To Welcome Like the Lebanese

It’s not like I had a lifelong dream to visit Lebanon. To be honest, I’d never given it a thought. Beirut is just not one of those vacation spots that pops up on most people’s bucket list.

I didn’t plan our Lebanon trip because of a desire to vacation, however. Instead, my colleagues and I wanted to travel to the front line of the Syrian refugee crisis, and see what is going on.

And Lebanon is on the front line. In fact, it shares a long border with Syria, and for the last five years, has borne the brunt of much of the civil war’s fallout. It has received the second-most number of refugees from the conflict — over 1.5 million people.

That number sounds abstractly high by itself, but when you consider the fact that the country of Lebanon only had a population of 4 million before the war, then you can see how all-consuming the crisis has become for the Lebanese.

Everywhere we went, we heard how difficult the Syrian crisis has been on the hosting community. We found municipalities which are overwhelmed by water, electricity, and sewage needs. We discovered overcrowded schools and hospitals. And we heard ordinary citizens worry about the future.

Despite all that, the Lebanese are doing their best to serve the needs of their Syrian neighbors. We met a number of highly committed and dedicated Lebanese men and women who were spending large amounts of time to care for the refugees amongst them. We saw multiple NGOs (non-governmental organizations) at work in the country, providing family planning assistance, health care, education, vocational training, and more. 

Our team started calling these Lebanese folks we met, our “heroes.” They are doing their best to serve where they are needed. They are Christian — Maronite, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. They are Muslim — Sunni and Shiite. They are Druze, atheist, Buddhist, and agnostic.

I sense that what unites them is a shared sense of vulnerability. In other words, the Lebanese people are intimately acquainted with suffering. They know what it is like to be displaced.

The Lebanese have vivid memories of two major disasters — the civil war of 1975-1990, and the Israel bombing of 2006. Both events displaced large numbers of Lebanese people, destroyed infrastructure, and destabilized civil society.

But the people of Lebanon received generous help from other peoples, survived the conflict, drew together, and forged a path forward for a hopeful future. There are lots of challenges still, to be sure, but the point is that the Lebanese know what it is like to be in need. They know what it’s like to have to rely on aid, on the kindness of others.

So when the Syrian people are in need, the Lebanese have resolved to receive them with open arms. They share, not only a common border, but a common future.

The same kind of logic is at work in the Torah. Time and time again, God’s law demands that the Israelites care for the alien and stranger. This is not an abstract rule; it is rooted in empathy. “You shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt" (Lev. 19:34).

The Israelites are to welcome the stranger in need because they have known what it is like to be a stranger in need.

And now let’s turn the spotlight on our own nation. Shouldn’t this country of immigrants, this motley collection of persecuted and battered refugees, which has found refuge in these amber waves of grain and purple mountains’ majesty, also open its doors to those who are now persecuted and battered? We share a common story of suffering and hope, a narrative of displacement and rebirth.

Why are we afraid of those who should remind us of ourselves? Why is the Statue of Liberty so dark these days?