By Stacy Ryan
During our visit to Lebanon, Jane and I had the chance to visit Arsal, a town that shares a border with Syria. The town is under the strict control of Lebanese forces and anyone, including the local population, must obtain permission to enter or exit. We were lucky to have Edinburgh Direct Aid (EDA), a nonprofit working in Arsal, arrange our visit. When we arrived at the entry checkpoint, we had to get out of the car and bring our passports to a guard shack where we were questioned and our information was logged. The guard appeared stern at first but eventually smiled and greeted us with a friendly “welcome.”
Arsal is surrounded by steep mountains and extremely dry, rugged terrain. Watchtowers manned by Lebanese soldiers dotted the mountain ridges and served as constant reminders that the Syrian border was just on the other side. Maggie, EDA’s Field Operations Director, mentioned that on one of her visits a few years ago, she saw an endless stream of refugees pouring over these mountains from Syria. Descending the mountains would have been challenging for me. I can’t imagine how refugees, particularly pregnant women, children, and the elderly, were able to make their way down such difficult terrain.
Before the war in Syria, Arsal had a population of around 35,000 people. Now, the population has swelled to over 100,000 people, including the roughly 70,000 Syrian refugees in camps spread throughout the city. Because of a fight that broke out the day before our visit, we were advised not to enter these camps but we could see them from our car. I was surprised to see that the camps were not confined to the city limits but were also found within the city center, nestled in between the buildings and houses. This really highlighted the fact that this refugee crisis is not happening in a bubble. It affects not only the refugees but the host community as well.
After a short drive from the entry checkpoint, we arrived at an EDA supported community center. The center provides vocational training workshops for refugees and local Lebanese and is staffed by both the refugee and local populations. During our brief visit, we observed a graduation ceremony for the mobile phone repair course, observed the basic health course participants taking blood pressure and wrapping bandages, and saw the work of the women from the sewing shop. These classes have all been requested by the refugees themselves, and Maggie is constantly getting flooded with requests to add new courses. The people we met seemed very happy to have a place to go where they could learn and connect with others.
One of the highlights of the visit was the chance to see firsthand a few of the shops opened by recent graduates of these vocational training courses. I was so impressed at how professional these stores appeared and touched to hear how proud they were to be supporting themselves and their families. One of our stops was a graduate’s mobile phone repair shop. When asked what he did before, the owner replied jokingly, or perhaps truthfully, that he was a thief. In a short amount of time, he has turned his training into a functional shop that can serve the community. He is setting such a positive example for the refugees as well as Lebanese to follow.
Our visit to Arsal concluded with a traditional Syrian lunch hosted by a Syrian refugee family which included rice, a chicken dish, salad and the best meatballs that I’ve ever had. During the meal, the family discussed the upcoming holy month of Ramadan which will be their fourth in Lebanon and, they seemed very confident to point out, perhaps their last before returning home. I was truly amazed by their sense of optimism. It also helped to reinforce to me that most refugees just want the opportunity to lead a normal life, no different than before they became refugees, until it is safe enough to return home.
As we passed through the security checkpoint leaving Arsal, I tried to process all that I had seen in such a short amount of time. And while I only got a very brief, limited glimpse into a very small part of the Syrian refugee crisis, I couldn’t help but wish that more people could have the opportunity to meet refugees and to see them as individuals, not as a faceless mass or statistic. If more people had this experience, I’m certain we would be having much different conversations about the refugee crises around the world today.