Refugee life in Lebanon's Beqaa Valley has similar challenges to being in Beirut

After a week of experiencing the frenetic pace of Beirut, a day spent in the Beqaa Valley offers the opportunity for a bit of respite: mountainous landscapes, green valleys, crisp air free of the humidity common to the capital city's coastal climate.

But as the region where many of the country's new arrivals have landed, Beqaa is not free of the tensions of a country of 4 million people suddenly experiencing the arrival of 1.5 million more.

In fact, in some ways the region is the epicenter of many of Lebanon's current problems — though there are small pockets of comity and hope, in part due to the role Catholic sisters play in promoting education and community.

Security is fragile in the Beqaa — pockets of the area have become militarized. Some Christian groups, for example, have taken up arms recently out of fear of border attacks by ISIS. The prevalence of armed weapons is not surprising. That is partly the legacy of both a long civil war (1975-1990) and the Syrian occupation during that conflict. (The Syrian occupation ended in 2005.)

And, of course, there are the dilemmas caused by a huge influx of new arrivals.

Lebanon is a country in which political and religious "balance" is not idle talk. Lebanon has a majority Muslim population, but a strong Christian minority. Moreover, while the majority of Syrian refugees are Sunni Muslims, Lebanon's Muslim population is about equally divided between Shiite and Sunni.

Though living in a culture that welcomes strangers and neighbors — and acutely aware and sensitive to how Lebanese society suffered during its own civil war — many Lebanese are "afraid right now," said Kamal Abdel Nour, a project manager with the Catholic Near East Welfare Association / Pontifical Mission.

Driving up the mountains from Beirut to the Beqaa on a recent foggy morning, Abdel Nour said much of that fear has to do with economics — the fear that a Syrian will work more cheaply than a Lebanese.

It was a refrain I had heard frequently in my early stay in Lebanon, and there is a deep back story. As an agricultural area, the Beqaa has long attracted unskilled Syrian workers, much like the Mexican laborers who are farm workers in the United States. And while differences of class, religion and nationality exist between Lebanese and Syrians, there are also commonalities, including similarity in the Arabic they speak.

"Syrians and Lebanese actually have a lot in common," Davide Bernocchi, country representative for Catholic Relief Services, told me, citing not only language but culture, history and a shared border.

But relations have been frayed some recently, Abdel Nour said. Whereas in the past Lebanon hosted just workers, now entire refugee families are arriving. There is a perception, Abdel Nour said, that "as a small and weak country" — Lebanon's government is notoriously fragile — it is simply harder to absorb people than, say, for a country like Jordan, which has not experienced many of the internal pressures Lebanon has.

The fog lifted and sun soon broke through the clouds. A large expanse of green, fertile farming land — including fruit tree orchards, grazing land and vineyards — lie before us. As Abdel Nour and I drove into a Hezbollah-controlled area, it had become a clear, sunny morning. A Hezbollah banner greeted us on the road and I saw small settlements of tents in largely empty fields — common places now for the Syrian refugees settling in Beqaa.

In the village of Deir Al Ahmar, a Christian pocket and enclave with a population of 12,000, the Good Shepherd Sisters are operating a social service center that provides education, meals and other needs for the growing Muslim population.

It was a reminder of something that Bernocchi of CRS told me early on — that "the church and the sisters are always working at the service of everybody. There is a huge network of schools open to everyone — most of the students are Muslim, but the church is really embracing its social mission and working for the common good."

In the morning, primary school classes are held for Syrian children, in the afternoon for Lebanese. This is to accommodate different traditions of curriculums — the Syrian curriculum stresses Arabic, while the Lebanese curriculum, in addition to Arabic, stresses French and some English. There are about 350 students total, and besides language, among the subjects taught are art, computer and folk dancing. Zakaria Mustafa, himself a Syrian refugee, oversaw a class of 19 students in Arabic.

There is a strong stress played on the center being a place where Lebanese and Syrians can come together to socialize, and Abdel Nour believes the sisters have an essential role in doing that. In an area where a Syrian military presence once came to pervade all parts of life, the sisters "are now hosting the children of the army," Abdel Nour said.

Good Shepherd Sr. Rita Yunuss said the original mission of the center was to provide care for women and children, but the influx of refugees nearby — now approaching 10,000, a number almost as large as the host community — had changed the sisters' ministry to include home visits.

Living in close quarters, in tents that must withstand the sun, wind and other elements is not easy, and it puts pressure on many parts of family life. It is no secret among those working in the area that domestic violence is often common — one of many problems refugees experience.

