Reflections on my time in Lebanon

by Bryan Ling

It is difficult to know what the right thing to do is with regards to helping refugees. We know that these people exist but for most people living in the West, this problem feels like its a world away.

I became more interested a few years back when I visited Haiti after the Earthquake that happened there. Over the years I have built a network that includes some people who dedicate a significant amount of their time and energy focused on helping others in need. Working with refugees requires a certain amount of empathy but it also takes research, patience and persistence. The path isn’t always clear on how to help even if you have the will to.

Last year, I traveled to Greece to see for myself what was happening with the refugees that were smuggled from Turkey and (hopefully) arriving on boats. It was with the help of extraordinary people that I was able to make my way on this journey, gaining a new perspective about what it’s really like for these people who are fleeing from homelands decimated by war.

This is not a political report. Politics does play into the crisis, of course. But that’s not what this is about. This is what I’ve learned on my latest trip and what I can do to directly effect those that I met.

It is important to give a brief history about Lebanon.

Lebanon is the only country in the Middle East that is currently listed as being Christian majority. Christianity in this region dates back to the first century and has had a storied history. When Lebanon formed as a nation in the 1920s under the French, Lebanism usurped Arabism in the country. In the National Pact, an unwritten gentleman’s agreement between the Maronite President Bshara el-Khoury and Sunni Prime Minister Riad as-Solh, the seats of presidency were distributed between the main Lebanese religious denominations. According to the pact, the President of the Lebanese Republic would always be a Maronite Christian. Furthermore, the pact also states that Lebanon is a state with an “Arab face,” and not an Arab identity. The role of religion is very important to take into consideration with regards to the refugee crisis in Lebanon.

The difference between migrants, immigrants and refugees:

Migrant : a worker who moves from place to place to do seasonal work.
Immigrant : a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.
Refugee : a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.

Somewhere between those three categories are those that are displaced, fleeing their homeland in fear of their livelihood without being granted official asylum. This is reminiscent of the kind of situation we now see in Lebanon.

The United Nations is the leading organization in the world that helps refugees. The UNHCR is deployed in parts of the world where the refugee situation reaches epidemic proportions. For reasons that are not quite clear to me, it seems that there are certain displaced people who are not given refugee status. One reason I can surmise is that they don’t come from a conflict zone. As was the case in Greece when I met people traveling through the route from the Middle East to Europe through Turkey, those that didn’t come from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria or Somalia were not granted refugee status and were not permitted into the official UNHCR camps. It was an issue with others who might have been from a conflict zone or war torn country but who had no proof in the form of identification.

Last year when I visited Greece and worked on the island of Lesvos, I worked in Camp Moria, a camp unaffiliated with the United Nations Refugee Organization (UNHCR). Camp Moria was located just next-door to an official UNHCR camp, the largest UNHCR camp on the island, in fact. Camp Moria was set up as a way to assist those that the official camp was not able to allow in. The UNHCR did not deal with these refuge-seekers and so it fell upon the support of volunteers to organize the camp and it’s infrastructure and to support these helpless people.

In Lebanon, no one is officially given “refugee” status. This would mean, for the government, conceding a certain set of rights to entirely too many Muslims inside a Christian majority nation. The Lebanese government hasn’t done so with the Palestinians who have been seeking asylum in Lebanon since the 1940s and they are not doing it for the Syrians who have migrated into the country since the war started over five years ago.

Because non-UNHCR camps are not able to establish refugee status, Lebanon makes it particularly difficult for helpless people to receive foreign aid. The UN can not officially be in the country helping these people by setting up their own camps so the problem is left to local NGOs to set up shop and deal with this massive issue. It’s a bureaucratic nightmare. Still, some have pushed forward and there is good work being done by incredible organizations and courageous people.

I had been to Lebanon before. In 2005, a close friend with family in Beirut invited me to join him on a visit. I had always wanted to travel to the Middle East and this was a chance to do so in a somewhat controlled environment. After my experience in Greece last year, I wanted to understand how the situation was in places closer to Syria. I was able to get in contact with some of the relationships forged from my first visit back in 2005 to start devising a plan to come back. Over a month and a half of email and text correspondences, I finally had a clear plan in place.

