The Lebanon Journals


By Elizabet Nelson

After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, my grandpa Norm invited my dad to travel there with him. Norm often visits places and organizations that he raises money for on Compassion Radio, a daily radio program, and he had never taken my dad to travel with him before. Although I had no clue where Haiti was, I begged my dad to bring me along. Something about the excitement of traveling amongst catastrophe had struck a chord within me. I’m not sure that my dad even took my request seriously; as it turned out he was uninterested in going himself and my grandpa went without him.

I moved on from my initial disappointment quickly, but five years later, over last Christmas break, my grandpa asked my dad to come with him to Lebanon in the spring to visit Syrian refugee camps and I jumped at the opportunity.  The four-year Syrian civil war under the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has displaced well over 10 million Syrian refugees, many of whom are now living in Lebanon, and some of whom we would be visiting. I wasn’t sure what we would be doing there, but I was under the impression that I would be helping the refugees in some way. It was my chance to be adventurous and maybe even a humanitarian. We went with an organization called Heart for Lebanon that provides refugees with food and hygiene supplies along with other support such as education and Bible groups. While I was there I took photos as a way of processing my experience. I also kept a journal, of which the following passages are excerpted from:


We woke up early this morning to leave for the Bekaa Valley. A man named Joseph from Heart for Lebanon picked us up at the hotel.

Joseph is one of Heart for Lebanon’s 55 staff members, and joined eight years ago when there were only six members. He said that many organizations that help the refugees don’t do as much as they would like you to believe. “[Refugees] see organizations that come and take pictures and write stories but they don’t leave no penny,” he said.

We began driving on the highway and the road sloped steeply upwards. Traffic slowed as we passed an overturned car on the side of the road. Smoke escaped from all sides and a man was pulling something from the passenger side window with great difficulty. Although I had gotten used to the Lebanese disregard for speed limits or traffic lights pretty quickly,  the car wasn’t exactly calming my nerves, and I was feeling anxious about going to the camps. We passed a car issuing thick black smoke out of the tailpipe and then entered a section of the most intense fog I’d ever seen. Every car turned on its hazard lights, so all I could see through the fog were flashing orange lights.

When we stopped for breakfast, Joseph explained the tension between Lebanese citizens and Syrians. He said that 99 percent of Lebanese citizens were harmed by the Syrian occupation that took place from 1976 to 2005, so many don’t want to help the refugees. “Personally, my father was killed by Syrians,” Joseph said. “It was not at all easy to turn around and help.”

Many people I met had similar stories. Lebanon is a country with a history of war and conflict, and the people here have experienced more tragedy and trauma than I could imagine. In Mill Valley, the only people who have war stories are veterans who fought overseas, but here almost every citizen has been affected by conflict.

Joseph described a Lebanese woman who did not want to help the Syrians even though they had never harmed her. “I was kidnapped, I was shot at, my father was killed by the Syrian army, and I forgive them,” he said.

We got back in the car, and the conversation turned to Syria. “There are close to 1,000 [political] parties fighting in Syria, and I don’t think three together have the same agenda,” Joseph said. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 6.5 million Syrians have been internally displaced since 2011. When people talk about refugees, Joseph thinks they sometimes don’t understand how many there are in such small countries such as Lebanon. “The population of the US is 300 million, so imagine having 150 million refugees,” he said. Starting in 2007, when Iraqi refugees began entering the country, rental prices increased dramatically in response to housing demand. Prices have continued to increase because many refugees live in apartments instead of tents, especially Christian refugees. Tents mainly house refugees from agricultural backgrounds.

As we approached the bottom of the hill, we passed a military checkpoint. “This checkpoint was attacked by a suicide bomber, maybe eight months ago,” Joseph said. Again, we were waved through. I was still very nervous about what to expect.

We continued on dirt roads through the valley, which was foggy and wet and full of green fields. The first tent settlement that I saw was across a field. I expected it to be massive and stretch on for miles, but it was not very big. Joseph said that the refugees generally live with people from the same places or who are similar to them so there are many small camps. “There are a lot of problems in the camps because people are living in a tribal way,” he said. A few miles away I could see a mountain. Behind it was a second mountain and then Syria. “There’s no fence, it’s not a border, so people can sneak in and out,” Joseph said.

The road was now one-car wide and filled with potholes. We pulled up to the first camp and the truck with supplies parked facing the camp, inside the fence. Joseph began yelling at the drivers from the car. He told us that as part of their safety precautions they park so they can leave quickly if anything happens. He said once they were in a camp when the men began fighting and closed the fence so they couldn’t leave.

The truck turned around, and we parked and got out of the car. I immediately felt very uncomfortable. A few people passed and I felt them staring. I’ve never felt more out of place than I did standing there with my pale skin, blonde hair, and expensive camera. I knew that I shouldn’t have been scared around people who were different. I was raised to be a liberal who rejected prejudice and racism, but in that moment I felt threatened.

