Nuri Kino, Contributor Independent investigative multi-award-winning reporter, filmmaker, author, Middle East and human rights analyst
People fled their homes head over heels. Some of them barefoot, other in their pyjamas. They were given three choices; convert to Islam, pay extortion money (a so called religion tax) or die. They created a fourth option for themselves, fleeing. During the escape they were stopped and searched. Anything on them of value, was seized and stolen from them.
I am in Beirut, meeting people who have fled Iraq and Syria, most of them coming here to Lebanon. When having reached their destination another struggle begins, the one for survival. They get no financial support from the Lebanese government and the aid from the UN has dried up. They need to support themselves somehow.
There are almost two million refugees in Lebanon. Every fourth person is a refugee. Inflation has sky rocketed and living expenses are very high. Many live in sublet apartments. The average rent for an apartment in the Beirut slum is around 500 USD per month, money that relatives and friends send to the refugees. But for how long will relatives in countries like Sweden be able to support them, sending money every month? The very few who are lucky enough to find employment make 350 USD, at the most.
Some have contacted NGO:s for help with the bare necessities. One of these organisations is the Syriac League, an organisation that we in A Demand For Action (ADFA) cooperate with.
300 of the neediest families had been contacted to receive a bag of groceries so as to be able to cook Easter food. We handed out the bags in a church hall in Beirut.
The family names were called up in a microphone and they came up to collect their grocery bags.
When the supplies were beginning to dwindle a hundred people rushed at us, screaming in desperation and fear of being left without. I took a picture and posted it on Facebook. A few minutes later an American called up Siham, one of the Syriac League leaders. He told her that he wanted to give 50 USD to every family who did not get a grocery bag. We took their names. But they wanted more, they wanted help. Help with getting out of the Middle East.
They belong to Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac and other minorities and have lost all faith in peace in Iraq and Syria. The latest terrorist attacks against the Copts in Egypt had them queuing outside of embassies and consulates here in Beirut, they are looking for a way out.
Some of them showed us their war injuries, other held up their sick children. They also told us of what they owned before they had to flee. Many of them were doctors, engineers, lawyers or business owners in their home countries. Now they are penniless refugees.
An hour later we cleaned out the church and had prepared seating arrangements for 300 children who were invited for an Easter party with entertainment, a magician and a small circus were there. We handed out sweets and something to drink. Towards the end of the party, all the children received gifts. It only took a few minutes before we lost control, many other children came to the venue after the rumour had spread that refugee children were receiving gifts. About half of the children were left without a present.
Gebran, one of our volunteers became ashen in his face, started sweating and told us that his left arm hurt. He got a heart attack due to the stress.
The day after we served Easter lunch to 300 other refugees, a lunch we prepared ourselves. When I posted about this on Facebook, one of the comments from Sweden said; “All this while our old people here get crappy food! Nobody cooks food like this for them.”
I understand the thought behind a comment like that. My friends an I ran an assisted living service for two years. A big part of our business was managed through voluntary work, time we put in that we did not get paid for from the municipal. But we put those extra hours in gladly. I also feel for the poorest Swedish pensioners, and I have cooked for many of them in the past as well.
But we need to think and act as fellow humans now, wherever the need is the greatest. We continue our work in Lebanon. Tomorrow we are going to visit the sick and continue to raise money through social media so as to be able to pay for hospital bills for those that need it. And to those that think that elderly Swedes, Germans or Americans should also be invited to a party, I agree. But, please, take some initiative and make it happen.
*Babilona Khosravi from Sweden and Evette Haddad from Canada also contributed to this report