HAZMIEH, Lebanon: After helping repatriate 2,000 Syrian refugees who fled Arsal after the recent clashes, Mother Agnes-Mariam of the Cross has become a divisive figure.
Born Fadia Laham, the Lebanese nun drew international attention last August when she claimed to have evidence that the Syrian opposition, rather than the regime of Bashar Assad, was responsible for the gas attack in a Damascus suburb that claimed hundreds of lives.
In the wake of her public allegations, some blasted Agnes-Mariam as an Assad lackey, but others rallied behind her alternative narrative.
Her mission to Arsal has engendered similarly divisive responses from the humanitarian community.
Sitting in the garden of a church in Hazmieh, Agnes-Mariam seems untroubled by the passions she stirs. A pair of black plastic Crocs peek out from beneath the hem of her brown Carmelite habit, and her face, framed by a heavy brow, is stern but relaxed.
Born and raised in Lebanon, Agnes-Mariam “found her identity” in religion and decided to dedicate her life to the preservation of Christian culture and history in the Middle East. She moved to Syria in 1993 in order to help restore the Monastery of Saint James the Mutilated, an ancient Greek-Melkite convent in Qalamoun, where she now serves as Mother Superior.
By her own account, Agnes became involved with the refugees on the outskirts of Arsal through her “Musalaha” reconciliation initiative, which aims to bring different factions together to promote peace in Syria.
“The refugee families in Arsal, they contacted me directly,” she told The Daily Star. “They asked if, in my capacity as a member of the reconciliation committee, I could help them return to their villages.”
She drafted a list of refugees hailing from the village of Qara, where her monastery is located, who wanted to return.
When the clashes between militants and the Lebanese Army broke out two weeks ago, the Syrians asked to be evacuated, she said.
“All of them except one or two people wanted to go back to Syria,” she said.
Soon, a convoy of approximately 2,000 refugees was en route toward the Syrian border.
“I started making calls, but when we arrived at the border the orders had not been given” to let the refugees re-enter Syria, she recalled.
The refugees, many of whom lacked the proper documents to return to Syria, were stranded on the side of a highway in the Bekaa for two days with few supplies and no shelter.
On the third day, the convoy moved forward, bringing 2,000 refugees back to Syria.
“Thanks to the grace of God, I was able to express myself and we were able, with the help of both governments, to get past the bureaucracy and take a humanitarian approach,” said Agnes-Mariam.
Some, however, have questioned Agnes-Mariam’s account of events.
“We have concerns that [some refugees] did not return voluntarily,” said Lama Fakih a researcher at Human Rights Watch. “We are continuing to look into whether this was a forced return.”
Others, however, say Agnes-Mariam stepped in to help the refugees when no one else could.
“She really functioned in a time when none of the NGOs were in the field working,” said a humanitarian worker, who asked not to be identified. “She did a good job.”
Agnes-Mariam claims that her efforts to repatriate the refugees drew the ire of Ali Abdel-Karim Ali, Syria’s ambassador to Lebanon.
“He was not very happy ... He has completely disavowed me because I did not coordinate with the Syrian government,” she said. Ali could not be reached for comment.
It’s not clear, however, that the refugees ever made it home. An Arsal-based aid worker, who also asked not to be identified, told The Daily Star that the refugees were being held in the area of Qadsiya, a suburb of Damascus, under the pretext that there were still active military operations happening in Qara and the surrounding towns.
The Daily Star could not independently confirm the repatriated Syrians’ whereabouts.
“They feel betrayed,” the aid worker said. “She should finish the mediation process and prove she is not working for the Assad regime.”
Sheikh Adnan Amama, a member of the Muslim Scholars Committee, said he had decided to collaborate with Agnes-Mariam after meeting her soon after the repatriation effort.
“It’s clear that she is close to the regime,” Amama told The Daily Star. “But my first impression of her was that she is very dedicated to the Syrian cause, and has sacrificed a lot to achieve reconciliation between different groups,” he added.
This is not the only time an evacuation led by Agnes-Mariam has come under scrutiny.
Last year, Agnes-Mariam was instrumental in the evacuation of several thousand civilians from the besieged Damascus suburb, a feat which she calls “remarkable.”
Soon after the evacuation, a rebel commander released a recording of a woman, said to be Agnes-Mariam, saying that all civilians should surrender to the security forces.
Media reports said that many of the young men evacuated from Moadamieh were subsequently conscripted into the Syrian army.