It was beginning to rain and it was so cold that my teeth chattered. We went to the trucks and began packing bags with bar soap, detergent, powdered soap, and oil into black bags. My camera was strapped onto my arm but I was too uneasy to ask if I could take pictures. People were crowding behind a rope that had been put up between tents to keep them from gathering around us.

Women came up a few at a time to collect their black bags and showed cards identifying them. I still didn’t take any pictures. We were done with the black bags now, and Beshir, who had been in the supply truck before, led us into the camp. Walking on the rocky gravel in my bulky hiking boots made me feel unsteady. Children were laughing from the sides, probably giddy to see strangers, but I felt vulnerable. A small boy stood in the doorway of a tent to my left. I wished I could take a picture of his watery eyes and face half covered by the doorway. Instead, I forced a smile that felt unnatural but seemed appropriate. He didn’t smile back.

In the doorway of a tent, an older man in a black jacket greeted us. He did not shake any female visitor’s hands, although he did the men’s.  I had been previously warned that it’s not customary for men to shake women’s hands, but I couldn’t help feeling ignored and less important than the men in the room.

The room we entered had four walls of wood, insulated with tent material, but no door. On the back and right walls was an L-shaped formation of cushions, which reminded me of futons. My dad and Beshir sat to my left and Norm and Cher, my grandma, sat to my right. Along the wall to my right, sitting on the cement, were an old woman, a younger woman, an old man, a younger man and many small children. Another young man and young woman joined us.

We were served coffee, made in a special pot with very fine grounds. It smelled like cardamom but tasted bitter. Coffee in the Middle East is served in small cups the size of shot glasses but is so strong that it takes a long time to drink it in very small sips. We introduced ourselves, and the old woman was impressed by how many grandchildren Cher and Norm had. Because, she said, Americans do not have big families. She was expecting two more grandchildren. She once had eight but only has seven now. Her four year-old grandchild was killed by shrapnel from a bomb in Syria. Her son was also killed by a bomb. It had been too dangerous to go to their family cemetery so they were forced to bury him in a road median.

Their family had been in Lebanon for two years. Like most refugees, they went where there was a path for them and ended up in Lebanon without previous planning. They all came at different times, and it has been hard for them in Lebanon.

Refugee men can get odd jobs or work in agriculture, although it’s illegal without a work permit that costs more money than most have. Out of the past year, the grandfather had only been able to get 20 days of work. His son explained that if he waits for work for 10 days, he might get one day of work, and that many employers take advantage of the workers. They deny having employed them and refuse to pay, and since the refugees aren’t legal, there’s nothing that they can do about it. These refugees need money desperately because the cost of living in Lebanon is much higher than in Syria.

Even tents here cost money. I had thought that they were free, but refugees have to pay a rent of $300-1500 for their tents annually, and they have to pay for water too.

“Syria was like a paradise on Earth,” the grandmother said. “Now I cry when I watch the news.” Her voice was matter-of-fact with a twinge of loss. The rain sounded heavily on the tin roof.

The grandfather’s brother is still stuck in Iraq. He said he can’t leave or ISIS will kill him, although through the translation I wasn’t clear on why. ISIS lets people choose how they want to die now, he said. They can shoot you or behead you. The grandmother’s sister is missing, and they don’t know if she is alive or dead. Before we left, my grandparents wanted to pray for them. I looked around and everyone was closing their eyes and looking down so I did the same. As we left I saw a truck of young children, about 8-12 years old, coming back from agricultural work. At that age I was in elementary school. Instead of working all day to keep my family sheltered in a one-room tent, I was playing tag at recess. An estimated 70 percent of Lebanon’s agriculture comes from the Bekaa Valley, and many children have to work to support their families.

There was one more camp that we visited, but only for a quick supply distribution. After visiting the family in the first camp, I wasn’t nervous around the refugees anymore. We stood in a building with a door but no walls, and I took a picture of a woman with red hands, stained from working in tobacco fields. She held up peace signs when I took her picture.

Heart for Lebanon has a school in the Bekaa Valley for refugee children, which we visited next. The school had 75 students, all of whom were specifically chosen by Heart for Lebanon because they were particularly at risk, including orphans and children whose parents were desperate for them to go to school. The children were all Muslim, but in each classroom they sang Christian songs for us. I wondered if their parents minded that they were singing songs from a different religion. When I asked one of the teachers, she said that the parents don’t mind that the school is Christian because the children need the education and they understand that the Christian values that the students learn are about kindness and supporting one another and that the school never tells the students that Muslim beliefs are wrong.

At dinner, we learned that there had been a car bombing of a politician near a Palestinian camp in the South in Tyre, an area we had planned to visit the next day. We decided not to go.


