In June, I visited Lebanon to see the work of Caritas with Syrian refugees. We went up to the Bekaa Valley, which runs along the border with Syria. It’s a wide, green valley, dotted with towns and farms. It’s a beautiful place, even now.
I’d been to Bekaa before, in the Spring of 2012. Speaking to the refugees then, I was struck by how awful the experiences they had gone through were. They spoke of surviving under heavy bombardments, of trying to treat people torn apart by shrapnel in makeshift clinics, of trying to avoid the sniper fire, of no water or food and of terrible killings.
It was one of the worst humanitarian crises I’d seen. At the time though, there were several thousand refugees in Bekaa. They were mostly living in rented rooms or with friends. Today, there are over a quarter of a million, spilling out of ramshackle tents or living precariously in half built buildings.
The suffering I’d seen a year ago had been multiplied nearly ten times as much. As the war in Syria has escalated over the last 12 months, the number of refugees in the region has shot up from 230,000 to 2 million. By the end of the year, if we do nothing, that figure is likely to be 3.5 million.
It’s easy to get lost in the numbers. They only go so far in explaining the suffering of each and every one of those refugees and of countless more people stuck behind in Syria.
One story that’s stayed with me is that of a young girl called Gharam and her brother Nafeh. I met them on my last trip to the Bekaa. They were living in a makeshift settlement of tents called Qab Elias.
Gharam was 11 and her brother Nafeh was 10 years old. We sat together in their tent with their cousin and a Caritas Lebanon staff member. They wanted to speak about their experiences.
The children had fled Syria just a few days before when a bomb hit their home in Hassakeh in the north-east of Syria. The father managed to rescue Gharam and Nafeh, but their mother and three siblings were killed in the attack.
After three days walking on the road and a day on a bus, they reached the safety of Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. They arrived only with the clothes they were wearing. Their father has returned to look after their farm in Syria.
“We had a lovely life,” said Gharam. “I went to school. I had friends. I was happy.” The schools closed when the conflict began. Food became scarce and they had to live on bread and water.
“The most frightening thing was the bombing,” she said. Now her school has been destroyed, she has seen the homes of her friends flattened and her family devastated.
“It’s very difficult for us,” she said. “I can’t live without my mum. I need her. My brother is too upset to sleep after all he has seen. I try to comfort him. I tell him not to be afraid. I tell him that I’ll look after him.”
If Gharam could have anything, she says she’d wish for a change of clothes, a telephone so she can call her father to find out how he is and that she could return to her former life. For Nafeh, he wishes for a toy car, a pet bird and “to live in peace”.
It’s so no more children have to go through what Gharam and Nafeh have witnessed that I’ll be following Pope Francis in praying and fasting on Saturday for peace in Syria.
Patrick Nicholson is communication director for Caritas Internationalis