How can you say no?

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‘How can you say no?’

After nearly five years of war in Syria, Lebanon (a very small country next to Syria) has more refugees than anywhere else in the world. The government in Lebanon does not want this to continue as they don’t have enough resources. But some Palestinians who live there are helping: Christians helping Muslims. Reem Haddad reports.


A Syrian girl behind a door in a simple house in Ketermaya, south of Beirut. The village has a population of only 15,000, and has 5,000 refugees. This is the same number of refugees Britain has taken in the last four years. © Ali Hashisho/Reuters

Something strange and new is happening 12 kilometres north of Beirut. Women in veils with children are walking around the little Christian town. The radio plays parts of the Qu’ran sometimes. This is strange for the Christian residents. They usually only hear their Sunday church bells.

Women in veils are not new for Lebanon. There are more Muslims in Lebanon than Christians. But they usually live in separate areas.

And so it was a shock at first for the Christians in the little Dbayeh camp to have Syrian refugees, many Muslim. At first there were some arguments. But after the shock, they started to welcome the refugees. The 500 residents of Dbayeh understand the refugees because they and their families have not had homes for more than fifty years.

In 1948 they had to leave their homes after the creation of Israel. Catholics from around Galilee (N. Palestine) were called refugees. The Lebanese government did not give them many rights. Even today, a Palestinian cannot be the owner of a house and cannot work in more than 70 skilled jobs. They are not welcome and many people hate them. Dbayeh camp is poor.

Then 50 refugee families arrived in the camp. Palestinians could understand the Syrians. But they were not happy because the new families took local unskilled jobs for less money.

‘Syrians are taking our jobs,’ said Elias Habib, a Palestinian refugee who lives in the camp and manages the JCC (Joint Christian Center - a small NGO for Palestinian refugees in Dbayeh). ‘And this camp cannot possibly take in any more people. But how can you say no? They need us.’

Soon, clothes and food started to come for the Syrians. But there was a big problem: no education. Syrian children could only get places in the local schools if there was space after all the Lebanese students registered. So many refugees had no schools.

There were many Syrian children in the camp with nothing to do. So the JCC made their small building into a school house with five rooms.

‘They are helping us so much,’ said Fatima Ballout. She came here with her children from Idlib in northern Syria. ‘There is no place for my children in the Lebanese public school this year and we don’t have the money to send them to a private school.’

The new government rules make it very difficult for Ballout. She has to pay every year for new residency permits. This can cost $1,000 for a family.

Her story is the same as many other Syrian women. Her husband was working as an unskilled labourer in Lebanon before the war. Ballout and their children joined him when the fighting started in their town two years ago. She now lives in a three-bedroom flat with three other Syrian families.

But every morning, Ballout’s children go to the JCC school. There are 91 children at the school, and four teachers – three Syrian and one Palestinian. Parents pay $6 per month and all materials are free.

‘We teach the Syrian school system. We hope they can one day go back to continue their education in Syria,’ said Habib. ‘We don’t have books, so we use photocopies.’

In the afternoon, the classroom becomes a community centre for the camp’s children. They have singing, stories, dancing and, in summer, camps and trips.

‘The Palestinians have been wonderful,’ said Rania Merjeh. Her house in Aleppo was completely destroyed. She came with 30 other women to the JCC centre for a meeting with Habib about their children’s progress.

‘They are helping us a lot,’ she said. ‘But we want to go back to our homes in Syria. I want to build my house again. I don’t want to move to a strange land. I just want to go home.’

‘Rania,’ said Habib slowly, ‘we have been waiting for 67 years now. But don’t lose hope. When your war is over, you will still have a country. But our whole country was taken away and nobody really wants us.’

The Palestinian and Syrian refugees looked at each other, thinking, for a few moments. There was nothing more to say.

Then all the children came in for afternoon activities. ‘Bless you,’ said Merjeh.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).