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A People in Hiding: Iraqi Refugees in Lebanon

You’d think that a woman with a loving husband, newborn baby and a master’s degree in physics would be set for life — or at least not hiding out in a dank basement room bare of anything but two thin mattresses on the floor.

A few years ago, Rana [name changed] had a successful career in Iraq. Today, she fears for her life. One of an estimated 50,000 Iraqi refugees in Lebanon, Rana does not leave the tiny apartment in Beirut where she, her husband and her 10-week-old daughter wait out the time until another country accepts them as immigrants.

Iraqi Refugees

A young Iraqi refugee in Lebanon holds her baby daughter, whose name in Arabic means “Flower.” A Muslim, the mother ordinarily veils only her hair. Here, she has veiled her face for fear of being identified and deported. Photo by CRS Staff

A softspoken 30-year-old new mother, Rana explains that her father was murdered for his political beliefs. As his daughter, she herself was later threatened directly. She fled to Beirut to join her husband, who was in Lebanon already.

Lebanon proved not to be the asylum she hoped for. Having moved into one apartment, Rana heard rumors that her father’s enemies knew her whereabouts. She and her small family moved to another apartment, which the talented and well-educated Rana does not leave. “I am afraid all the time,” she says.

Stories like Rana’s are painfully familiar to the staff of the Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center, one of the few charities in Beirut reaching out to those fleeing Iraq’s violence and chaos. Funded by Catholic Relief Services and other donors, the migrant center helps the refugees with rent payments, medicine and household needs like mattresses.

The vast majority of Iraqi immigrants live illegally in Lebanon, unable to receive work permits or access public schools and health services. Many put their names on a long U.N. waiting list, hoping against hope that countries like Canada will take them in. Forbidden to work and afraid to go out often for fear of arrest, they sit in near-empty apartments and watch the months drag by.

This week, a group of U.S. nuns are visiting programs for Iraqi refugees in Lebanon. Hosted by CRS, the sisters have made home visits, seen shelters and met with women religious working in and around Beirut.

They are sharply aware of Lebanon’s limitations in dealing with the flood of refugees. Just a few days ago, a car bomb meant for a U.S. embassy vehicle killed several people on the streets of Beirut (everyone in the CRS delegation is safe). Lebanon has been in political turmoil for the past year and without a president since the end of November 2007, the country’s government has more problems than it can handle.

Private groups like the Caritas center are trying to bridge the gap, with case workers putting in long hours and struggling to find more resources. “There are just so many” Iraqis needing help, says one social worker.

“They are not refugees,” says a Lebanon-based Sister of the Good Shepherd that the delegation visited. “They are our brothers and sisters, because the world belongs to all of us.”

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2 Responses to “A People in Hiding: Iraqi Refugees in Lebanon”

  1. johanna rivera Says:

    My prayers and my heart are with all the refugees in Lebanon and in other parts of the middle east. God protect you and your family. This situation is so painful and make me reflect on how much suffering of innocent people is going on. We need to get together on massive prayer for all these people in need. I would like to offer any help or voluteering that is needed. I am not afraid, I just want to help my brothers and sisters in need.

  2. erika Says:

    I hope that my message of support can reach some of the Iraqi families in hiding in Lebanon, in particular to the families helping to hide them.
    I have been living in a very similar situation for more than a year now. I go online every night searching for stories of others who have put everything on the line to protect those in danger. It is what helps keep me going and strengthens my determination to not give in to the stress and the unrelenting exhaustion.
    I have found reading the stories of The Righteous Among the Nations on the Yad Vashem web-site (yadvashem.org) has been incredibly helpful and inspiring. Also I would recommend reading “The Drum Major Instinct” by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was a sermon that he gave in Atlanta two months before he was killed. If you’d like to hear a portion of it in his own words, it is the opening introduction to the King Center web-site (thekingcenter.org)
    Something that I found very helpful tonight was listening to an interview with Joseph Campbell about his book The Power of Myth regarding the hero’s journey (http://mythsdremssymbols.com/herojourney.html) Even if you do not consider yourself to be a hero – just doing what any compassionate person would do, it’s worth listening to if you can.
    My heart goes out to you all and will be hoping the best for you. I have learned so much about survival this past year. I wish I could share what I have learned with you, but it would fill a book. What I have found to be the most critical survival skills are: limiting negative thoughts, having perspective, and gratitude for even the smallest things – none of which can be easily accomplished when severely sleep deprived.
    A mantra of “this too shall pass” is also extremely helpful. If you haven’t already, I do not doubt that you will in time learn what “living in the moment” is really all about. You will very likely have moments of peace from time to time – learn to recognize them and savor them no matter how fleeting they may be.
    The book “The Gift of Fear” by Gavin de Becker about learning to trust your gut instincts is also very helpful. Actually, paying attention to your intuition is very critical. I use to be an open book and trusted most people. But in this situation where I am extremely vulnerable to the opinions and fear of others (neighbors, family, friends), I have learned to be very careful. Just because some people might claim they can be of assistance, be careful and follow your gut instinct. It is easy for feelings of desperation to cloud your judgement.
    It has been hard, but I have found it necessary to be able to project calm, balanced energy (as if all is well) to most everyone (despite feeling like I am slowly dying of weariness and fatigue). . People say they admire self-sacrifice for a worthy cause. But I have come to believe IF it is their close friend or family member, it will be criticized, stemming possibly from their own fear for you or for possibly feeling obliged to help.
    But please don’t despair. I understand your plight and appreciate what you are doing to serve the loving energy of the universe. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Things can change for the better. Don’t give up. NEVER GIVE UP!!!

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