I arrived in Lebanon on a Saturday and met with a friend who had helped me arrange my visit. He connected me to close friends of his who were tied to organizations doing work with some of the displaced people fleeing from Syria. My work in the camp was to start on Monday; my friend decided to take me skiing in the mountains on Sunday. (It is important to note that the only time I was ever really afraid for my life in Lebanon was when my friend or his security were driving. Their speeds and passing techniques would have had any professional race car driver impressed. However, as for me, I was as uncomfortable as I could possibly be sitting in the backseat.) The weather was beautiful the day we drove up into the mountains. It had just snowed so it there was fresh powder and the scenery was incredible. You can literally look down from the mountain onto the coastline and the ocean while skiing — a truly stunning landscape.

Monday morning came and I was met by my driver for the week. His name was Adi. He spoke next to no English but he mostly knew what I was trying to tell him. When Adi didn’t understand me, I would call a friend and he would translate for me. Almost always after those calls, Adi would hand me the phone back and would tell me something in Arabic that I always felt meant something like: “I knew what you were trying to tell me all along, you didn’t need to make the call.” Adi liked to work out. Even though I understood when he told me so, he didn’t hesitate to pull out his phone and show me photos of him doing muscle poses and lifting weights. Adi is awesome.

He drove me to the headquarters of Union of Relief and Development Associations (URDA). The main headquarters sits on a few floors inside of a bank building in the middle of Beirut. This was where I was set to meet my contact Ahmed. Once Ahmed arrived, we both went into a conference room and were able to ask each other questions. Naturally, he was curious as to who I was and what my intentions were. I was able to explain to Ahmed and another gentleman who was also in the meeting but who hardly said a word (in fact, he might not have said a single word), about my time in Greece and also in Haiti. I told them that I gained a larger perspective than what I was being shown on the news while watching television and reading online.

It was only after my experience in Greece that I was able to gain a profound understanding of how truly devastating the crisis was, and how difficult it is for me to know that this exists every day and not be able to do anything about it. I let Ahmed know that I aim to continue visiting and working with organizations and camps all over the world that deal with this problem. My intention with any of these trips is to offer a closer, human side to a crisis that we all know about, yet the world at large has chosen to turn their backs on. I remember Ahmed had brought cake that he offered to me, like a coffee cake, that his mother had made. I politely declined having any since I had already eaten a big breakfast. One regret I have is not accepting his offer and eating the cake.

When we were done in the meeting room, Ahmed took me around the office and introduced me to various people who worked as a part of the organization. URDA has set up camps all over Lebanon. By the end of 2015, they had established 33 camps in various regions throughout Lebanon, from the south in Saida and Beirut, to the Bekaa Valley, to the north in Aarsal and Akkar. Hundreds of thousands of people and many families have been able to find shelter and access electricity and clean water through URDA.

The people I met that day were mostly in charge of departments that manage those working directly with residents of the camps. “Residents” are the displaced people, primarily from Syria, who pay $200 per person annually to the Lebanese government in order to be granted resident status. To my understanding, this just meant that you had less of a chance getting hassled by the police. It’s not like you pay to have the same rights as Lebanese citizens or even the rights of UN-sanctioned refugees. Every person from Syria is meant to pay at least $200 a person. That may not seem like a lot, especially annually, but it’s another story when you have few ways of earning any money at all.

I was very impressed with the level of organization inside the URDA headquarters. The people I met who are a part of the leadership that include doctors, lawyers, marketing professionals, phycologists engineers and others who coordinate between those on the ground inside the camps as well as communicate to others outside of the organization and all over the world.

With bureaucracy being the way it is, getting foreign professionals like doctors and lawyers set up to work becomes a real problem as they are unable to practice inside of Lebanon unless they are working directly beneath a licensed Lebanese doctor or lawyer. Basically, there needs to be a Lebanese person in charge.

Once we were finished at the URDA offices, Ahmed and another man (whose name I can’t remember) drove us to a shelter closest to the office. The shelter was located about 30 minutes away from where I was staying in town, close to the airport. We drove down an unpaved street and arrived at a structure that essentially looked like a three-story apartment building. Ahmed told me that this place primarily housed women and people with special needs. Only a few men lived here with their families. For the first time in Lebanon, I was getting introduced to the problem firsthand.

