This is a photo of my brother Matt (second from the right) in 2000. It’s not the clearest of photos, because as he attests, he was travelling before the world was digital! He’s with his girlfriend Alison and two friends in Palmyra, Syria.
It’s been over a decade since this photo was taken and things couldn’t be more different. In those 13 years, my brother has married Alison and had three adorable kids … and Syria seems to have changed beyond recognition.
Today I’m in Lebanon, which borders Syria to the north and east. It’s a small country with a population of similar size to Melbourne. World Vision has worked in Lebanon since 1975, but the Syrian Refugee Crisis means our work has increased significantly. I’m here helping with report-backs of our work for supporters, coordinating media visits and communicating the needs that our staff find in the communities and settlements where they work.
My brother took the traditional Aussie gap year a bit further than most, backpacking, renting and working his way around the world until he was 30. To him, Syria was special. It received far fewer tourists than neighbouring Turkey and a group of young Australian travellers through the country was still a novelty.
Matt remembers a popular falafel shop in Aleppo with a line out the door, where the customers refused to let him pay, or even wait in line behind them. Instead they ushered him into the shop and, with basic Arabic, hand gestures and laughter, helped him build the perfect kebab. Matt was treated with the same hospitality all over Syria and found it the most welcoming country that he travelled to in the Middle East.
But that welcoming country has now disappeared, and not just for travellers. Over 1.4 million refugees have fled Syria over the last two years.
On Wednesday, I visited a small settlement of tents in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley where I met one family who had arrived from Syria just 15 days ago.
Two of the family’s four children bore scars from the violence in Syria. The little girl, Usra had a raw looking scar on her forehead. Her brother Khaled had burns covering most of his leg below the knee. The children’s mother, Ramiah, said that the family feels safe now that they are in Lebanon but Usra still wakes up at night screaming.
“Fleeing conflict”, a term that I have written over and over again, is so abstract, but talking to Ramiah I suddenly realised how real, concrete and terrifying it was for them. Ramiah’s apartment block was hit, and she and her family escaped through a hole in one of the walls. When we asked what she had brought with her, Ramiah pointed to the clothes she was wearing.
World Vision is working with this settlement to provide families access to clean water and toilets. It’s the most basic of basics and Ramiah is thankful for it. “This is what we need,” she told us, holding up an empty water container.
I couldn’t help feeling that it wasn’t enough, I wanted them to have their homes and lives back. Ramiah’s story is far from unique – when those gathered around us saw my shock at the children’s injuries, they began to share with me their own scars from flying bullets and shrapnel. The families I met didn’t have a choice, the country they used to call home isn’t safe anymore. Ramiah, her husband and four children crossed the Syrian-Lebanese border seeking safety for their children, with no guarantees about what their new life would be like.
Living in Lebanon, where hospitality is a strong part of the culture, I wonder what has happened to the Syrians who were so welcoming to my brother. If they are some of the 1.4 million refugees who have left their homes and their rapidly changing country, I hope their kindness and generosity is being repaid.
Learn more about World Vision’s response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis.