into Lebanon.
In Amman, with many questions still unanswered, I said goodbye to my companions and picked up a copy of the Jordan Times, which splashed that day with a story headlined: “Jordan needs $3.2 billion to deal with impact of Syrian crisis in 2014”. I have since travelled from Amman to the Syrian border past Zaatari, the second largest refugee camp in the world, into Al Mafraq, the refugees’ gateway. Along the way I met families, faces of the Syrian crisis, whose living circumstances were simply horrible.
I had made it into Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, home of modern Lebanese wines such as Chateau Ksara, which was established by the Jesuit Christians of Taanayel. The Taalabaya centre in the valley alone is now home to 45,000 Syrian refugees, 9,000 families, supported by Caritas and living in tents dotted about the community.
After my arrival in Beirut, two questions recurred. Why was this happening? And why, given their internal struggles, do Jordan and Lebanon welcome so many Syrians?
The difficulty in understanding enough about Syria to be able to answer the first question is exemplified by several refugee mothers whom I met. Sabah Mustafa, for example: eight months pregnant, she is already the mother of two children. Or Yusra, a 43-year-old who has seven children, one a 23-year- old with Down syndrome, and whose new home is spartan.
When asked what she needed most, this stoical Muslim woman, who had no sense of entitlement, said that with rent support from Caritas and food vouchers from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), she needed nothing. After reflection she said she needed nappies for her 23-year-old daughter.
Question two has me perplexed: it would be ridiculous to compare myself to a Syrian refugee but I could put myself in the shoes of the Lebanese welcoming the refugees? Lebanon, the size of Munster, has a “no camp Syrian” policy. Hence the four million Lebanese have welcomed the Syrian refugees into every street and community. According to the UNHCR, Ireland has a resettlement pledge of 90.
The poor of Lebanon have been pushed into abject poverty as the Syrians scrape the bottom to stay alive. How would I cope if a million Welsh, escaping some horrific tragedy, spilled into Munster ? We have a wonderful record of giving far beyond international levels, but how would we cope with that? The hugely Irish St Paul community, Fr Charles noted, has struggled to assimilate the 30,000 Hmong people from Laos after the Vietnam conflict.
The short-term and long-term approaches to dealing with the refugee crisis are important in Lebanon and Jordan. At the Caritas Al Mafraq centre in Jordan, where 150 refugees arrive daily, there were six staff working a bank of computers, registering refugees. The Christian philosophy of sustainability was obvious as Fr Francis from St Joseph’s parish proudly announced that nine out of every 10 of his pupils in the Catholic school were Muslim. In a place where a loving Irish home has come to be coveted, it was an inspiring example of humanitarianism at work.
This article first appeared in The Irish Times on November 19th, 2013