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A little over two months ago, I wrote about a fire that destroyed a Syrian Refugee Settlement in Qab Elias, Lebanon.  As I interviewed more people and heard accusations of foul play involving the government/terror groups and the failure of NGOs to properly train residents in fire safety, I did not feel safe nor comfortable publishing critical points of view while still in the country.  This is the long overdue story from the perspectives of those who were there.


Perspective 1: Women in the Settlement Yearn for Home

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Shaikha al-Abid sits in front of two friends from Raqqa Syria who migrated to Qab Elias, Lebanon five years ago and now endure what they describe as even worse hardships.  The dozen other women gathered around for the interview did not wish to be photographed.

Shaikha al-Abid sat with a large group of women by the emergency tents and candidly spoke of the impact the fire has had on the community now dependent on aid.  As the elder of the group, she provided the narration while others leaned in to add a level of solidarity and occasionally offered additional explanations or elaboration.

Most of the group started their exodus from the ISIS declared capital of Raqqa, Syria five years ago.  Around 50 families who all knew each other spent the next year leaving at different times that suited them to escape the rapid escalation of danger.

How the entire community ended up where they did in Lebanon was mostly due to chance.  Hopping on a bus with a plan that didn’t extend beyond “get out of Syria,” the first group to cross the border was brought by their driver to a piece of land he told them had a shawish who was “nice and good.”  After the first group arrived, everyone else flocked to the same place, finding a familiar comfort in the surroundings of loved ones.

The close knit families got even closer as their kids grew up and married each other while in the settlements. Just as soon as Shaikha spoke of it feeling like there was a wedding every day, she broke into the pain of losing that little piece of beauty in her life.  The fire, she says, brought unexplainable suffering.

The normalcy of life the community fought so hard to recoup after fleeing their homeland was lost once again in the explosions of gas canisters and billowing smoke clouds.   Once they heard the first tank rapture, there was a huge commotion of people rounding up propane tanks, children and heading to the area of refuge: the nearby road, as flames engulfed everything.

NGOs have stepped in to fill the items of immediate need: food, water, shelter, bedding, but for most other items they are on their own.  Shaikha half-jokingly asked me if I knew anyone that could provide her with a refrigerator.  For now, it wouldn’t even be able to run as the settlement does not have permanent electricity and the large generator burst at the seams helping to fuel the spread of the fire with an explosive spray of burning diesel fuel.

The number one concern the entire group voiced was that they are not receiving any direct financial benefits such as the much coveted cash cards that UNHCR distributes to some camps for people who meet “certain qualifications.”  There is no money for people to pay for essentials like medicine and hospital visits.  They still have to pay the landlord of the burnt down settlement who allows them a small patch of untillable land on his farm. He also makes out on the deal, as my translator told me by hiring/pressuring female residents into a full day of work on the farm for the equivalent of $10, half of which gets skimmed off the top by the Shawish.  (Note: This middle-man pocket stuffing was corroborated by two other sources who testified they saw this reserve of cash go up in flames in the Shawish’s housing unit as they rushed around to try to save people).

In a close second on a serious list of concerns was the destruction of everyone’s Syrian IDs.  This identification is vital for navigating the hurdles of displacement, however, the IDs can only be issued in Syria and the borders are closed so people cannot return back home to get new IDs or even to visit family.  This is a two way closure as new family members are also officially prohibited from coming to Lebanon from Syria.

Shaikha and the women all around her unanimously agreed that they want to return to Raqqa.  I thought my interpreter had gotten something wrong here, certainly not believing such a large group of people could want to return to the ISIS stronghold that while American led coalition forces had declared liberated this very week was still in a dangerous state.  In clarification, Shaikha assured me they all felt Lebanon was too dangerous and they aren’t treated well here.


Perspective 2: Leader of the Settlement Tries to Save a Life

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Moustafa Mahmoud stands with bandaged legs in front of the burnt wheat field adjacent to the destroyed settlement as he recalls the horrifying scene the day of the fire.

Moustafa Mahmoud is the second in command in the camp, a veritable number two to the Shawish.  He rushed out of his tent in late morning after hearing screams of “Fire! Fire!” and saw flames enveloping the tent next to his where the fire was first reported as having been started.  He immediately snapped into the training he said he received from Save the Children and ran to the closest fire extinguisher which the UNHCR mandates must be maintained in a ratio of 1 extinguisher for every 4 dwellings (according to an official presentation given to volunteers by an organization representative).

The fire extinguisher he remembers were delivered only eight months prior, did not work.  After pulling the pin and aiming at the fire, a single small puff of a white cloud came out when the handle was squeezed, but nothing thereafter.  Moustafa says he was the only person who received the training on how to use the extinguisher so he knew it was his duty to put out the fire. Running between 28 homes, he tried a total of 7 extinguishers before he knew they must have all been dead.  Meanwhile, the fire raged on.

Moustafa started to head toward a water tank in the settlement, but knew that would be worthless as the chaos was too much to make a coordinated extinguishing effort and the fire was now too strong to throw buckets of water on.  The propane tank explosions caused a panic of fleeing and Moustafa noticed a baby left behind in a tent.  Separated by flames, he saw the fire spread to the infant as he tried to fight his way through to rescue him.  Moustafa pushed through as far as he could before the flames burned up his own legs while he watched a life get swallowed up in fire.

Moustafa knew there was nothing left he could do to save this area of the camp, but he set his sights to moving quickly to the area on the opposite side where the fire had not yet spread so he could help rescue the elderly.  In moving, he noticed a car on fire he was scared would explode like the propane tanks all around him.  He punched out the back window of the small white sedan and pushed it away from the most intense heat before he ran towards the burning wheat field to successfully aid the elders of the settlement in their egress.

As he recounted the experience, he paused to say he didn’t care about any material possessions lost by the fire, but the vision of the child burning was stuck in his mind.  He has opted to not seek psychological support, citing lack of time, saying he is second in charge in the settlement and has to liaise with all the NGO’s because he has the records of families in the settlement. The huge stigma of mental health is also playing a part with the pervasive opinion that he does not in fact need any professional help in coping with this trauma.  What Moustafa does want, is to return back to Raqqa so he can continue his studies in agricultural engineering.

No one on site with Save the Children would discuss the fire extinguishers with me and residents told me all extinguishers were quickly taken off site before they could be examined.


Perspective 3: The Bystander Takes Action

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Ahmad Alsari stands in front of his mother’s snack stand where he recounted the action he took when he saw smoke rising from the refugee settlement nearby.

While the settlement was fleeing, many from the surrounding community sprang to action.  The phone lines were immediately lit up with people calling the fire service for help even though multiple sources say it took first responders over an hour to respond (the fire burned for about two hours according to the same sources).

Ahmad Alsari, whose mother owns a snack store around the corner that he works at, was the first to see the black smoke before it became billowing clouds.  He ran to the settlement to pull kids out of their tents and stayed on site for the next four hours helping dig through ash.  The whole time he said he was crying and screaming “Allahu Akbar,” which translates to “God is great” and is often called and repeated in times of distress modeling after the prophet Muhammad who spoke the words after a funeral.

Ahmad observed a circle of structures burning which had trapped from his estimation 200 people in a literal ring of fire.  The man who owns the gas station next to Ahmad’s mothers shop drove his car through a point to create an opening so people could escape.  The exploding propane cylinders are what he said kept more people from running in to help.  As he continued in post fire salvage work, Ahmad found the sole casualty, the baby, lying lifeless on the ground of what used to be a structure, with hands badly burnt.


Fact Finding Perspectives: Accusations of Foul Play

The Shawish, whose brother lost his child in the fire, was skeptical of the preliminary stated causes of this being a cooking fire or generator malfunction.  He was positive that no one was cooking in his brother’s tent located next to his own tent at the time the fire started and this is the place they were told was the origin of the fire.  There was no electricity active at the time and the generator was turned off.  All he knows is that his wife saw their mattress was on fire and when she pulled it outside, she saw fire dripping down from the roof.  Some used this image as evidence for casting blame on a deliberate man-made fire, leaning towards Hezbollah taking action on anti-immigration and anti-refugee sentiments.

Many people I spoke with pointed fingers at other possible sources.  The most damning accusations were hurled at the government as initiating this fire.  Residents explained that in the long years of this crisis, donor fatigue had hit the country hard lately and much less aid money was coming into Lebanon from foreign supporters.  Because all NGO money and private donations have to filter through the government for declared processes of registration, the popular belief is that they skim some off the top and that a tragedy like this was a way to prime a donation surge once again to line the pockets of money hungry officials.

