Beirut — Abdel Rahman was taking his sons, Hamid Ali and Nasser, to school one morning in Aleppo, Syria, when he saw that the school had been bombed. He rushed them home, only to discover that his home had been destroyed, and his wife and young daughter killed — two of the more than 60,000 civilians killed in Syria’s war so far. Grieving and desperate, Abdel packed his boys in a van and fled to Lebanon. They now live in the van, parked in a poor Christian neighborhood in Beirut, where the locals bring them food, offer bathrooms, and have even run a power cable to the vehicle. On Christmas Eve, Georges Maalouly, an Orthodox Christian, brought Abdel’s sons, Sunni Muslims, Christmas presents.
By any standards, Abdel has little in the way of material goods. Yet he has more than many Syrian refugees, and his children at least have one parent. In Beirut’s Hamra district, Syrian refugees, including many children, may be seen wandering about without any shelter at all. There are approximately 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. (For comparison, the United States would have to absorb 90 million refugees to obtain such a proportion.) There are another million in Turkey and Jordan, and several million others are internally displaced. Roughly 30 percent of the refugees in Lebanon are located in the Beirut area; another 50 percent are located in the Beqaa Valley to the east, which stretches the length of the mountainous border with Syria.
At the southern end of the Beqaa Valley begins the road to Damascus, which, these days, is not easy to travel. Near the road, just outside Damascus, is the village of Koukab. There, Saul of Tarsus is said to have fallen from his horse and heard the voice of God, who asked, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul, a Hellenized Jew, would become Paul, and revolutionize the small sect of Jewish Jesus followers into a religion with a universal mandate.
Two millennia later and throughout the world, Christianity flourishes. But in the region where this faith that now has more than 2 billion adherents began, its disciples are daily victims of religious intolerance and worse. The road to Damascus was once traversed by pilgrims, en route to holy sites and retreats, such as Maaloula — where al-Qaeda affiliates seized an entire order of nuns, whom they still hold hostage. Today, the road is principally a means of escape for Syrians fleeing a war that enters its fourth year and shows no signs of ending.
Masnaa, the last Lebanese town before the border, is filled with refugees; makeshift tents that failed to keep out December’s snows; mud; trenches filled with feces ; and, everywhere, children. The name of the town in Arabic means “industry,” but there is nothing like that here. The nearest approximation is the exploitative rents charged to refugee families for a small patch of ground on which to pitch a tent, in one instance $200 per month. A young woman in the niqab, which reveals a hint of her pale skin and deep blue eyes, tells of her husband getting up repeatedly to clear the snow off their tent in the night before it finally collapsed in on them. Many of the refugees are Bedouin; some lived the traditional nomadic lifestyle until only a generation ago, and are relatively comfortable living in tents. The dehumanizing conditions (exposure to the elements, unsanitary arrangements, food shortages) are nonetheless disconcerting. The children, apparently oblivious to their plight, gather for photos in which they smile and uniformly flash the “V” sign with their fingers in protest against the regime of Bashar Assad.
To the north, away from Masnaa and the road to Damascus, is the Christian city of Zahle, from which one can see the Beqaa Valley and the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, which divide Syria from Lebanon. During the Lebanese civil war, Zahle became a symbol of Christian resistance, holding out against the Syrian army for 100 days in 1982. Marwan, a young Christian from Zahle, walks us through the cathedral, in which a bomb was planted during the war. “It is called Our Lady of — I’m not sure of the English word, but it means ‘surviving.’” (Some translate it as “deliverance,” others “salvation.”) Among its murals is an icon popular in the late Byzantine era, when the empire was surrounded on all sides by enemies: the resurrected Christ ripping Adam and Eve from the tomb on Easter morning, conquering death.