How Refugees Should be Treated
Earlier this year, whilst filming my documentary, I had the unique opportunity to travel around Lebanon and one amazing thing I got to do, with the aid of UNICEF, was visit some Syrian refugee camps. I met and interviewed a few families who had been forced to abandon all that they owned, leave extended family behind, and escape the savagery of the war in Syria with only the clothes on their back.
I had been trying to get into a refugee camp for over a year, but because of conflict, safety issues, and a major battle in August 2017 that saw the Lebanese Army join forces with the “Resistance”, Hezbollah, against a common enemy, ISIS, whose members had infiltrated Lebanon across the Syrian border and were trying to take up a stronghold in the west of the country where all the refugee camps were, me and my crew were REFUSED ENTRY, because our safety could not be guaranteed.
So in May 2018, and after ISIS was convincingly defeated in Lebanon, we finally got permission to enter, escorted by UNICEF officials, into a couple of camps in the Bekaa Valley. It was a great feeling because I REALLY wanted the opportunity to witness and talk to the refugees, first hand, about their conditions, their stories, their struggles, their life – their truth.
It was both a humbling and truly emotional to observe the abject poverty that these warm, educated and somewhat refined people had sadly been reduced to tears. But in spite of their predicament, some like Ahmad and Rawaa Assaf and Hanan Al Sawady and her children, they still offered us coffee, a drink, sweets and anything that allowed them to retain some dignity.
Now it is not often that Lebanon as a nation and the Lebanese get to hold their head high, but on this topic, and when it comes to helping others and showing compassion, there is no nation in the world that has been more generous and disproportionately empathetic to the plight of the Syrian refugees than Lebanon.
“no…country would allow a quarter of its
population to be refugees”
As Tanya Chepuisat, the UNCIEF Representative in Lebanon said, in my interview with her in May: “I think the Lebanese have been incredible hosts, have opened their doors, have recognised they are a country who has grown up with wars so they’ve very clearly known the impact and they’re very aware of that.”
“The Lebanese Government has probably been one of the most generous governments in the world. You know most other governments have let in less than 10s of thousands of refugees into their countries, so the fact that more than 1.5 million refugees are here, and in a country that’s estimated population is said to be between 4 to 5 million, is extraordinary.”
“I mean there is no other country in the world that would allow a quarter of its population to be refugees,” Tanya told me.
Israel’s daily violations of
Lebanon’s history over the past four decades has been chequered, what with the Civil War induced by external powers who waged a proxy war on the streets of Beirut from 1975 to 1991.
The spate of assassinations that rocked the country from 2005 to 2011, taking out some of Lebanon’s highest profile nationalists, including the late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (left picture) and the world renowned journalist and newspaper publisher Gebran Tueni (far left picture) – a farewell gift from the departing Syrian forces, who after immense international pressure, ended their 29 year occupation; and then you have the on-again-off-again, not so silent WAR with Israel. Its daily violations of the Lebanese airspace are nothing more than the machinations of a neighbouring bully flexing its muscle and might over a war-shy nation whose people will do anything to avoid an blood shed.
These and many other issues, including local, domestic pressure points, distract from the REAL essence of the country and its people, that Lebanon continues to demonstrate outstanding humanity to the millions of refugees that have found shelter in Lebanon.
Let’s stop here and compare the facts. The table included in this Blog illustrates some of the countries that have opened their doors to the Syrian refugees and when you compare the numbers versus the land size of the country versus the population, you begin to understand the enormity of the sacrifice or pressure that a tiny nation like Lebanon has imposed upon itself, or has had imposed upon it by circumstance.
What is extremely disheartening for me, as a citizen of one of the largest, by land mass, nations on the globe – Australia, is our embarrassing and in fact, humiliating record when it comes to refugees. Now I might cop a great deal of flak from the extreme rightists in this country, like Pauline Hanson and her mob of narrow-sighted radicals, or even the likes of former Minister for Immigration, Peter Dutton, who equally shared a limited perspective on the value that immigrants and refugees contribute to growth, evolution, development and diversity in any society and economy; or anywhere/anyone else in the world, who believes that “nothing good comes from letting “those” people coming into our country”.
But if you don’t know me by now I’ll make it simple – I don’t allow fear to limit or control me. I speak my truth and tell it as I see it. I am not asking you to agree with me or like me, I am just TELLING IT as IT IS or as I see IT!
WHERE THE SYRIAN REFUGEES ARE
AROUND THE WORLD
Fact is Australia ranks as one of the LOWEST nations to take in Syrian refugees with a mere 6000 people. The USA is actually worse with only 16,000-odd while the UK has taken in around 10,000 and Russia 7,000. On the other hand, the only first world country that can truly hold its head high is Germany which has taken an OUTSTANDING 698,000.
But the biggest load has fallen upon the neighbouring countries of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan each taking in the millions as the above table shows.
Where Lebanon Differs…
But the reason I have highlighted Lebanon is because of its sheer size and population, not to mention the services and facilities that it has implemented to try and normalise the lives of the refugees, as much as is practicably possible.