In light of this, when residents were asked what their immediate needs were that the international community could help provide, many were quick to advocate direct aid that circumvents government channels as they believed they would never see the benefit of that.  No official government organization was contacted to comment on these accusations.

With the overwhelming number of sources from which I heard accusations of foul play, it is worth noting that no exact cause of the fire has yet been pinpointed.

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Families flock to safety as a fire rips through a settlement near the town of Qab Elias in Lebanon. Photo shared by Mohamed Hamoud via WhatsApp 

A fleet of heavy machinery worked through the midday heat to continue razing the Syrian refugee settlement Haouch Mandara 001 that caught fire a day prior near the town of Qab Elias.  Amid the bulldozers, Bobcats, and backhoe, piles of charred metal continued to smolder from the blaze that destroyed almost all of the 102 tent homes around noon on Sunday.

One child was killed and around a dozen others were admitted to the hospital where some remain in critical condition.

While the exact cause of the fire has yet to be determined, all signs point to a cooking mishap as the origin. In dry conditions with the aid of whipping wind, the fire spread rapidly between the neighboring structures all built with scrap wood and used plastic canvas wrap from billboard advertisements.  Within twenty minutes, the entire settlement was fully involved.

People onsite reported hearing several explosions during the course of the blaze from the propane cylinders that each family was equipped with.

First responders had a rapid response, but were unable to immediately suppress the fire in part to the cars of residents blocking the dirt road to the incident. The response from a handful of NGOs was impressive and immediate.  Before the end of the night, all families received new mattresses and emergency tent shelters were also set up.

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A volunteer looks out on the settlement area once populated by homes and families.  Photo from Salam LADC Facebook page.

Salam LADC spent Monday at the settlement working with a Lebanese NGO, Beyond Association who specialize in providing psycho-social supports and interventions to children in trauma situations.  At the direction of the organization’s psychologist, we played active games that required concentration, teamwork, and resulted in a lot of joyful screaming, clapping, and singing.

In the evening, we distributed 320 individually packaged bags with a stuffed animal, juice, apple, colored pencils, notebook, biscuits, and candy.  Tomorrow it is likely we will go back to help build more permanent housing structures so families can begin to transition out of the emergency tent shelters.

The heartbreak of a situation like this is easily seen on the distant faces of all the residents and in the urgency of all aid workers on site. After fleeing war in Syria with the small items that could be transported, many families have lost the few possessions they spent the past years in Lebanon acquiring.  Cars, blankets, cookware, pictures, everything is gone again and the entire community must start all over again, with nothing.

As several organizations liaise to plan immediate needs like toilets and bathing, Salam will try to prepare emergency clothing for women and children as absolutely nothing was salvaged.  Even a small donation could purchase a shirt for one of the many kids who ran around and got sweaty playing games in the hot summer sun today as volunteers tried to distract their attention from yet another crisis.

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Eighteen year old Hozaifa closed out Clash of Clans and put his phone away to greet a group of three volunteers on a scheduled check-in. “As-salamu alaykum,” he said in traditional greeting, as he extended his hand to shake while his eyes beamed above a smile of naturally straight teeth.  Despite the discomfort it caused, he leaned up in bed as far as he could manage to show us our presence was welcomed.

Hozaifa is paralyzed from the waist down and as the fresh scarring along his spine indicated, he was still in pain from his third back surgery completed just two weeks prior.  As he told the story of his journey from Syria, his four younger siblings filtered in and out of his room as Mom and Dad sat on the floor rug and filled in the gaps.

In 2011 as violence erupted, Hozaifa’s father fled their home in Idlib, Syria just north of where a chemical attack killed dozens of civilians this past April, to establish a new safe home for his family.  In such a situation, it is typical for the male of the household to move ahead first to sort out all the unknowns.

In 2013, Mom and the four younger siblings moved to reunite with Dad in the Beqaa Valley of Lebanon.  Safety was rapidly deteriorating with bombings on the rise which led to items of necessity rapidly inflating in price and life in general becoming much harder.

