Bishop Kicanas: “One could not remain unmoved by the sights we saw, the stories we heard, and the pain we encountered.” Below, he shares his impressions on the last day of his Lebanon trip—from a visit to an underground parking garage where detainees are held to a tent settlement where Syrian refugees are trying to survive.
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By Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas
The final day of our visit was a trip to the field, witnessing first hand the work of CRS and Caritas Lebanon.
Our visit to the Bekaa valley, a lush and beautiful place, was filled with tragic images of people traumatized by war. The delegation visited three sites where Syrian refugee families, assisted by Caritas with CRS support, are trying to survive.
The first was a tent settlement called Faour. Most of the refugees are from Homs, Syria. They fled after their homes were destroyed. They have received food and relief items from Caritas, as well as offers of school fees and supplies for the children; and Caritas social workers visit them regularly. Caritas also had to intervene with local authorities early on to keep them from being expelled from the area, after police destroyed some of their tents in an attempt to move them out. We met one elderly women who saw her three sons killed. She was traumatized. In their camp there are many children and few men, since a number were killed in the fighting and others stayed behind in Syria. One family of 20, including three widows, was supported by only the daily construction labor income of one 19-year old brother. As with many of these refugees, he entered Lebanon illegally to avoid the risk of arrest at Syrian border checkpoints, but because of this he has now been detained and ordered to leave the country by Lebanese authorities. He showed us a wound he had sustained in the fighting and explained that he could not risk return. The only other man in this family is a 71-year-old who lost his home and is very sick. I shook hands, we embraced and laughed together, being that we were both born in 1941. How different our circumstances now from one another.
In another family tent we met a 23-year-old man and his 17-year-old wife. She was pregnant when they crossed the mountain to get into Lebanon; their baby is now four months old. One can only imagine what kind of future that little baby will have. At least her parents are both alive. The man has four brothers and parents back in Syria. He has not heard from them since leaving Syria and wonders what has happened to them.
Our second visit was to a family made up of 27 people who had been given space behind a Lebanese family’s house to build a lean-to. They arrived from Qusayr, Syria, 21 days ago, just before exit from that besieged city became impossible. The only man among them has one arm in a cast and sling due to shrapnel from a rocket that he suffered while fleeing the town. Six women, most of whom lost their husbands, and twenty young children live in the one room consisting of a frame of scrap wood covered in plastic. The group carried their elderly, diabetic mother—in a stretcher made of sheets— over the mountain that forms the border. But now she is lying helpless in a corner of the tent covered by a net to keep the flies away. Despite the tragic circumstances of their flight, the children were laughing and trying to make the best of their worrisome situation. Fortunately Caritas has a network of social workers and refugee volunteers that seeks out such new arrivals and registers them for assistance, albeit limited.
The final visit was to an abandoned building where twenty families live huddled in very confined spaces. They are kind of squatters who pay no rent considering there are no facilities, just the shell of a building.
The refugees in this facility came from Damascus. They spoke of terrifying experiences, hearing bombing through the night, seeing their homes destroyed or seriously damaged. Some spoke of loved ones killed.
These were among the poor in Syria and are now destitute. Many of the children in these camps are not going to school. We met young people in their teens who are illiterate. They have not gone to school because they have needed to help their families by working. Now while access to Lebanese school is open, and Caritas can provide some material support, many can’t afford transportation to the schools, nor the missed opportunity to do informal farm or construction work.
I felt so helpless at the end of the day, wondering what could help bring some comfort to these suffering people. The families we saw are but a small number of the thousands of families that have fled across borders neighboring Syria or have been displaced within Syria. There is a massive need for help immediately. While Caritas, with CRS’ support, is providing these people with limited food, relief items, medical care and education support, it is critical that these efforts be expanded to meet the overwhelming and quickly expanding needs. There is a need for shelter, clothes, food, medicine and personal and spiritual support for people who have lost everything, especially the loss of some in their families.
Looking into the faces of the children tugs at the heart. Their smiles and playfulness hide the dire future that awaits them if this situation cannot be resolved.
Earlier in the day, we visited a Detention Center in the heart of Beirut. We encountered unimaginable suffering, human degradation, and situations that cry out for a humanitarian response. One could not remain unmoved by the sights we saw, the stories we heard, and the pain we encountered.
Caritas Lebanon began working at the Migrant Detention Center in 2000. It is the only humanitarian agency allowed to function in the country’s detention facility. Caritas’ office is right in the center of his dreadful underground center that was designed as a parking garage. The Caritas staff consists of social workers, nurses, and volunteers who provide the only resources available in the center. Their main work is to protect women and vulnerable people. They have convinced the authorities to find alternative custody for pregnant women and underage detainees, as well as to be attentive to victims of human trafficking.
The Center currently holds upwards of 650 people, well over capacity. Some of the migrant workers have been cast off by, or have escaped, their employers who often treat them as indentured servants. Others have been detained for lack of proper visas. Many more than half are women. All are handcuffed upon entering even though the vast majority have committed no crime. They come from countries in Asia like Bangladesh, Nepal and the Philippines, or countries in Africa like Ethiopia and Cameroon. Some are Syrians.
Caritas staff are the only women staff in the center. All the government security personnel are men. Caritas has provided some human rights and dignity training for about 100 of the officers assisting them to know how to treat and interact with detainees. Caritas staff also provides translators for detainees who do not speak Arabic.
The average stay is about six weeks but some stay as long as six months or even longer. The conditions are horrendous. Women are grouped by country of origin but men are grouped alphabetically for fear of problems if they are housed together by country. The detainees are kept in cage-like cells, 40 to a cell, with barely enough room for each to lay down. Caritas has improved the sanitary facilities but they remain inadequate.
Caritas has improved the ventilation system in the underground center, where the air was putrid. Caritas has improved the quality of the food that is served. The Daughters of Charity, who have a facility nearby, now provide one hot meal a day. Prior to that, only cold food was served.
As you pass through and see detainees standing numb or looking anxious in confined and overcrowded cells, I felt I was viewing something from another century. While I have seen a number of detention facilities in Arizona for migrants in the U.S. without documents, this facility was inhumane, a tragedy. Thank God for the presence of Caritas through the support of CRS.
Previouis Blogs by Bishop Kicanas on his Lebanon Journey: