by Chaden Hani
The topic of Syrian refugees in Lebanon has been exhausted, and the issue of their return to Syria has been discussed at length behind closed doors and within international circles. In the past few years, Lebanese authorities have pushed towards their return as a part of domestic policy, and at times, sharp rhetoric has been pointed towards the international community – accusing it of conspiring to permanently settle displaced Syrians in Lebanon. Increased anti-refugee sentiments and statements have become a daily facet of life in Lebanon. During the recent popular uprising, two rival protests were held near the EU delegation’s headquarters in Beirut. One was voicing frustration about the economic burden imposed by refugees contributing to Lebanese economic deterioration, while a counter-protest raised slogans rejecting discrimination and racism saying, “Refugees are not our enemies.”
The Syrian displacement issue has taken many political and socio-economic dimensions in Lebanon. The economic burdens caused by the estimated influx of a million and a half individuals have affected access to jobs and resources. The internal political divide about the Syrian refugee question reveals elements of differing foreign policy positions regarding Syria. One political position advanced by Sunni Muslim Prime Minister Hariri – still questioning the legitimacy of President Bashar Al Assad and refusing to enter into direct negotiations with the Syrian regime – reiterates Lebanon’s commitment to upholding international law and humanitarian principles. Another position is put forward by Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, a Maronite Christian who dreads upsetting the highly delicate sectarian balance between Muslims and Christian sects in the country. Bassil consents to normalized ties with the Syrian government and supports the immediate “voluntary” return of refugees by promoting local campaigns to hasten deportation under localized agreements not overseen by UNHCR, despite the latter’s call that safety is not yet totally achieved.
The Lebanese are conflicted in their position towards refugees. Recent public frustration about rampant corruption, clientelism and political sectarianism has caused an outburst against the weakest social groups and threatened the lives and futures of Syrians residing in Lebanon. Syrian refugees are largely living under hard conditions that threaten exploitation and restrict access to work, education and healthcare services. Seventy-four percent of Syrians in Lebanon now lack legal residency and risk detention for unlawful presence in the country. They prefer to stay in Lebanon rather than face the consequences of returning home where stories of random arrests, violence, and even killings have been reported.
The recent uprising in Lebanon has been about citizens demanding a life of dignity. Is it fair to demand dignity for ourselves and deny it for others? Are we as Lebanese giving in to hostile feelings towards displaced Syrians due to socio-economic reasons, conflicting cultures or residual feelings of war memories?
This reflection addresses our own ambivalent attitude towards the issue of the return of Syrian refugees. The Lebanese find themselves torn between feelings and convictions: the stay of Syrian refugees is inflicting hardship on our country, yet on the other hand, it is recognized that God Has entrusted the church in Lebanon to treat refugees with dignity and compassion.
It is only human to feel the need to alienate ourselves from what we believe to be a threat to our welfare and future. Fear can easily overcome our emotions, throw us into despair and lead us to push others, even those in great need, away. But Jesus rejects this way of living. Theologian Miroslov Volf describes the open arms of Jesus on the cross as a movement out of oneself and an unconditional invitation for the other; on the cross, Christ suffers humanity’s violence in order to embrace it. If we are to accept God’s calling, we should denounce our short-sighted fears and put the humanitarian rights of displaced Syrians over our own conveniences. Volf says the movement of the self to the other and back has no end. Without such complementary and continual dynamics, we are unable to re-adjust and grow in our knowledge of God.
The self-giving love manifested on the cross is at the core of the Christian faith, and it demands that we live our lives in a radical way. The local church in Lebanon has responded with compassion to the displaced Syrians since the beginning of the crisis in 2011. Kindness was shown through charitable services providing healthcare, education and food assistance, and this ministry of compassion has transformed the church into a demonstration of the values of God’s Kingdom. Unfortunately, humanitarian concern is not found among all; there are still many Lebanese who are hateful to refugees, and we see this feeling expressed publicly. Doing good is essential to a life of faith, but this world needs to hear truth spoken. Is the church present enough in the public dialogue tents now found all over Lebanon, talking about Kingdom values and ethics that should be practiced towards refugees? Whatever the political outcome might be, our position should not be driven by fear but should be motivated by love.
 Miroslov Volf, Exclusion and embrace (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 35.