IT’S JANUARY IN BEIRUT, LEBANON. The air is cold in the shade of the old apartment building I walk into with Hoda Melki and two other women from Heart for Lebanon, a Lebanese faith-based relief and development organization working with Iraqi and Syrian refugees.
Over 1.8 million Syrian and Iraqi refugees have fled to Lebanon due to the Syrian civil war and the unrest in Iraq. Heart for Lebanon, which Hoda and her husband Camille founded in 2006, provides food and hygiene distributions to over 800 Iraqi families in Beirut. Hoda is taking me to meet one of those families.
Inside the building’s concrete foyer, a door opens to a tiny elevator, its floor hovering a few inches above the foyer. It isn’t big enough for all of us, so I follow Hoda up four flights of stairs to a small landing with only two doors. One of the doors opens and we step into a long corridor.
Inside, a kind faced Iraqi man meets us. The women talk with him in Arabic and introduce me. His name is Adeeb. His family shares this apartment with a number of other refugees.
Adeeb leads us by a sparsely furnished living room and kitchen, down a long hall and into a bedroom. Four single beds pushed together and neatly covered with blankets take up most of the room. The walls are empty except for a baseball hat and a single window with old heavy curtains. A small television sits on a cloth-covered table in one corner, and a large cabinet takes up space along another wall.
Adeeb’s wife, Doha, is sitting on the bed at the end, her legs covered by the blankets. She smiles a little as she talks with the other women. Translating their conversation, Hoda tells me that Doha isn’t feeling well. She has had an allergic reaction to medicine she is taking for an infection.
Two boys—Joseph and Aynar—bring plastic lawn chairs through another door that leads to a tiny balcony. Their sister, Sarah, leans on metal crutches and watches me with a small smile as I pull out my camera and recording equipment.
When we sit down, one of the women pulls the youngest boy, Aynar, onto her lap, talking to him in Arabic. He smiles and shyly answers her questions.
Then one of the women ask Adeeb and Doha if they would share their story again, telling them Hoda will translate for me. Doha looks over and nods.
ADEEB AND DOHA lived in a small Christian village in Iraq. They had a good life and lived in a beautiful house with their extended family. Adeeb was an English teacher, and Doha stayed home with their four children. They had just bought land on which to build their own house.
“But now we cannot go back,” Doha says.
One day last August, ISIS began shelling their village. The family was taking shelter in the garden.
“My son, David, was four years old,” Doha tells us. “He and his cousin were playing, and a bomb landed on him.”
David and his nine-year-old cousin Milad were killed. The bomb not only destroyed the house, but also David’s body. The children in the village brought pieces of his body to his family. One of Adeeb and Doha’s sons found his brother’s ear.
The people in the village took pictures, and Doha wants to know if she can show them to me. When I nod, she gets out of bed and moves over to the cabinet. From a shelf of neatly folded clothes, she pulls out a large envelope. Inside are official papers regarding David’s death and a stack of photographs.
On top are photos of flesh and body parts that are no longer recognizable as human. Pictures of her son. In silence, she hands them to me one by one. At one point she looks away.
She pauses on a photo of smiling young boys. She hands it to one of the other women in the room, who tells me it is David with his cousins before the bombing. Underneath it are photos of injured children in torn clothes lying on beds, their bodies blackened and bloody. One of them is another of David’s cousins.
“Why are we suffering like this?” Adeeb asks. “My children had to pick up the pieces of their brother…. I am so sad, thinking about all this.”
AFTER THE BOMBING, most of their friends and family fit whatever they could into their cars and fled the village. Adeeb, Doha and their children stayed behind to take care of David. Adeeb washed what was left of his son’s body, and they buried him.
By the time they left, ISIS wouldn’t let them take anything with them, including their car. “ISIS took everything from us,” Doha says.
They walked for days. Sarah, who was born with a paralytic condition that affects her legs, was on crutches. Adeeb shows me where he had to mend one of them after it broke.
They lived on the streets, fending off stray dogs at night. “No covers, no clothes, no money,” says Doha.
Eventually, the family took shelter with others refugees in a school in Erbil. A local church had turned it into a refuge. Adeeb, Doha and the children were there for a month and half.
“How did you get here?” one of the women asks her.
Before the crisis, Adeeb and Doha traveled to Lebanon to seek medical care for Sarah. While here, they met a nun and priest who, after they heard about the family’s situation last summer, sent a car for them and helped them leave Iraq. The family stayed at a convent in Lebanon until they moved into this room in the apartment.
“Everything you see here,” said Doha, nodding to the tiny room, “is from them.”
THESE TRAUMATIC EVENTS have taken its toll on their children. They are scared to go outside or leave their parents. Sarah needs a surgery that would help her regain use of their legs, but Adeeb and Doha don’t know if they’ll be able to get it for her.
Doha tells us about one of Aynar’s recent dreams. David came to him and asked, “Why did you leave me? Why don’t you come home?”
“Aynar dreams this because we buried David, and then we left,” Doha explains. She looks at us, desperate and sad. “We did not have time to visit the graves.”
Adeeb and Doha are waiting to see where the UN will send them, but the process is slow. While Sara’s medical needs and David’s death may be factors that enable the UN to process their status more quickly, they will probably be in Beirut for many more months—even years.
That is distressing for Doha and Adeeb. Jobs are almost impossible to find for refugees, and landlords often unfairly raise rents. Adeeb and Doha also worry that Sara may not get the medical attention she needs and that their children are not going to school. With hundreds of thousands of refugee children in Lebanon, the schools don’t have the room to take them in.
“I want to get out of here,” says Adeeb. “I want a better life for my family.”
The boys, who left earlier, come back into the room to talk with their parents. The women look concerned. Hoda tells me that the family’s dinner burned while we were talking to them. I understand why the women are concerned. Losing a meal means the family will go hungry tonight.
AS WE GET READY TO LEAVE, we pray with them. Sarah asks if she can sing us a song she had recently learned. She sings a Sunday school song in Arabic. “She is singing, ‘God is so good to me,’” Hoda tells me. “‘He loves me.’”
Before we go, Adeeb shows me a picture of David on his cell phone. A dark-haired little boy stands against a brick wall in blue jeans and a sweater. I ask if I can take a picture, and Adeeb smiles and nods. When I take the family’s picture, I ask them to hold up the photo of David, too.
After we leave, Hoda and the other women walk straight to a corner store, buy several bags of groceries and carry them back to the apartment building. Adeeb and Aynar are coming out of the elevator and break into smiles. They load the bags back into the elevator as we leave.
“We burned their dinner,” Hoda says. “The least we can do is give them another one.”
Adeeb and Doha’s story is only one of many—and those of us in North America and Europe are in a unique position to help them. Compared to refugees like Adeeb and Doha, we abound in wealth, influence and resources. We have the power to speak for those who do not have a voice (Proverbs 31:8-9). You can help by sharing their story with others and supporting organizations like Heart for Lebanon who are providing food and other aid to refugees. To learn more about Heart for Lebanon and other organizations advocating for the refugees, see How to Help on this website. To learn more about the crisis, go here.