Her name is Amena. She’s just over a year old and was born in one of the refugee camps on the borders of Lebanon. She’s just learned to walk. I stretch out my hand to steady her and watch as she walks towards me. What happens next is a surprise. She climbs onto my lap, puts her head on my chest and falls asleep.
I’m sitting in a one-room, home-made, yet immaculately kept tent. There’s a carpet on the dirt floor. The roof is made of plastic sheeting. Cushions placed carefully around the edges of the room double up as mattresses at night. As we sip sweet tea, I hear the family’s story.
Amena’s father, Ammar, and mother, Amal, are originally from near Homs in Syria. They once lived in a big house and worked on a farm. Now all they have is this tent.
When the fighting worsened, they left their village and walked over the mountains into Lebanon with their three children. It took them a week, walking at night and sheltering in the trees to avoid snipers.
They made it, but many of their friends didn’t. Some were killed by bullets along the way and others died from drinking contaminated water.
It’s not free to live in this camp. The farmer who owns the land charges $100 (£75) a month in rent. They do what they can to raise the money by working on the land. These family members are just grateful to be alive. They would do anything to bring back those they have lost, including a brother and sister-in-law, and an uncle.
Ammar has started running English and Arabic language classes during the day for the children. There’s little else for the kids to do in the camp.
“At first, many agencies came. But now it’s just Heart for Lebanon,” he says.
This charity, a Tearfund partner, works in a number of refugee camps here. It provides parcels containing cooking oil, soap and essential foods such as pasta and tinned vegetables, meats and fish.
The family’s oldest child has been given a place at the Heart for Lebanon school; one of the few in this area of the Bekaa Valley. The parents hope there also will be room for their other children. The school is hoping to increase its intake from 75 to 250 students next year.
When asked about the future, Amal tells me, “We want to go back when we can. We know our village is in ruins, but it’s our ruins.”
FLEEING THE WAR
I hear similar stories in southern Lebanon. Erynia, the head of a new school near Sidon, tells me how she has given up her well-paid job as an engineer to serve the children. Speaking of one child she was concerned about, Erynia says: “Maya just wouldn’t join in the practices for the Mother’s Day celebrations. I asked her why. It turns out her father died in the war. Her mother had to go away to find work and left Maya with her grandmother. Maya didn’t want to join in the Mother’s Day presentation because her mother would not be there.
“We worked with the grandmother and were able to help the mother return for the event. It was a joy to see Maya’s face when she saw her mother in the audience!” said Erynia.
We met another family, who lived in a converted garage. The mother, Rasha, explains how they ended up there: “We lived on the outskirts of Aleppo. When the shelling began, we knew it was time to leave. My husband got us onto a truck.
“He said he would follow the next day, once he had helped his parents. That was three years ago; I haven’t seen him since. All I have heard are rumours of his death.”
THE ALTERNATIVES WERE TO CONVERT TO ISLAM OR TO DIE
These events have turned Rasha into a recluse. She rarely leaves the garage. She talks of suicide. The grandmother has rescued the family, taking the eldest to the Heart for Lebanon school and arranging for food packages to be delivered.
As a Syrian Muslim, the grandmother was shocked at the way this team of Lebanese Christians was helping her as the two groups are traditionally enemies. She was so intrigued by the genuine kindness and love she experienced that she started to attend one of the charity's Bible studies.
“When I’m there I feel different. I feel God,” she says. Still a Muslim, she is on a journey.
LOVE WITH NO STRINGS ATTACHED
Back in central Beirut, I make one more visit. This time it’s to a Christian family who escaped from Mosul in Iraq. There’s a tiredness in their faces but a brightness in their eyes.
The mother explains: “When ISIS took over our town, they started painting signs on the doors of Christians. We came home from work one day to see the paint on the door. We were told we had to pay an impossibly high tax to remain. The other alternatives were to convert to Islam or to die.
“With the help of our Muslim neighbours, we escaped. We don’t know whether we will ever go back. We lost everything: our home, our savings, many of our friends. But we haven’t lost our faith. We still have Jesus.”
Lebanon is struggling to cope with the huge influx of Syrian refugees. It is thought the country's population may have increased by as much as 50% due to the conflict over the border.
“We do what we can,” says Bashir, one of the Heart for Lebanon leaders. “It’s love with no strings attached. If they want to attend one of our Bible studies they can do, but there’s no pressure. We work through relationships. We want to build with these communities; to help transform them.”
Heart for Lebanon runs twelve separate Bible studies among the refugees. Many more are planned. Food distribution is also increasing.
LOVING OUR ENEMIES
The work being carried out by Heart for Lebanon is both essential and inspiring. We are told to love our enemies, and that is what the charity is doing. Christ’s love is on show every day that another food parcel arrives; every day that another child receives help; every day that another life is saved.
It has been two months since I visited, but the faces of those I met remain with me; none more so than little Amena. As she grows, her family’s prayer is that she will one day have a real home, a true hope and a genuine future. Let’s pray that it happens.
RALPH TURNER is an author and blogger. He visited Lebanon with Tearfund earlier this year. For more information visit heartforlebanon.org