Creating Safe Spaces in Lebanon

I’m still dreaming about Lebanon.

But they are uncomfortable dreams … nightmares, almost.

My team and I learned a lot about what a real refugee crisis looks like when we visited Lebanon back in late February. Lebanon, a country of 4.5 million, now finds itself accommodating over 1.5 million Syrians. As you can imagine, this causes a severe strain on societal infrastructure.

For the most part, the Lebanese have responded with courage and good will, extending basic needs to Syrian refugees: shelter, food, healthcare, and basic education.

But we also discovered that there are a number of pressing needs which are going unmet. The trauma caused by the war in Syria has affected an entire generation of children, many of whom have lost a sense of hope for the future. 

According to Dr Mohammad K Hamza, a neuropsychologist with the Syrian-American Medical Society (SAMS), Syria's children of war have experienced more than just post-traumatic stress. He has coined a new term for the amount of emotional trauma that he is seeing in children — “human devastation syndrome.”

A study released by Save the Children last month, based on over 450 interviews with adults and children in Syria, showed that “toxic stress is wreaking havoc on children.” Half of the children interviewed said they never or rarely feel safe at school, and 40% said they don’t feel safe outside t heir own homes. Another 78% of children “feel grief or extreme sadness some or all of the time.”

In our brief visit, we encountered some of these children. One of them has become an emblem of the Syrian conflict to me. I met Pheros in his family’s tent in Marj, near the Syrian border. He was a hollow-eyed 19 year old, with no hint of hope. He didn’t go to school, didn’t work, didn’t have any spark of interest in anything. All he wanted to do, we finally got him to admit, was to return to Syria and fight alongside the rebels.

It may be too late to reach Pheros. He may eventually slip back across the border and join a rebel group. Maybe he’ll join an Islamist group. Or become a suicide bomber. 

Those of us who met Pheros have been dreaming about him ever since. We have been praying about what to do to prevent an entire generation of kids like Pheros from growing up without hope. 

As a result of this interaction, our team is working to put together an NGO called Safe Spaces, which will focus on the psychosocial health of women and children refugees in Lebanon. We plan to partner with some NGOs already on the ground in Lebanon, but provide training for their workers to identify trauma in women and children and equip them with some coping skills and strategies.

We plan to begin in the city of Saida/Sidon, which is south of Beirut on the coast. We want to partner with Al Reaaya, a Lebanese-based NGO that provides relief and developmental support to orphans and widows affected by the war. The first Safe Spaces will be housed in a new school, which we also hope to help finance and build.

Our dream is for this to be a replicable model, which can be expanded into other regions of Lebanon, and work closely with municipalities and school systems.

Don’t get alarmed — I’m not thinking of moving to Lebanon myself! Instead, I believe that I can help leverage the expertise, influence, and resource of the United Methodist Church in America to make a difference. I would also like to facilitate some short-term mission trips to Lebanon in the coming years. In fact, we are currently planning a return trip to Lebanon during the third week of September 2017. The Bishop has already expressed interest in going, as well as the pastor of a very large United Methodist Church in the Dallas area.

I would love for some of y’all to go on that trip, but if you can’t, there are other ways that you can become involved with Safe Spaces. In particular, I am looking for psychotherapists trained in the field of PTSD and children. If you know someone who fits this criteria, please forward their information to me. 

Even if you don’t know someone, there are things you can do to help support this initiative. Let me know; we’ll find a role you can play