Turkey has a population of around 80 million and land size of about 783,000 sq km and has absorbed around 3.5 million refugees.
Daizy with Ahmad & Rawaa Assaf
Jordan has a population of around 10 million its land size is around 90,000 sq km with about 1.2 million refugees taking shelter there. Now Lebanon has a population of around 6 million, according to the World Bank, and a land mass of only 10,452 sq km, which is basically similar in size to Puerto Rico, Cyprus, Jamaica, or Kosovo.
Where Lebanon differs from all these nations is that it has taken in a third of its population in refugees. That is like saying in Australia, where the population is around 26 million, welcome to about 8 million homeless refugees over a period of a few years, or say the USA whose population sits at around 325 million, saying “come on in” to 100 million odd starving, penniless, desperate people.
Now why I have gone out of my way in this blog to sing the praises of the Lebanese and the Lebanese Government not just for taking these people in but REALLY for the way in which they are treating them in their country. And NO I am not saying “EVERY SINGLE” refugee is living the life of Riley in Lebanon, but for the most part and the majority, it is not demeaning and despicable. Yes for some it is because well frankly, as I stated above, we are talking about absorbing 2.2 million people, a third of your population and that is not even counting the 500,000, yes, half a million Palestinian refugees who have been in Lebanon since the start of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in 1943. That is 70 years. So, if you want to be critical about the fact that some people are treated poorly please put it in context.
“We lost our nation…”
As I mentioned earlier, I had the chance to visit with a couple of families and sit with them to learn more about their situation in Lebanon. One those families was the Assaf’s. When I sat with Ahmad and Rawaa they told me that they had four children. The eldest, 8-year-old, Islam, whose name in Arabic means Peace, was born in Syria.
The other three, Hamido, 6, Maher, 4 and Watan, which means “nation” was only 40 days old, and all were born in the camps in Lebanon.
I asked Rawaa why she called her son “Watan”, she replied: “We lost our nation…we can’t go back, we are far from it so to make us feel closer we named him Watan.” When I asked Ahmad to tell me how he is treated in Lebanon by the Lebanese he answered:
“Overall we are all treated the same, whether Lebanese or Syrians or whatever. You can have individual cases if the person is not good, but overall it is a brotherly treatment. NO DISCRIMMINATION.”
However, for Hanan Al Sawady and her family of four older kids, let’s call a spade a spade, it’s not all hunky dory, as the Aussie’s would say, with all the Lebanese.
“Honestly, we used to dream to come on vacation to Lebanon, but when we came and saw it, not all Lebanese, some people are super great and helpful, when they see you are not okay they ask you what’s wrong and make you feel better,” Hanan told me.
“But others no. They think that all Syrians are from Houran, a rural area in Syria. They think Houran people are ignorant. I am not talking about all Lebanese, some Lebanese are very respectful and humanitarian, but some are a bit arrogant. If we weren’t forced to leave and were evacuated, we wouldn’t be here. Each person is a King in his own country, but when he leaves it’s different,” Hanan explained genuinely.
Left to right: Mohammed, Teriza (my daughter), me, Hana Al Sawady, Sidra, Batoul and Fatme.
Lebanon provides innovative
One of the most innovative decisions made by the Lebanese government about four years ago, was to open up their National Public schools to the Syrian refugees to them with a more normalised infrastructure for learning to ensure that they don’t drop behind too far as a result of the crisis.
UNICEF’s Tanya Chepuisat, explained to me that in effect what they did was put on a second shift at the school. “Lebanese students and some Syrian refugees would attend school at the normal hours of 8am to 2pm and then from 2pm to 6pm the school would reopen to provide classes and education to the Syrian refugees,” Tanya said.
“So Syrian refugee children, about half of them are educated in the National Public Education system, so it’s a very different way of responding to an emergency. It is also, for us, a very productive and efficient way because we can reach far more children, provide a better quality and more consistent education, as well as certificates. So, for us it’s been a very good learning experience.”
Since the crisis started in March 2011 and the refugees started entering Lebanon, many new Non-Government Organisations have sprung up to lend support and services to the refugees. One such organisation is KAFA (Enough!) Violence and Exploitation, which is a secular not-for-profit civil society organisation that was established to eliminate all types of violence and exploitation of women and realise substantive gender equality.
Australia could learn from Lebanon
The organisation works in some of the worst afflicted areas to educate young girls, women and boys about the importance of using words not violence to deal with issues and empowers the young girls and women to understand their rights.
These are only the tip of the iceberg of what is being done in a country like Lebanon which ranks nowhere in the scale of major industrialised nations but is really leading when it comes to humanitarian and social issues and needs. Maybe Australia could take a leaf out of Lebanon’s humanitarian book?
BRAVO LEBANON and the LEBANESE – you’ve earned this SHOUT OUT!
So from me, for another fortnight, that’s a wrap.
And just remember if anyone wants to talk to me directly on this or any other issue, just email me directly, at firstname.lastname@example.org. I have had some people engage with me over the past few weeks and I am very excited that you are finding my blogs and writing interesting and of value.
As I sign off I would like to remind you all to always KEEP IT REAL!
From my heart to yours,