With over 1,400 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 31 deaths, the disease appears to be under control in Lebanon.
Part of it can be attributed to the early closure of schools and restaurants as well as the airport and other ports of entry.
But in a country already going through an unprecedented economic crisis, three months of isolation and lockdown measures have had catastrophic consequences on the most vulnerable, including Syrian and other refugees.
While refugees remain especially exposed to the spread of COVID-19, the virus is, in many cases, the least of their concerns, as they struggle to afford food for their families.
In this ever-so-challenging context, Lebanese churches are finding new ways to show God’s love to the marginalized around them.
In Lebanon, the COVID-19 outbreak is a crisis in a crisis, happening in the middle of a severe economic and financial crisis, which already caused many people to lose their jobs and income.
Three months of lockdown have made things even worse; unemployment has risen to 35%.
Around 50% of the country’s population, if not more, is now projected to be below the poverty line while the continuous devaluation of the local currency caused the prices of the most basic commodities to skyrocket.
These staggering reductions in purchasing power have the greatest negative impact on the most vulnerable, especially refugees, many of whom already had significant debt.
Aida, a Syrian refugee living in Lebanon with her mother, husband, two daughters and grandchildren, said, “The pandemic impacted us negatively because we cannot go outside the tent anymore and there is no work at all. We are barely able to buy bread, let alone diapers for our youngest grandchild. My husband has diabetes and high blood pressure, and for three months now we have not been able to buy his medication.”
Aida’s family is one of thousands of Syrian refugee families whom MERATH (Middle-East Revive & Thrive), the relief and development arm of the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development, through its network of partner churches in Lebanon, serves with food assistance every month.
Like so many others, they have fled their war-torn country with nothing else but the clothes they were wearing and have been living as refugees in Lebanon for nearly a decade now with just enough to survive.
Lebanon hosts the highest number of refugees per capita in the world, with one in three people being a refugee, either Syrian, Iraqi or Palestinian.
Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, the Lebanese churches MERATH works with have continuously gone out of their comfort zone to open their doors and hearts to their former Syrian enemies, providing them with food and winter assistance, income-generating opportunities and education for out-of-school children.
Despite the COVID-19 threat and the subsequent isolation and lockdown measures, those very churches are continuing to serve compassionately the vulnerable refugees around them in new and creative ways.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in Lebanon, Joe, one of MERATH’s partners in the outskirts of Beirut, already knew where he was standing. “We have two options, either be paralyzed by fear or go out of our comfort zone and find new ways to support the most vulnerable around us.”
Thanks to the passion of local partners like Joe, who were provided with all necessary protective equipment and safety guidance, MERATH’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak has been quick and holistic, from hygiene item distributions to emergency food assistance.
MERATH is also distributing washable and reusable face masks, sewn by women from three partner sewing groups.
Most of the women in the sewing groups are Syrian refugees themselves, and the project is helping them on many levels.
Moza, a Syrian refugee seamstress, agrees, “I am earning more money through the masks sewing project, which is much needed right now. But we are also aware that these masks will be distributed to families in need, help protect them, and prevent the spread of the virus in the country. This makes us feel very thankful and proud.”
At a time when the Lebanese churches themselves are bearing the brunt of the economic crisis, with many of their own members in need of help, renewing their efforts to support refugees around them sends an incredibly powerful message: “Just like we believe our God will not abandon us, we will not abandon you.”
This article is part of a series for World Refugee Day (June 20). Other articles in the series include:
Myanmar Army Seeks to Purge Muslim Minority from its Nation | Molly T. Marshall
Lessons Learned Growing Up in Palestinian Refugee Camp | Imam Imad Enchassi
Sophie Nasrallah is the Communications Officer at Middle East Revive & Thrive (MERATH), the relief and development arm of the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development (LSESD).