Amid heartbreak of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Sana Samia aids the desperate

Scenes of horror and heartbreak such as those generated by the Syrian conflict stagger the imagination of anyone of conscience, and they keep coming. 

On Jan. 18, 16 Syrians desperate to cross into Lebanon to escape the fighting froze to death attempting to make a dangerous mountain passing, with the casualties including men, women and children.

For those of a theological mind, such tragedies point to the famous “problem of evil,” to wit: How could a loving God allow such things to happen?

Framing things that way, however, risks overlooking the equal and opposite “problem of good,” which is that tragedy also often gives rise to small miracles that defy all worldly logic — people willing to lay down their lives, sacrifice themselves and offer their last, best ounce of effort to help desperate souls in need.

In contemporary Lebanon, Sana Samia is one of those small miracles.

Samia is managing director of the Greek Melkite Catholic Archdiocese of Zahlé, Lebanon, but that’s a job title, not a description, of this 32-year-old married laywoman with a work ethic the size of Texas. What she really is, certainly in the eyes of the Syrian refugees she assists on a daily basis, is a miracle worker.

Need medicine for an ailing husband, which is out of reach because you spent all your household cash on food for the kids? Samia, or someone or her team, is there.

Need a place to eat, socialize and develop some sense of community in a foreign land, and one that isn’t always completely welcoming of the onslaught of new arrivals? Once again, Samia and the archdiocese are there.

A small country of perhaps 4 to 5 million native residents, Lebanon has absorbed somewhere between 1 and 1.5 million Syrian refugees since the beginning of the crisis, as well as substantial pockets of refugees from Iraq and other neighboring Middle Eastern nations. 

In percentage terms, that’s enough to form the world’s most dramatic refugee crisis — and it’s fair to say that without the efforts of Samia and others like her, the country would have collapsed under the strain long ago.

To hear Samia tell it, things aren’t getting much better.

“The situation of the Syrian refugees remains highly precarious in Lebanon now,” she said in a Feb. 12 interview on “The Crux of the Matter,” Crux’s weekly radio program. 

“These refugees are barely keeping afloat,” she said. “Despite the aid they’re receiving, they’re still extremely vulnerable.”

Despite the expulsion of Islamic State forces from some of their former Syrian strongholds, Samia said most Syrian refugees in Lebanon aren’t ready to go back.

“It’s very rare that people are returning to Syria,” she said. “Everyone in our church is encouraging them to go back eventually, but the situation is very, very bad. They don’t have their houses anymore, or their jobs.”

“Lebanon is suffering a lot from this refugee crisis because we’ve received more refugees than any other country in the world, and the needs are getting larger and larger,” Samia said. 

“Already, Lebanese people can’t find jobs. [Officially, the unemployment rate in Lebanon is around 7 percent, but many experts believe the real total is significantly higher.] As a result, the Syrian refugees can’t find work either.”

Moreover, she said, “the international community has started to help less than before. It’s now the seventh year of the crisis, and their energies are dropping off.”

“In terms of medicine, food, clothing, education . . . these people need everything,” she said.

Samia added that the fear of return to Syria is especially strong among the swelling number of Christian refugees because they carry with them bitter memories of being turned on by their Muslim neighbors.

“In Syria, Christians and Muslims used to live together. The conditions were good, they had the same activities, they lived in the same apartments,” Samia said. “When the crisis started, these Christians were killed by their neighbors. It came out that some of them were terrorists, living among them all those years.”

“You hear this from every Christian [from Syria] who comes here, and they are very afraid to go back and live among the people who killed their brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers,” she said.

“We all understand that not all Muslims are terrorists, but you never know what happens to them and how they become terrorists,” Samia said. “That’s why they are too afraid. Also, the Christian villages in Syria are almost all destroyed, so it’s very hard to go back without any houses, jobs or schools for their children.”

Although many of those Christian refugees dream of finding homes abroad, especially in the West, Samia said that’s not really a desirable solution either.

“As a church in Lebanon, we don’t encourage them to go to Europe or America because they’ll never come back,” she said. “We’ve said before that we need these Christians to stay in the Middle East.”

That explains why church groups in Lebanon such as the Greek Melkite Archdiocese of Zahlé are scrambling to provide a basic standard of living for the Christian refugee population, asking them to hold on until they can go back.

“We try to provide them with the basics of everything, meaning we try to meet all their needs at all levels,” she said. That work is significantly supported by Aid to the Church in Need, a global papal foundation that supports persecuted Christians around the world.

“What we really need to be able to do is to reach a higher number of people. If we are reaching 200 people to get medical help, we have 600 who actually need it. If we’re feeding 1,000 people every day, we need for 2,000 people to be able to come. We need support on all levels.”

With contributions from Inés San Martín and Claire Giangravè.