Hozaifa stayed behind in Syria to continue his education.  As he told this part of the story, his words were saturated with passion over his favorite subjects of Arabic Literature, English and Civics.  He paused from the painful narrative to discuss his love of law, former desire to be a doctor, and tangential joys in the fields of math and physics.  With the emphasis placed on learning and his new desire to be an agricultural architect, it’s no surprise Hozaifa would opt to stay in school and continue learning rather than to run from the only path he thought led to a bright future.

One day in 2016, his hopes and dreams were decimated as he was riding home from school on the back of a motorbike with his cousin and a bomb dropped from a plane blew them off the ground.  He’s not sure if it was the explosion shockwave, shrapnel, or the building that fell on him, but some force of those actions hammered his spinal cord to a functioning halt.

At this point in his story telling, a flat affect hit Hozaifa as he said now there was no more studying.  He had two surgeries in Syria before he could reunite with his family and has since been mostly resigned to bed.  He can’t go to school because he can’t sit up yet or find transportation to get him there and private tutors are cost prohibitive.

His mother desperately wants to provide her son with the good education he thirsts for and offer him a beneficial activity to focus on besides the cell phone that she says now consumes him, but they just don’t have the money.  The barren concrete structure they live in more closely resembles a far from incomplete construction that has been squatted in.  The only decorations of Hozaifa’s room are the smears of excess mortar that oozed over every cinderblock of its construction.  A single thin wire snakes up the wall and from where it is punched in the ceiling, hangs a single light.  There is no insulation or glass in the window frames which welcome in the biting cold of snowy mountain winters. The rotting wood framed threshold is indicative of the water that pours through the roof when it rains.

This half-finished shell of a structure costs the family $150/month which might not be pricey by western standards, but it is half of the father’s monthly salary earned as a gas station attendant, making it an entirely unaffordable rent once the cost of life’s other necessities are factored in.  Hozaifa needs diapers, antiseptics, and nutritional supplements to help combat the weight he is losing.

While the family likes Lebanon, they don’t feel safe or secure here.  They are guests in a country where they are not allowed to work and transient populations are constantly shifting in tents and settlements due to a number of factors including absentee landlords changing rental policies with the wind.  This they will endure for the short term, but their sights remain set on the UK and Norway as the locations Hozaifa originally wanted to go to school.

For now, love is what has been getting the family through tough times.  In addition to the strength derived from the tight knit family bonds, others have been willing to help out where they can.  When the family was unable to pay for the third surgery, a Swedish journalist who had previously heard Hozaifa’s story stepped in to foot the bill.  Hozaifa’s mother, as she poured hot chai for her guests, jubilantly gave thanks for this woman who was even there in the waiting room during surgery hugging, squeezing and comforting her.  She left additional money for some medications and later sent a laptop which is helping Hozaifa learn English among other things.

 


If you are so compelled, a donation to the GoFundMe posted on the right hand of this tab could help out immensely.  I will be going to visit with Hozaifa to teach English as soon as I can get that off the ground, but here is a summary of what I am gathering together to which you can contribute.  If you have other ideas after reading about Hozaifa and his family please message me and let me know what you would like your donation to go towards.

$150- One month’s rent to ease the family’s financial insecurity
$25- Arabic Lit books so Hozaifa has a constructive activity he enjoys to pursue daily
$10- Diapers and supplies which are essential medical costs

There are many other projects that I will soon post which are seeking funding so if Hozaifa’s story does not speak to you, there are still countless opportunities to change people’s lives with very small donations.  Keep following along.

I can’t entirely recall how I came to find the organization, Salam LADC that I am working with this summer.  It seems that many friends from Greece were connected with volunteer networks in Lebanon and I just stumbled across these guys on Facebook.  After a fourteen hour layover in Moscow, where I was stuck in the airport because Russia makes it extremely difficult to enter their country, I boarded a plane to Beirut.  I was nervous to be landing in the Middle East well past midnight with no idea how to get to my hotel, but now I’m really just embarrassed that I was so struck by preconceived notions and full of fear entirely surrounding the location.