At the shelter, we were greeted by a local Lebanese woman who worked as the manager of the camp. She has a family of her own but also works with the Syrian families in this housing complex everyday. She told us about some of the families who lived there and showed us how they supported themselves. This particular shelter had small businesses run by the refugees living inside. URDA helps to get these kinds of programs started and then advises them on how to run their businesses successfully. There was a room full of sewing equipment and clothing to be sold later. I saw a wedding dress being worked on and was even given knitted baby clothing as a gift. I kept trying to pay them for it, but they wouldn’t accept my money. I also saw where a few women were making bread for the families who lived there and then more of it to sell. I even gave bread-making a shot myself.

One man who lived in the camp with his family told us about the terrible tragedies he had experienced while still living in Syria. The first story was about his elderly mother near the beginning of the conflict in Syria. He said that Assad’s regime had come into his village and ordered everyone out, telling people that if they stayed they would be killed. Many elders in the village had gotten together and decided to take a stand. They didn’t want to leave, so they told the regime that their families had lived there for generations and that they were not going to be forced from their homes. The man told us that he pleaded with his mother to leave the village with him. He warned her that these men were not messing around and that it would be certain death if she chose to stay. Sadly, their house was set on fire and he was unable to save his mother while she burned to death on the same piece of land that their family had lived on for hundreds of years.

We met others in the camp whose husbands were either locked away in Syrian jail (they hoped) or who had died fighting in the war. The children all seemed a bit shell-shocked, but for the most part they were just kids trying to be, well, just kids.

URDA is now managing 40 shelter sites all over Lebanon. The next ones we would be visiting would be in the Bekaa Valley.

It’s about a two-hour drive over a mountain to get from Beirut to the Bekaa Valley. During the time that I last visited, the roads were always busy, but this time we were contending with winter conditions. There is only one main road from Beirut and it takes you over the mountain. This makes for a lot of sketchy driving techniques while passing slower drivers.

We left the city early enough to make it into the first camp in the Bekaa just after noon. The first facility we visited was a medical shelter at Bar Elias, the first “official” camp that we stopped at. All together there are only three medical facilities for all 40 camps. Most of the people inside the camps are treated by either mobile clinics or local Lebanese hospitals if a patient is able to afford to go there.

We met with the head doctor inside of the Bar Elias camp. He was also Lebanese but allowed Syrian doctors, as well as medical professionals from other foreign countries, to work treating those in need under his license. In Lebanon, you can only legally practice medicine if you have a Lebanese medical license. You may have doctors and nurses from outside of Lebanon work as a part of your license but they can not set up shop on their own — more bureaucracy tied to the politics of the country.

There were two things that struck me about the medical facility that we visited. One was that it was very well organized. There were families waiting patiently to be seen by doctors and the offices were structured in a way that reminded me of being at home visiting my own doctor’s office. The other thing was how much work fell on the shoulders of the few doctors and medical staff that I met. These people looked like they had been working non-stop for years. In some cases they have been. Besides treating patients, the doctors are also engaged in an ongoing campaign to receive more aid and more supplies in order to help treat these people who have nowhere else to turn when they are sick or need medical attention.

The head doctor was able to spare a few minutes to talk with me about the situation. He told me that serious diseases like cancer are basically death sentences for people here. Even the treatable kind of cancer is nearly impossible to treat because it’s just too expensive. The same is true for many other kinds of disease. It was a hard realization to know that so many people who could be treated if they were back in their own country, with their own doctors, would not be suffering quite so badly, or even worse, prematurely losing their lives.

The mobile clinics are essentially vans that doctors and other medical personnel drive around from camp to camp assessing and treating those that need attention. By no means is this ideal, but many people can’t leave their shelters to be treated.

I met an elderly woman who lived with her daughter. They invited me into their tent for tea. The woman had lost one of her sons in the war and her other two sons were in prison, one in Lebanon and the other in Syria. Again, when people say that their family or friends are in a Syrian jail, they are basically saying that they hope that they are still alive in prison. This woman was basically bed ridden. She could sit up, but needed help in order to go to the bathroom or to move from the bed at all. This meant that her daughter had to help her. The woman spoke briefly about her sons, but it was the plight of her daughter having to take care of the older women that saddened her most.

