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Choosing Life

A tangled web: housing in the Naba'a district of Bourj Hammoud, where rent is sky-high but it is also the only area that accepts Syrian refugees

A church, a school, a community hub and an aid centre serving refugees from Syria, Life Center Beirut is a relatively new partner of Church Mission Society in Lebanon. Our new mission partners Phil and Sylvie Good are preparing to go and join in their work. Here, Esther from the Life Center introduces their work and gives some detailed background to life for refugees.

Lebanon is the country in the Middle East most heavily impacted by the refugee crisis caused by the Syrian conflict. Currently with an estimated 2.2 million refugees in the country this means that 30-40% of the population in Lebanon are now refugees! This has caused a strain on the entire country and made life extremely difficult for everyone – both refugees and Lebanese.

Bourj Hammoud, a town just north of Beirut, has long been home to refugees and suffering people groups since the Armenian refugees arrived during the Ottoman massacres a century ago. Since then, it has housed refugees during the Iraq conflict, the Lebanon-Israel war and now the Syrian conflict. It is also known for housing the domestic workers that come from throughout Africa and Asia. This makes Bourj Hammoud a uniquely diverse cultural melting pot of hundreds of different people groups from all backgrounds and religions packed into a small 2.5 sq km area.

It is here that the Life Center Beirut is located. The Life Center, a Christian centre, takes a holistic approach to serving the vulnerable in the community by working with children, providing refugee relief programmes and offering spiritual support through the Life Center’s various church programmes.

Life’s harsh realities

The community bordering the Life Center, the Naba’a, is a slum neighbourhood made up deteriorating buildings in highly neglected, dirty, dangerous and often downright inhumane conditions. The rent prices are sky high, sometimes even more so than the more upscale parts of town, but it is the only place in the city that allows rentals on a monthly basis and also accepts the Syrian refugees and other “undesirables.” The average rent is more than the average refugee family takes home in a month. Often, they charge the rent monthly based on the headcount. This means that a family of 11 could be paying well over £500 for a small one room apartment without furniture where they will sleep back to back on mats on the floor.   

People often assume that the biggest need is in the refugee camps in the valley outside the city. They see the primitive conditions of tent dwellings made with plastic or fabric tarps. But the truth is that there is relatively little cost to the refugees living there. They don’t have to pay for rent for the land or for their housing. They don’t have to worry about being kicked out of their home because they don’t have rent money. And they don’t have the worry that they can’t afford food because all their money went to rent. UNICEF and many NGOs have provided them the humble basic life necessities and for many, this lifestyle isn’t too far off from what they may have experienced before in their small country villages in Syria.

Life in the city, however, is fraught with worry and desperation. Life in the Naba’a is not what most of the residents are accustomed to, they just know little of how to change the circumstances that they have been thrust into. “I wish I would have died at the hands of ISIS instead of coming here and living this tortured life,” one desperate mother shared. Her husband had abandoned her, she has no education that would enable to her to work and she has a heart condition that keeps her from doing anything too strenuous. She had no idea how she was going to keep a roof over her family’s head and the stress had been tearing her apart. This is typical of families coming to the Life Center for assistance.

Yearning for Life

People are desperate for help with basic needs but also desperate for peace. One lady sensed a peace when she would pass by the Life Center. She would secretly sit on the steps and talk to the building until she was seen by the staff one day and invited inside to discover what the peace she felt was all about. She quickly embraced Jesus and soon her whole family did as well.    

If you walk the neighbourhood streets, it doesn’t matter if you are Christian and they are not – you will find plenty of people desperate for a prayer. “I may smile on the outside but inside I am dying. I need peace,” remarked one man from another faith after he had spotted the pastor of the Life Center and requested a prayer on the streets one day.

Many children are forced to work to help support their family. They may be begging on the streets or trying to sell gum or flowers to the passing cars on the highway stuck in traffic. Exploitation and abuse of children is very common. Since many are illegal refugees, there is little recourse against the abuser. No one ever gets reported. Sometimes it is even a parent selling their children for money, as in a recent case encountered at the Life Center.

Nurturing new life

Many children have been out of school for up to five years, since the beginning of the crisis. Lebanese schools have now opened up to all children, regardless of status, so most children can be enrolled in a school for a few hours a day. However, many are at risk of failure due to the problems brought on through the general instability from war and a difficult home life.

The Spring of Life programme at the Life Center helps reach the children with homework support and provides them a safe place to spend their time when they are not in school. As the children are positively impacted and showing improvements in school and in their home life, the parents become more engaged. From there, they may start attending a woman’s meeting, Wednesday night prayer services, coffee club on Friday, lunch on Saturday, or one of a handful of Alpha course-style meetings tailored specifically to discuss Jesus from the perspective of their religious background.

The diversity at the Life Center is apparent on a typical Sunday church service where people from all nationalities from all over the Middle East gather to worship. Most are Syrian refugees and most that attend were once members of another faith. This is most evident by the women’s dress, which reflects the various backgrounds and religious groups from which they came.

The cost of living

If you were to peel back the layers of each attendee’s story, you would hear many remarkable and even unbelievable things. You may find a former religious extremist greeting another who used to be from an opposing political or religious group. You may find one who had been tortured sitting alongside one who served on the side of the torturers. Most would have stories of miracles, visions of Jesus and supernatural healings, provision that brought them to faith in Jesus.

The needs at the Center are great. Each new family that comes is often in desperate need of even a little food or bread for hungry tummies. The babies frequently don’t have nappies or are wearing plastic bags taped to them as nappies. There are medical emergencies and needs and sometimes the desperate news that a family will be out on the street, sleeping under the bridge unless there is intervention. As the Syrian conflict enters its seventh year, donor support has waned and left the Life Center struggling to meet sometimes even the basic needs.

Choosing Life

The cost of following Jesus is high, sometimes too high for many who leave their newfound faith to save themselves. Death threats and being ostracized from community quickly ensues after a conversion. One family tells of being exposed as “apostates” by the mosque through the loudspeakers wired over town.  Though they may be here in Lebanon now, many will still be targeted by threats from family and extremist groups in Syria.

To choose Jesus will cost literally everything they have left in this world and ensure no option of returning to Syria. This is hard for those not legally in Lebanon to begin with. They are left in a quandary. Where to go and what to do? Following Jesus will literally cost them everything. But the ones here will tell how it is worth it for the peace and love that they have found.  

The instability of life means people are uncertain where they may end up – even tomorrow. So the Life Center heavily focuses on discipleship to ensure that new believers have the faith and knowledge to stand on their own and make a difference in the lives of their families and communities. Discipleship comes through study groups similar to Alpha courses and the Life Leadership Institute that brings a guest teacher each month to help the students learn more about their faith.

The harvest is ripe but the workers are few. With the great needs in the area, there is always a need for more finances, resources and most of all believers who can aid, serve and help raise up disciples in the community. Please keep the Life Center and its staff in your prayers and consider how you may be a part of their work.

The Call in Action: Support

Get behind Phil and Sylvie Good as they go to work at the Life Center