Beirut is not at all what I thought it was going to be.  It was not nearly as hot as the images conjured up in my head by thinking of the “Middle East.” Nor was there much Arabic at all; English billboards and signage surrounded me and mostly everyone spoke English as well!  When I met up with my fabulous tour guide Mohamad who started Beirut Free Walking Tour and set up a personal tour for me on a Sunday morning out of his own kindness, he told me that’s because formal schooling in Lebanon is all done in English.  Arabic is spoken at home and many people also know French (although my cab driver said it was just the rich people) due to the history of French colonization here.

Despite the concrete blockhouses stacked with sandbags and barbed wire that were occupied by several soldiers fidgeting with assault rifles, I never felt unsafe walking the barricade covered empty streets of Beirut.  Seriously, there were no people around.  In museums, in parks, at ruins, less than double digit humans were in my sight path at any given time.  Mohamad tells me this happened in a gorgeous central square area because the businesses were starved out two years ago once the government who has its offices in the same square closed it.  Close by, people were protesting garbage piles ups and the government’s inability to clear the mountains of trash from the road and officials got nervous they would overtake the government, so they effectively set up a blockade that led to economic stagnation in the area of Beirut with the richest architecture and archaeology.  Now the businesses cannot survive or are fearful the government will do the same thing in the future, and locals have abandoned the area.  I’ve never been in a city with less foot traffic than Beirut.

While my lack of research led to me expect more primitive business structure, I walked through multi-color apartment complexes in an artsy district to a very bourgeoisie souk filled with the likes of Rolex, Cartier, a Cineplex that charged more than a week of meals cost, and upscale fashion boutiques.  I even stumbled upon a farmers market on the edge of a fancy souk, in the shadow of a war-remnant building.  All I kept thinking my first day in Lebanon was the Aldous Huxley quote, “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”  To travel is to discover that I am wrong about other countries.

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I saw quite easily why some have tried to label Beirut as the Paris of the Middle East, but all the sparkly window fronts still don’t mask the marks of the 1975 Civil War.  Bomb and bullet holes are hard to ignore, especially on towering concrete structures that still stand because tearing them down is cost prohibitive.  The future may involve more pool lounging and yacht clubs but the storied past is not to be ignored.

The one thing that I wasn’t wrong about was how much of a pain in the ass it would be to get to the volunteer house from Beirut which I was to be stationed at for the summer.  I knew from last year’s work that in a small NGO with ever changing situations on the ground, focus sometimes doesn’t channel into prospective volunteer communication.  About 365 days ago, I wandered the streets of Mytilene trying to find the volunteer house only to find no answer at the door when I did turn into Magellan and find it.  Finally the volunteer coordinator who confirmed when I should arrive, woke up with enough knocking, calling, and yelling her name up to the balconies.  The whole process was frustrating and I was determined not to repeat it this year.

I sent several emails ahead of my arrival asking for specific details of how to get to this house, to no avail.  I was told to go to the Cola Intersection in Beirut, ask around to find a bus going to Chtoura, and when it let me off halfway to Damascus, to wait on the street corner where I could call someone from the volunteer house to come pick me up.  Only, no number was given and that plan sounded terrifying.  Despite several emails and facebook posts communicating that I needed someone’s contact info, all I was told was that closer to the date, they would let me know who was around.  It quickly reached two hours before I was going to leave to find this bus to the valley and my Type A personality was on fire from no one responding with a pick-up number I requested in a message earlier that morning… or two days prior…or two weeks prior to that.

Amazingly, it all just somehow worked out.  I got a text at the right moment and stumbled upon two new volunteers on the street who I heard speaking in French and say “Cola” which led me to approach and question them if they were going to the same place as me (turns out in all of Beirut, we had stayed at the same hostel the night prior).  They had not yet heard anything from the organization either, but were put at ease when I told them I had just gotten a text. We grabbed lunch together real quick at one of the many hundreds of restaurants that speckle the streets of Beirut, and then hopped a taxi to catch a bus.

After about forty minutes and at the top of the mountains before we started descending into the Beqaa Valley, a marvelous glow could be seen on the giant rock faces that framed this gigantic, lush, agricultural capital.  Entering the city of Chtoura where I would take up residence for the next month, we passed by a Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, McDonalds, and a couple pizza restaurants…not quite what I was expecting for refugee work, but this is a pretty westernized country after all.

