Its Holliday time here in Lebanon, and in the Muslim world in general. Eid al-Adha as it’s called, is in remembrance of the story of when Abraham was about to sacrifice his son but God spared “us” and provided a ram instead. In modern times, a ram is sacrificed and divided into thirds. One part for the poor, another for relatives, and the remaining part for the family. According to our new Lebanese and Syrian friends, its also a time to reconcile with those you’ve had differences with, children love it because when the many relatives and visitors come over they give money, and there’s lots of chocolate involved. All of that sounds absolutely fantastic to me. Good thing we still have some quality chocolate from Ecuador to share.
Suzanne and I have been here in Lebanon for about 2 weeks now, and have made the countries third largest city of Zahle our base. We’ve traded the constant wetness and humidity of Bangladesh for the nose bleed dryness of a Middle Eastern summer. We’re in the Beqaa valley, the north-easternmost part of the Great Rift Valley, famous for its agriculture, and in the past few years, infamous for Syrian refugees.
We’ve rented a house, or as they call it here a flat, which comes with countless cats but no refrigerator. It’s in the middle of real life Lebanon, situated in-between two large mosques, which means we hear the 5 times a day call to prayer simultaneously. I wish they would take turns, as both of these singers (or muezzin as they’re called) have beautiful voices.
As I said, there’s about half of million displaced Syrians that now live here in this valley, and over a million in the country. Some have been here for a couple of days, some for 6 years. Unlike other countries hosting refugees, Lebanon doesn’t really have official “refugee camps”. Just like when I was here 4 years ago, they’re usually camped in wherever there’s a vacant area. Sometimes in a parking lot, sometimes in abandoned farm land, some in vacant buildings. So unlike in Bangladesh where the Rohingya’s refugee city stretches farther than the eye can see, there’s small settlements of 10 tents here, 70 tents there, which means about 70 people here, 500 people there.
Having to travel throughout the day from camp to camp means we needed to rent a car. We rented a hilarious tiny car that’s “all tricked out” like an 18 year old would do to his first car, with a thousand scratches and cool Arabic stickers. I wish I knew what these Syrians are saying when they see Suzanne and I roll up on their settlements with this car crammed full of medicine, filters, and buckets.
Driving here has been challenging (of course nothing compared to Bangladesh which is without a doubt the craziest place on planet earth when it comes to driving, but I didn’t drive there, instead left that up to suicidal teenagers in 3 wheeled taxi’s. They did well, only one accident). Here in Lebanon, so far I’ve seen one traffic light, and there’s no rules, zero. Instead, they have the kindest version of anarchy I’ve ever witnessed. Its still going to take me a couple more days to get used to a bus or a Sheik in a rusted 1980’s Mercedes driving directly towards us and on-coming traffic at 110 kilometers per hour on a 3 lane divided highway. Total mindless mayhem that works.
On the brighter side when it comes to driving, we hired a Syrian refugee translator and she’s been helpful while driving. “Take a right, you’re about to go into Syria.” A couple of days ago Suzanne and I took our first real break and drove up to Baalbek to see Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals perform in the setting of amazing Roman ruins. The city of Baalbek is also famous for being a Hezbollah stronghold and their many kidnappings of foreigners. Ben Harper seemed a littler nervous with the military and tanks rolling up a hour before show time and surrounding the ancient concert ruins, but by the end of the night, just like us, seemed to have a good time, calling it “the best night of my life”. Driving in this area was interesting, with many checkpoints, its countless billboards of Lebanese martyrs who’ve died fighting Israel, and old school Hezbollah emblems. We only thought we were going to get kidnapped once, stupid Google Maps.
We’re just getting into our groove here as far as understanding how to help the Syrian refugees in this area the best way we can. We’ve been working with a Syrian doctor who as a refugee himself, knows these camps well. Just like Suzanne, he’s not allowed to practice his profession here, but that doesn’t stop either of them. Unlike the Rohingya in Bangladesh where the vast majority were smart but uneducated hard working people who lived off the land, the vast majority of these Syrians are educated, cultured, and were never considered poor. Business owners, lawyers, university students and teachers, doctors,…who speak 3 languages and lived peacefully with their neighbors, Christian or Muslim. Our young Syrian translator told us a story of walking to her medical school exams arm in arm with her friend. Her friend was shot and killed by a sniper. She mourned for a moment, and then went on to take her exam, which she passed. “What choice do I have, this is the life we have living in war” she said.
It’s maddening for them to now live in a foreign country in crap tents usually made from abandoned billboard fabric, with contaminated water, bad sanitation, and without the socialized free medical care they knew in Syria. Many refugees cannot afford to see a doctor and are grateful for a medical visit to their camps. Women are especially happy to see Suzanne as culturally females are extremely modest. The village elders are also happy with the filters that I’m providing. There’s plenty of wells but tests for bacteria show most are bad. They’re excited to put two or three filters onto their large tanks, providing about 5,000 liters of great water for their camps per day.
Thank you again to those of you who’ve supported these projects, either financially or with encouraging words. I always tell the refugees these filters are gifts from my friends.
It’s late now here, 1:23 a.m., and relatively quiet. The big holiday day has come to a close. The big fireworks shot outside our house and that were literally falling on our heads have stopped. The kids have stopped playing with their new toys. We had a small Eid party at our house tonight. . One Lebanese woman, two Syrian refugee friends, and us. They have left. Now its just us and the cats.