Sr. Amira Tabet, who coordinates the center's work, said in an environment where many have experienced pain, hardship and disrespect, "Everyone who enters here will feel they are respected and that their dignity is upheld."

Asked how a predominately Muslim population views the sisters' work, Tabet said the sisters are keenly aware of slights against Islam, and stress the need for all people to uphold the dignity of others — "the whole person."

The charism of Tabet's congregation stresses the acts of love and mercy, she said, "regardless of race, regardless of religion, to provide love without any limit in any way."

Such love is not necessarily easy to find in the midst of massive difficulties. Yet adding to the spirit of reconciliation and welcome was Tony Tarabay, a young Christian whose catering business donates meals for the students. He called it an example of Christian spirit, solidarity and welcome to those of a different faith. "We want to give you the message: 'I am not against you if you are Muslim.'" He added, "There is enough in the Beqaa Valley for all who choose to live here: Jobs, food, land, water."

"You should open your door to everyone," Tarabay said, citing the Bible and Jesus' example.

An hour's drive southwest from Deir Al Ahmar is Zahle, Beqaa's largest city. On the perimeter, thousands of refugees are residing in tent cities that are slowly becoming permanent places of residence. These are not the flimsy and meager plastic tents of newcomers — whose flaps seemed to be no match for the valley's strong winds as I saw them from a distance in the morning. Instead, these were the homes of those who have settled in places that are starting to feel established.

Abdel Karim, 58, and his extended family — 14 in all, with three branches of one family represented — would rather not dwell too much on what drove the family from Aleppo, Syria, the site of some of the fieriest and most furious fighting of the four-year Syrian civil war.

"Shelling, shelling, shelling," Karim recalls. The family arrived in Zahle because they knew neighbors from Aleppo at the camp. "One tent became 20 tents," Karim said, explaining a common pattern: Family and friends fleeing a war come to join those who arrived first.

A number of the family, including teenagers, are casual, or day, laborers and it worries the adults that the camp —unlike Deir Al Ahmar — does not have a school. "We have asked for a school, but there has been no response," Karim said. There are some creature comforts: a concrete floor, a refrigerator, television and Internet connection, though the family is still dependent on food parcels and hygiene kits provided by the United Nations and the Catholic Near East Welfare Association / Pontifical Mission.

Does the family want to return to Syria? Like many Syrian refugees, they do, but have not heard about the fate of the family home. "No news," said Karim.

Another Syrian family, a Christian household residing in the city of Zahle, has a different experience — more in common with the urban refugees in Beirut.

Samer Sunnan, 29, and his wife Yamameh, 22, and five others, including a cousin and two young children, ages 7 months and 3 years, are sharing the smallest of spaces, with shared sleeping on the floor in quarters of about 120 square feet — as cramped as anything in Beirut. Aside from the small living room which doubles as sleeping area, there is a small bathroom and kitchen.

The family's decision to settle in Zahle was based on practical considerations: It is cheaper than Beirut — the family is paying $150 a month in rent ("it is all we can afford"), and because they wanted access to schools and to be close to a Christian community.

The Sunnans are farmers and left because their orchards of plums and apple trees were destroyed in a military operation by opposition forces. "We were neutral," Sunnan said.

He is working in town now, as a waiter, and the young couple is eager to have their children start school. "Education is more important than a piece of bread," he said.

Where they would they like to land eventually? They are not sure. If the opportunity arose to go the West, they would take it. Remaining in Lebanon remains uncertain, they said. Zahle is secure but just across the border lies ISIS and the possibility of risk and chaos. They are not sure Lebanon, ultimately, is that stable.

Returning to Syria if the war ends is not likely an option. There is the fear of conscription into the Syrian army — an oft-heard worry among male refugees — and also fears about returning to a predominately Muslim neighborhood.

They don't dwell on that — they said they got along with Muslim neighbors in the past — but that and a dozen other fears and worries now attach themselves to family's day-to-day life. Yamameh said she can't work because "what would I do with the children?"

As afternoon ended and dusk descended over the Beqaa Valley, the darkening sky made no difference in the small apartment — there were no windows in the living room. I asked the family about their hope for the future.

They were uncommonly gracious and kind.

"We hope," said Sunnan, "that your people [in the United States] don't have to live in the same way we do. Everyone should live in peace."

[Chris Herlinger is GSR's international correspondent. His email address is]