ZAHLE, Lebanon: George is wounded but he has no scars. It’s pain of an emotional kind that ails him. He feels scorned and humiliated, like a man who ended up on the bad side of a deal through no fault of his own.
A Christian from Homs, Syria, George, who won’t give his last name out of fear, has seen his life’s work uprooted and tossed aside by a bitter 17-month conflict he has little attachment to.
George fled Syria about a year ago when fighting between regime forces and an armed opposition near his home seemed too close for comfort. He left with hundreds of Christians from Homs and sought refuge in Zahle, a quaint city perched on the edge of the Bekaa Valley and the heartland of Catholic Christendom in Lebanon.
They hoped to find help and sympathy from co-religionists. Instead George felt his wounds deepen. Instead of open arms, George felt he received an icy reception that has only just begun to warm.
“Christians here, they don’t care. We left with nothing, and we still don’t have anything,” George says.
Many mosque communities quickly mobilized at the outset of the Syrian conflict to aid refugees. In contrast, many church communities in Lebanon have been slower to help.
Many churches are just now beginning to set up a sophisticated response to aid displaced families who have been forced to relocate to Lebanon, many of whom are feeling extremely vulnerable during a conflict in which some would rather not take sides.
Increased assistance is needed now more than ever, aid officials say, as the fighting in Syria has sprawled to more areas of the country and displaced even more of the Christian population.
Most recently in Aleppo, heavy fighting displaced many of the city’s Christian residents.
Christian charities and a handful of more proactive churches have been more responsive to Syrians. But in Zahle, only some of the city’s churches are offering aid services to refugees. Many of those operations began only a few months ago.
“Other archbishoprics don’t have a staff to work with refugees,” said Abir Hanna, the social affairs coordinator for Saydet al-Naja, a Greek Catholic Church in Zahle.
Saydet al-Naja runs one of the largest church-based aid operations in the city. Hanna helped set up the operation three months ago. It now provides aid to 236 families, just over 1,000 people. The United Nations helps around 34,000 Syrian refugees in the country, while aid groups estimate the total number of people is near 90,000. Christians make up a small fraction of the total refugee population.
The church primarily serves as a safe place where Christian families can go to receive aid from other aid groups such as the Red Cross and Christian charities, World Vision and International Orthodox Christian Charities.
“They feel more comfortable to go to the church than UNHCR,” Hanna said, referring to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
The explanation for that reticence lies in the Christian population’s unusual position in the Syria conflict. Syrian Christians have been a minority caught between two worlds. The Syrian regime cultivated alliances with some communities and many Christians didn’t harbor grievances against the regime as deep as the largely Sunni opposition.
While reporting and surveys have shown refugees in Lebanon are mostly opposition supporters. Interviews with refugees indicate that doesn’t necessarily hold true for Christians.
Christians who perceive themselves as a political minority feel even more vulnerable as a displaced population.
Most churches don’t have the sophisticated resources to support refugees like UNHCR. But refugees say what they offer is better than submitting their name to the government-affiliated aid body, which they fear could end up in Damascus, branding them as rebels.
Nearly none of the 1,000 people Saydet al-Naja helps have registered with UNHCR, Hanna said.
In addition to Greek Catholic churches, Syriac Orthodox churches have set up aid operations, but Syriac chuch officials are hesitant to speak to the press about their work largely due to how sensitive a subject it is for refugees.
Abu Elias, who came from the same Homs neighborhood as George, has taken refuge in a small neighborhood that overlooks Zahle, just on the edge of the city.
Speaking in his living room, which was converted from the lobby of a guard house, Abu Elias said he appreciated aid from Sayed al-Naja but echoed George’s criticism of the churches’ response.
“The churches were not as helpful as the [Zahle] families,” he said.
Abu Elias was displaced from Syria a year ago and crossed into Lebanon with his family, heading to Zahle. Abu Elias is considered a leader in his neighborhood and was quickly visited by UNHCR officials to help register the neighborhood. The representative wanted lists of refugee names and mug shots to allow their community to receive international aid services like food and medical care.
The pictures were a step too far for Abu Elias and members of his community. If people knew they were receiving help from UNHCR they would think they supported the Syrian opposition, Abu Elias says.
Abu Elias doesn’t have a problem with the Syrian regime, though he’s not particularly political either. Mostly he wants his life back as well as the lingering sense of humiliation he has as a refugee to go away.
In the meantime he will rely on churches he can trust to help him through this difficult time.
“There is no way out. If you say you’re with the regime, the opposition will attack you; if you don’t, the military will attack,” Abu Elias said.
“We were all forced to go out, we were all humiliated,” he said.
“As long as there’s is a conflict going on we are going to stay here, we are not going anywhere.” – With additional reporting by Ghinwa Obeid and Maya Fawaz