Over the next couple days, I met mostly with families who were living in official URDA shelters, some for as long as five years. They told me about their lives in Syria before the war. I heard unimaginable stories about loved ones being lost. Women sharing with me about their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons being killed or imprisoned. I heard about the bomb shelters that many people dug in their backyards and underneath their houses in order to try and avoid collapsing buildings during an airstrike. I heard how many of these shelters became mass graves when chemical weapons were used and the gas seeped underneath the ground.

I really had to control my emotions listening to these people tell me what they had been through, as well as what they continue to go through.

Inside of the shelters I saw URDA programs in action. I was able to witness a school class in session. One particular class had to do with teaching girls and young women psychosocial skills, English, and various skills that would help them adjust to their new lives in the camp. I noticed several brightly colored shelters, some painted with landscape murals, designed to brighten their surroundings and make the situation seem less grim.

The men who took me around the camps and introduced me to people living inside told me about other programs like micro-financing for small businesses. URDA meets with Syrians to listen and help develop a plan with them in order to help establish a way for them to support themselves. Inside the camps, I visited a kind of general store set up as one of these micro-financed businesses, similar to the textile room we saw the day before. As you can imagine, with very little financial support from the government, it is imperative for these programs to exist. Back in the URDA offices in Beirut, they told me of some of the more successful businesses that they have helped these people set up, from an electronics repair business, to a bakery, to many other types of opportunities to create income in between.

One thing I have realized in my travels throughout my life is no matter what part of the world I visit, it is that children are simply children. They are virtually all the same. The difference being geography and living conditions. But kids want to learn and they want to play. It is usually how they learn and what they are being taught as they grow older that starts to separate and divide them. The children I met on this trip were no different than the young boys and girls I know back home. They have the same curious looks on their faces and for the most part they are trying to adapt to their surroundings. Many of them were so young when they were forced to leave Syria that they didn’t remember anything other than living in these poor conditions inside of a camp. This all that they know. There are others though who absolutely remember what it was like to grow up in Syria and they talk about how they miss it. They told me about friends that they lost. About bombings and a different kind of being afraid of the dark — the kind where you try to fall asleep at night not knowing whether you might wake up the next day because your house could topple over you. These children couldn’t possibly comprehend why they were forced to flee. They just knew that there was no other choice.

A mother of four welcomed us into their tent. She said that her husband was in jail in Lebanon. It was up to her to try and raise the $200 per person in her family to pay for residence. Her eldest child looked about nine. One of her youngest was an adorable, green-eyed, auburn-haired little boy who first offered me a bite of his chocolate donut when we met.

Later that night, the guys I was with took me out for dinner to a place in town. Shams Restaurant it was called. Imagine a massive dining hall with as many people working as there were eating. Two huge projection screens on either side of the restaurant with a constant loop of a commercial promoting none other than Shams Restaurant. Ahmed had remembered that I had a birthday coming up so he secretly arranged with the waiter to bring me out a cake and sing me happy birthday. Not the greatest way to keep a low profile, but a sweet gesture nonetheless. It’s always a bit embarrassing when your friends and family do that to you in public. I really wish I could articulate how this specific experience took it to a whole other level.

The next morning we returned to one of the camps where the same women was with her four children. Those that know me well know that I am not big on birthday cake, so I had them box it up the night before. I wanted to give it to the family who I was moved by the previous day. When the little boy heard that I was there to give him the cake he went inside and grabbed some change that he must have had hidden. He tried to offer it to me in exchange for the cake. This was a moment that melted my heart.

The weather conditions in Lebanon during the winter are extreme. Most of the children I came across didn’t have the adequate clothing needed to face the freezing temperatures inflicted upon this region during the winter months. I saw children without socks and asked Ahmed why some children do not have warm socks on their feet. He told me that most children only have one pair and that when those are being cleaned they have to go a few days without them.

