THE BLOG

Life in Lebanon Is Worse Than During the Darkest Days of Civil War

12/03/2014 14:22 GMT | Updated 12/05/2014 10:59 BST

How does someone become a refugee?

Imagine a mother, a father and four young children, stuck in their home in Syria, desperately hoping the fighting will end and normal life will resume. Then a shell hits the house. It's reduced to rubble. By a miracle, the family survives, but the children are badly injured and need hospital care.

They flee the fighting and go looking for help. But one battle zone or bombed out area turns into another. So they keep going, and join one of the refugee convoys headed for Lebanon. Surely there is help over the border?

They arrive here with nothing: no money, no possessions, no food, water or medicine, and nowhere to stay. This is no hypothetical story: this is a family that I met just a few days ago, and it feels as though every family that arrives here tells a different version of the same tale.

Having made it across the border, they find it difficult to understand that life is also hard here. They ask: why is the world ignoring this?

It's hard to explain to them that the wealthiest nations simply haven't donated enough money to support them, that every year of this civil war, the UN's appeals have been severely under-funded.

With support from the UK agency CAFOD, my organisation Caritas Lebanon is supporting more than 125,000 refugees, giving food, shelter and medical care to families like the one I described.

But with thousands more like them crossing the border every day, we are not just stretched to the limit, we are already past breaking point.

The influx of refugees is having a devastating effect on the country as a whole. According to our government, there are 1.3 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, a country with a normal population of just over 4 million. That's the equivalent of about 20 million refugees arriving in Britain. Can you imagine how your schools, hospitals and welfare agencies would cope?

The whole country is overwhelmed. Our economy is in tatters, and the health system is unable to cope. School classes have doubled in size, and cannot take any more. Many families are so desperate that they send their children out to work instead, often in factories or in the fields.

Most of the new arrivals are living in appalling conditions, trying to survive in half-finished or derelict buildings, in cowsheds, or even in the open air.

I know how they feel. In the 1980s, during our own civil war, my home in West Beirut was destroyed, and I was left with nothing.

But make no mistake, life in Lebanon today is worse than during the darkest days of the 1980s war.

Worst of all are the daily bomb scares, shootings or suicide attacks, the sectarian violence an overspill from the carnage in Syria. On some days, it is terrifying just to walk the streets. During the civil war, we were afraid of bombs. But there was not the same sense of unbearable tension; we were not suspicious of each other like we are today.

It is easy to despair. But I remember after my home was destroyed, a local priest suggested I should work with other destitute people. It was a suggestion that changed my life, and I learned that - no matter how dark the situation - there is always cause for hope. I worked in a poor Muslim area, and it taught me that talking to the people who you thought were your enemies is the only path to peace and reconciliation.

Although the Geneva peace talks have not produced many results so far, we ask the international community to keep up the pressure to bring all sides to the table. After three years of war, we cannot expect results overnight, but in the end all sides will surely have to listen to each other, and to accept that eventual compromise is better than catastrophe.

The people of Syria lived together harmoniously in the past, and all the refugees I have met want to do so again. They want to go back to their own towns, to rebuild their homes and their lives, and let their children grow up in peace. For the sake of Lebanon's future, we are desperate for them to do so too.

In the days leading up to 15th March, the third anniversary of the start of the conflict, people all over the world will be holding vigils to remind their governments that giving up on Syria is not an option.

I find hope in their solidarity. I find hope in the generosity of people who donate to organisations like CAFOD and the DEC. And I find hope in the knowledge that one day the warring factions will have to talk, and this devastating war will have to end.