All we planned to do today was to visit one more Heart for Lebanon school in Beirut, which they call a ‘Hope Center.’ I wasn’t expecting anything different from what I’d seen previously. Our guide was Denise, who is the head of the Heart for Lebanon schools. We were led up a few flights of stairs into a room where over 100 Syrian children were sitting for morning chapel. They began singing songs, reading the words on a projector and jumping and dancing to the music. All the songs were about Jesus, some in Arabic, so a teacher translated the song lyrics for us. After they sang, Denise put a few kids on stage and had other kids call out encouragements, telling them that they were smart or funny or beautiful. Then they complimented the person next to them and one girl turned to the boy next to her and said “I encourage you to lose weight,” to which he responded, “I encourage you to always keep a smile on your beautiful face.” I have infinite respect for him.

A few years earlier, before the school was opened, Denise was driving with another person from Heart for Lebanon one day and saw a woman walking and decided to stop the car and help her. She asked the woman where she lived and she pointed at a cement factory. When they got there, she found families living there, breathing in cement dust, and children playing in mud. One little girl would go out to a fence and watch school children on the other side every day, crying because she wanted to go to school. It was here that Denise met the boy she would start the school for. She found many other Syrian children living in Beirut whose mothers would lock them in rooms during the day because they had nowhere to send them while they worked. God, Denise said, had given her all these children, and he was asking her what she was going to do about it, so she made the school.

I could feel her passion when she talked about the school and the hurt that she felt when she talked about the conditions the children were in. The newest student, Leilah, had initially been turned away from the school because there was no room. Her mom had later brought Leilah to the school and showed Denise the cuts on her wrists. Leilah tried to kill herself because she wanted to learn that badly. She’s six years old.

As I sat with Denise in her office, a boy came in and sat on her lap. She said he was 13 and volunteered at the school. He had gone to the regular daytime school before, but he was too violent and, even though she said it broke her heart, she had to make him leave the school.

“Some of [the students] were very aggressive, very mad. Now they’re laughing and smiling,” she said. The boy ended up coming back to the Heart for Lebanon school and is no longer violent. Denise cannot re-enroll him because of his actions before, but he spends his days helping teachers and students in classrooms and has special classes after school. He spends all day there, helping with the other students. He plays the violin and was enthusiastic to show us.

At the other schools I had just seen children in classes, but here was a woman who was changing their lives, allowing them to spend all their time there because they couldn’t be anywhere else. She created special programs for children who enroll late or have special circumstances, because she’s willing to do anything to help them. And the students know it. When she went into a classroom all the children hugged her immediately.

“She probably had 15 kids come up and hug her from the front and 10 kids behind,” my dad said. Denise was strict with them when she needed to be but at the same time incredibly kind and loving. This wasn’t just a school; it was a place where they went to love each other and be part of something bigger.

When we left, the children ran up to the car to hug Danise and tell her not to leave. I almost felt jealous of the students, for whom the school was the only place on earth that they wanted to be.

Back at the hotel, my dad and I had a long conversation about our visit, and he said that he’d had an epiphany about Christianity while we were at the school.

“I have the same values as [Christians] do, to be kind and generous and love one another, but I just don’t label it Jesus,” he said. For the first time I think I also understood what their religion meant to them, because of the environment that Denise had fostered.


I came to Lebanon because I wanted to feel like I was helping the refugees, but at this point I’ve realized that my presence didn’t do much. There’s a tendency to continuously repeat how sorry we are for them and how much we care, but in the end it sounds insincere and doesn’t help them one bit. They don’t want to hear us drag on about how much we care or how many people are praying for them, and it’s condescending to treat them like they need people to cry for them.

It’s hard not to feel guilty about my trip after this realization. While the refugees were trapped in their tents, I was the observer who stopped by to have a look before I returned back to my comfortable life in Mill Valley. I thought this trip would turn me into a humanitarian and a better person. I thought that my outlook on life would be drastically changed and I would become passionate about advocating support for refugees, but it didn’t transform me in any of the ways I expected. More than anything, this trip disabused me of my image of my future self as a human rights activist or hero. Is it selfish to be content with my trip even though I didn’t help anyone? Maybe, but this trip caused me to become aware of my religious beliefs, and my prejudices and fears, and broadened my view on the world, something that I’ve realized I want to continue to do throughout my life.

The primary purpose of my trip, other than my own experience, was to spread awareness of the refugees plight. However, awareness has its limitations. Nothing changes unless that awareness leads to actual action, refugees being welcomed into our communities, into the US. If everyone in the US could have the opportunity to meet the refugees and to understand how they are living, then there is a good chance that we would already have opened our borders to many more of them, but that’s not realistic.

I took pictures during my trip because they speak about my experience in an intimate and personal way, one that I hope can translate to readers. Aiming to change the lives of Syrian citizens might be an overly ambitious goal, but sharing my interactions with them is something I can do. There are no blanket statements that I can make about the refugees I met. They are all different and some I liked. Some I didn’t, because they’re just people. But none of them should be deprived of their rights to safe education, employment, and a safe country to call home.