You’d be forgiven if you thought my headline should read “Lebanese Assist Syrian Refugees.” I mean, who are Lebanese refugees? Who ever heard of them?
They aren’t anyone you hear about in the news. In fact, the people I met aren’t technically refugees. But there are hundreds of Lebanese families that were living in Syria prior to the war, many of them for generations, who joined their neighbors in fleeing their homes and the surrounding violence for what was hoped to be a safe haven in Lebanon. This is what they got:
Although the story I have to tell took place in May, I don’t want to leave it untold. It’s a counter-narrative – a story that stands in juxtaposition to the mainstream narrative, the kind of story that can get drowned out by the louder headlines about Syrian refugees in Lebanon who need help, take jobs or incite violence.
A couple of friends have been inspiring me lately to think more about counter-narratives. Friend and filmmaker Gregory Berger creates satires that examine issues from the H1N1 virus to fracking, and is currently working on a film that skewers the media coverage of Central American migrants in Mexico. Journalist Sharmine Narwani specializes in counter-narratives about politics in the Middle East, and while she and I are often not on the same page, I appreciate hearing her perspective. She inspires me to ask more questions and think more deeply about my own point of view.
Whether generated by news outlets or pop culture, counter-narratives can be powerful in broadening our perspectives. The recent movie Maleficent retells the classic story of Sleeping Beauty from the point of view of the evil fairy who cursed Princess Aurora with a deep sleep. I appreciated that the movie gave viewers the chance to understand the complexity of Maleficent’s motives, and to find a fresh definition of “true love.” A traditional narrative is upended, and a parallel story revealed.
Counter-narratives also have the power to jar us from our comfort zones. The heartbreaking photo of Fabienne Cherisma, a Haitian girl killed by a stray bullet post-earthquake, stays in my mind because of its counter-narrative – a side-story image capturing the photographers who swarmed a few feet from the dead girl – that I cannot forget.
Stories behind, or beneath, or beside the main story. Overlapping, intersecting, or the other side of the same coin. The story I have to share is similar in its unexpectedness.
At the beginning of May I attended a distribution of food aid in the town of Arsal, in northeast Lebanon, close to the border with Syria. I was proud to have helped in the food collection and packaging, thanks to the Boston University Global Day of Service and to the many friends and family members in Beirut and around the world who donated to provide supplies. Together with the local non-profit foodblessed, we put together 130 boxes, each of which had supplies for 100 meals plus a few basic hygiene items. Through foodblessed’s partnership with Lebanese 4 Syrian Refugees, who in turn works with the organization Shabaab il Oumma (Youth for the People), they had identified a special subset of families in need: Lebanese refugees.
Like the Syrians, these families were forced by the violence to leave their homes, possessions and livelihoods behind in Syria. But because the Lebanese had fled to their home country, not away from it, they do not qualify for assistance from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. As Lebanese, these families were instructed to contact the Higher Relief Council, an office of the Lebanese government that has been plagued by a corruption scandal. There was no response. And so, Shabaab il Oumma decided to reach out to them.
The representatives of Shabaab il Oumma had organized the aid recipients, inviting families to register ahead of time for assistance. Each registered family was given a small card, which would be collected back in exchange for the food aid. Two young men with SiO – one quiet and serene, the other gregarious and smiling – did the heavy lifting of the food boxes. The rest of the SiO volunteers were young women, girls really, aged 15-18. All of the youth were Syrian refugees themselves.
The young women took turns at the head of the line of Lebanese “refugees,” carefully collecting the cards, checking the numbers against their registration list, then giving the go-ahead for each distribution. The recipients were patient as they quietly waited their turn in line. When the occasional Syrian stopped by to find out what was being distributed, the girls politely explained that this distribution was only for Lebanese, and those turned away left without rancor.
Many of the beneficiaries had been in Lebanon for two years already. They told us this was the first assistance of any kind that they had received.
Each of the young women had her own story to tell, of educations that had been halted, of fathers working back-breaking jobs in the nearby granite quarries for a meager 10,000 lira ($6) per day. They told of local teachers that asked for bribes in order to allow the Syrians to go to school – bribes that the girls cannot afford.
“My dreams are broken,” one girl told me.
Yet they didn’t display bitterness or anger, but resolve. One of the young women has stayed in touch with me, and says that the girls have organized a school to provide an education for the younger ones. She says that they have been frightened by the wave of bombing that took place in Arsal during August, but are hanging in there.
These Syrians have lost everything, live in dire circumstances and fear, yet turn around and lend a helping hand to others. It is certainly true that Syrians in Lebanon are straining resources, and sadly there are those who are linked to further violence. But it is equally true that there are Syrians who are dedicating themselves to those around them who are in need, without discrimination.
Syrian refugees aid Lebanese in need.
What I most appreciate about counter-narratives is that they remind us that no one has the monopoly on the truth. It was a story that couldn’t go untold.