A pickup truck was quick to nab us at the end of the line, and bring us to the volunteer house where we were given a tour that consisted of “so this is the house.”  Any disappointment by the infiltration of western capitalism in an experience I thought would require more roughing it, vanished when I took my first steps into the volunteer house.  The kitchen whose sink was overflowing with dirty dishes even Billy Mays couldn’t clean gave way to the living room where several baby-faced volunteers silently signaled I was a house elder.  Flies were buzzing around relaxed student’s heads, but everyone had a smile on their face. These were people with a sense of purpose.  They may be messier, play louder music, and smoke more than I care to tolerate, but we’re all here for the same cause, and for this I feel great.  I grabbed the only bed left which was a pad on top of two stacked pallets in a partitioned room with no windows.  Dangling an arm off the “bed” in either direction put me in touch with other sleeping volunteers, not that it would matter for that first night as I was destined to stay up all night with diarrhea!

I set up my bed, which I found out later when all my things were moved was actually taken by someone else, and I waited in line for the sole shower that twenty-two people share, as day turned to night and flies changed to mosquitoes.  It wasn’t lost on me that the conditions I found myself in were still leaps and bounds above what many people in refugee settlements right down the street traded in everything for.  I am humbled and excited to be here and can’t wait to figure out all the good that I can help spread this summer.  But first, some Pepto.

Children drowning, smugglers abandoning those who had abandoned everything, traversing continents to seek refuge; all of these were the life-shattering realities I heard on a daily basis while volunteering in Kara Tepe Refugee Camp last summer on the island of Lesvos, Greece.  The emotional weight of working with displaced persons is heavy, but certainly not even close to the same level of being a displaced person.  Close friends can tell you I was a little bit jarred and distant when I returned.  As my brain struggled to process all the horror stories I heard and saw the entire summer to understand how such cruelty and injustice could exist in this world, I knew the struggle would be eternal.  I wanted to continue helping people who were fleeing situations I previously couldn’t imagine, but I wanted to see a different perspective to more fully understand the complete situation.

My first attempt to work with refugees was a tiresome Google search years ago to go to Jordan or Lebanon.  Both were countries bordering Syria and taking in large numbers of Syrian refugees, but beyond that I didn’t know too much.  I found a UNHCR posting for a manual laborer to dig irrigation trenches, and the idea of turning my brain off after a stressful school year of teaching and just digging a hole in the heat for a good cause sounded appealing.  Unfortunately, the minimum 6 month requirement did not fit in well with my plan to keep my teaching job and that plan fizzled.

As anti-refugee sentiments flared up across Europe and especially with the election of Donald Trump in the US, I began to see hate displayed more openly and advocacy to close borders gain more steam.  Last year, I wrote about the accepting nature of Greeks to extend their resources to their neighbors in need and I had to wonder what the scale of the rest of the world was doing.  My country with so many resources and potential for good had done embarrassingly little, but come to find out, little ol’ Lebanon had done a ton! According to the UNHCR, 1 in 5 people in Lebanon is a registered refugee, but the actual number is likely closer to 1 in 4.  In fact, the number of registered refugees from Syria is greater than the entire population of Lebanon.

Syrian Refugees in LebanonImagine that in America; if in our giant landscape, 90 million people were refugees.  It seems unfathomable, but that’s what Lebanon has effectively done.  Even under Obama, the plan was to let in 10,000 refugees a year, and progress on that target fell way behind schedule from the day the plan was agreed upon.  To take on such a large number of new inhabitants has caused tension and problems for sure, but it has also save lives and offered countless opportunities to families with nowhere else to turn.

I used to have a Doctors Without Borders world map behind the desk in my old classroom that had their slogan, “We go to where conditions are the worst, because that’s where we’re needed most.”  I saw this video detailing the trash problems in refugee settlements in the Beqaa Valley and I looked at the numbers on the UNCHR data chart.

Greece was the sexy focus of the refugee crisis in Europe.  They got the mainstream news coverage, the celebrity visits, the EU funding, but Lebanon doesn’t have any of those things and they have let in more refugees than all of Europe combined.  The Beqaa Valley was a former Hezbollah HQ and currently maintains status as a drug growing region, but the dangers associated with either are minimal now.  Sitting in an office area with a view of the mountains 23km away that form the border with Syria, I know this experience will open my eyes to the problems of the word in a different way and hopefully help me be a part of better solutions.

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