The poverty trap: Beirut

Jesus came to set the captives free and the poverty trap is one sort of captivity, writes mission partner Phil Good in Lebanon. Consider just one family. We know them quite well. We shall call the mother Marta though that is not her real name. It is hard to imagine what it feels like to be Marta, yet there are parts of her story we can all recognise. Read this and consider how Jesus comes to her and brings hope and a glimpse of freedom.

Marta lives under the stairs with her family. We have visited her many times and she comes to a bible study in the church; she is somewhere close on her journey to see Jesus.

Makeshift bathroom
Marta’s bathroom

Yes, where she lives is a disgrace: it houses a water tank and was designed as a service cupboard for the building. There is a cramped toilet by the door which has water running across the floor. The one room is about 8ft by 8ft and there are some shelves in the corridor which have been made into a kitchen. There is a built-in cupboard in the room and a window with no glass and a rickety shutter.

There is some electricity with bare wires to operate the light. They cannot afford to pay for an extra electric supply when the daily power cuts come. Often there is no electricity at all until we help out by paying the bill.

The place is dark and not decorated for decades with brown and black streaks over the walls and at night the rats visit. It is truly awful and yet they stay there and try to pay $250 a month in rent.

We have not understood why they stay there – it gets very complicated, the rent is in arrears and the landlord should throw them out, yet he doesn’t as probably no one else would take it.

Interior, broken plaster, exposed cement, holes in wall

Why stay here? It’s complicated…

They have lived there for three years, they know how it works and they know that the landlord has not thrown them out. We offer to help them find a new place, but they find excuses. I think they are afraid that if they found a better place and then fail to pay the rent – which they will – the new landlord will not let them stay and then they would be homeless.

The husband sometimes finds work, but it never lasts more than a couple of days. It is illegal for Syrian refugees to work, especially if they can’t keep their papers up to date. Finding work is hard and often the employers don’t pay, as they know that they cannot be held accountable, and the work itself is bad.

Marta is on the journey to faith in Christ but her husband keeps away. He has not warmed to the message we bring. How can Marta grow her faith? She cannot read and has nowhere to be alone. It is hard to pray with the kids and husband always present. Growing in faith is therefore very slow and the church is a vital lifeline for her, thankfully her husband does not object.

View through to a dark kitchen with makeshift shelves

At work in Marta’s kitchen

We don’t know how they come to be here except they left the Syria because of the war, but we sit with them and see a family trapped in poverty and see the incessant need in their eyes and hear in their words. And particularly in the father a deep anger which eats him up and destroys his hope.

I long to help them find hope. I recognise their feelings of despair and pray that they find some way of escape from this seeming prison, yet I cannot imagine how.

It may be that with the end of the war they could be repatriated, and I think this would be better than where they are now. Yet the risks for those who return are quite high; men of Marta’s husband’s age are arrested for deserting as they were of an age to join the army. They have no appetite for taking more risks: they gambled everything coming here and have lost.

I am aware that for many people including Marta and her family we cannot change the situation directly. But we can testify that when we have been tempted to give up and have found despair an unwelcome guest in our own hearts, we have discovered that Jesus has also been there for us.

And Jesus can bring hope and a future just by his presence, even when nothing else changes, his presence is all we need.

I pray that his presence will come into that small dark and damp room 8ft by 8ft under the stairs. Will you pray with me?

See more of Phil’s reflections from Beirut on his blog.

Published 1 April 2019
Europe, Middle East and North Africa

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