This essay is an attempt to pay tribute to those who are obliged to become refugees. My family and I stayed in Beirut for the first eight years of Lebanon’s civil war. Parts if this piece are taken from A Beirut Heart: One Woman’s War. In the end, we chose to become refugees in a country I knew growing up. My husband had what his grandfather called a gold coin. He had a medical diploma which he could put in his pocket and carry anywhere he wished. Many of the Syrian refugees are not as lucky.
It is never your first instinct to become a refugee. Rather, when war breaks out, your first instinct is to stay in the comforting familiarity of your home and your neighborhood, surrounded by family and friends. When that becomes impossible, you move your family to a safer neighborhood. When even that place becomes dangerous, you move yet again. My family and I stayed in Beirut for the first eight years of Lebanon’s civil war. All the while we convinced ourselves that the war would end, that things could not possibly get any worse. We hoped that in a week’s time, a month at the most, that the warring factions would come to their senses and resolve their differences, that some statesman, somewhere in the world, would find a way to dissuade the various political factions from turning into vicious militiamen.
We refused to give into despair. We remained hopeful and clung to all things familiar. Our sanity demanded it. There were periods of calm when we thought peace had broken out. We would rush to repair our bombed-out apartments and replace broken windowpanes. We would take our children to the beach and to the mountains to share a picnic with friends. And when the fragile ceasefire ended and the warring factions returned to the streets behind their barricades, we would hunker down once again in our homes, often times without electricity or water. We would return to sleeping in our shelters and homeschooling our children because their schools were closed for as long as the bombs fell, the kidnappings continued and the snipers continued to pick off innocent people, children included, as if they were sitting ducks on a picket fence.
In Beirut, we were lucky, if you call sitting out a civil war lucky, but we didn’t have air bombardments, except when Israel invaded in 1982 and bombed Beirut for 72 days. We had no beheadings, no ISIS, no chemical weapons and no barrel bombs. In a strange way, Lebanon’s civil war was civilized. There were truces; there were cease-fires at the end of each month so the combatants could be paid. We did not have government forces shooting at civilians or crazed jihadist fighters singling out people for execution based on their religious beliefs.
In Syria, theirs is a lawless war. The violence isn’t just melted out by fighters against their opponents. Entire neighborhoods have been leveled, whole towns and villages cut off from food and supplies. Villages have emptied and countless numbers have disappeared inside government prisons.
Not one of the 850,000 who have sought refuge in Europe ever thought to become refugees. It was forced on them because the world, the Western powers in particular, failed to do anything substantial to bring the Syrian crisis to an end. My country turned a blind eye to the mounting refugee crisis, to the 1.5 million refugees in filthy, infested, make-shift tent camps in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley, or the millions more who sought refuge in Turkey and Jordan. There were repeated warnings from the Vatican, the UN, Doctors without Borders, humanitarian relief agencies but no one cared enough to listen.
It wasn’t until an innocent three-year-old washed up on a Turkish beach, until forty-four children died at sea trying to cross to safety, until Russia’s military intervention, that Western governments took serious notice of this crisis. It was too late for those who had already perished, for those who had fled with nothing but the clothes on their backs, their homes and villages ravished, their life savings wiped out.
You may think this refugee crisis is happening to people you have nothing in common with. Syria and Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan may seem far away in some distant land where they speak incomprehensible languages but we share a common humanity with these people even if that common link is not language or culture.
Perhaps this refugee crisis has happened because we think we are exceptional, because we consider ourselves the sole superpower nation that has the right to declare wars, demand regime change at will, destroy cities and kill innocent civilians because we are better than the rest, because we share no commonality with people who practice a different religion, even though we, and we alone, created their plight and made them refugees.
A Beirut Heart: One Woman’s War is available for purchase here.