A young girl with a bright, beautiful smile came up to Ahmed to say hello. She was squeezing her tiny hands together to try and warm them up. I remembered that I had a pair of wool mittens in my bag and quickly reached in to give them to her. I was reminded everywhere I looked that these kids are struggling just to maintain basic living conditions.

One might think that these kind of conditions that the children live in would make for sad expressions on their faces, but I didn’t see even a frown from any of them. The suffering and daily struggle is real for everyone who has had to flee from their homeland, but the spirit within the young ones isn’t broken. I joined some of them in a futbol match. It felt like I could have been anywhere and I forgot for just a moment that I was inside of a shelter complex. The people who work as a part of URDA are very much focused on the health and wellbeing of children who live in these shelters. “It is a priority to make sure that they are looked after and feel cared for,” Ahmed told me.

We were not able to make it back to Beirut on one of the days visiting the Bekaa Valley; I could tell that Ahmed and his co-workers were worried in the way that they were speaking Arabic to each other. He told me that the road was closed and that they were trying to figure out where we should sleep that night. I asked him, “If I wasn’t here where would you sleep?” He told me they would sleep in a shelter in one of the camps. So I said, “Let’s do that then.”

It was already dark and not that I was ever afraid of being kidnapped or assaulted but no one knew we were going to sleep there anyway. That concern wasn’t what he was worried about as I soon found out; it was the fact that the temperature had dropped to ten degrees outside and our shelter was barely insulated at all. There was a small diesel stove in the middle of the rectangular storage bin that we set up mattresses in. The process of making that tiny room warm was a whole thing. Ahmed poured the fuel into the stove to heat it, which made the room smell like gas. Then we waited for about 15 minutes for it to finally warm to a non freezing temperature inside. I was bundled with four blankets, none of which were very heavy but they did the trick. Exhausted from the day, I began to fall asleep.

At some point in the middle of the night, I woke up and realized the fuel had run out. Once again I was freezing. With only my face sticking out from under the covers, I couldn’t quite feel my nose. I whispered over to Ahmed to wake up and pour more fuel into the stove. It was hard for me to go back to sleep after that. The sound of morning prayers over the loudspeakers, babies waking up to be fed, an occasional motorcycle driving past: all gave me a soundtrack to my thoughts while I laid there in bed, far from anywhere that felt familiar to me. I thought mostly about how this is one night for me but every day for so many.

I am not a hero, but I have been fortunate enough to meet many of them. Women and men who spend significant parts of their lives dedicated to working directly with those in need all over the world, including right here in the United States. I understand how hard it is to set up an organization that does what it intends to do. And when that intention is to help those most in need, the pressure is palpable. As chance would have it, I was able to connect with another friend while in Beirut who has started an organization simply called Help Refugees.

While the name is simple, what they do is far from easy. Help Refugees has been able to raise significant amounts of funding, which they use on the ground inside camps in some of the most hectic places on the planet. The impact that they are making is real and very encouraging.

I was introduced to another young man from America who has been working on solving solutions inside camps using tech. He told me: “These people have nothing, barely enough to survive from day to day. But you know what most of them have? A smart phone.” He is working on ways for refugees to use their phone as tools to help themselves day to day further than just being able to communicate with each other. He has actually held a hack-a-thon inside of a refugee camp.

There was another Lebanese woman I was introduced to who has an organization that identifies artistic, creative people inside of the camps, mostly teenagers, and raises money to sponsor them in order to let them continue their training. It’s called The Nawaya Network. She told me about a young girl who was a gifted ballerina and showed me a video of her being able to come and train and perform in the United States. All of this was made possible by this woman’s organization.

The men and women of URDA, along with the many civilians that I met, have inspired me to write about my trip. There are serious needs that have to be met. Women and children are slipping through the cracks and those that aren’t are trying to live in unimaginable conditions. I think about many of the refugees I met while on my trip. I find myself wondering what they are up to. If they are hungry or cold. If their spirits been broken yet.

The war in Syria rages on. There is no end in sight and even if the gruesome battle in Syria ceases, those that have fled do not have an easy open invitation to come back. This is a real problem. One that we can not continue to ignore.

This story originally appeared on

Bryan Ling lives and works in Los Angeles, CA. Follow him on Twitter @blablablabling