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Sons & Sunflowers
By Kelly Hayes-Raitt

We stand in the shadow of the mosque, the muzzien crying out his forlorn afternoon prayers as if he were searching for a lost place.  I survey the neat rows of tents planted on the dusty parking lot and wonder how to tell the story of these Syrian refugees.

The numbers are overwhelming.  The stories are overwhelming.  The fears are overwhelming.  There seems to be no end to the river of damaged and terrorized people flowing through the porous border from Syria into Lebanon.

By the end of the year, it is estimated that the four million Lebanese will absorb one million Syrian refugees – homeless, hurting, helpless refugees relying on the mercy of strangers.

Throughout Lebanon and Syria, the Synod of Protestant Churches in Syria is working with other refugee relief agencies to provide basic human services.  In Marj, for example, a small community in the fertile Beqaa Valley, the local government has dedicated public land for 45 families to live in tents provided by the United Nations.  The Church provides children with hygiene and school supply kits and organizes activities to keep their tarnished souls lively.

“We started as a temporary office for the displaced,” explained Mahmoud Ibrahim, a representative from the municipality.  “We wanted other [non-governmental organizations] to take the responsibility.  Nobody came.  Temporary things became permanent.”

Sometimes two families squeeze into the 10'x15’ claustrophobic tents.  The municipality provides electricity and water.  There is no regular food distribution.   The Church fills in where its funds allow.

I am invited over to one family’s tent where an overhead blanket is strung to provide shade in the blinding afternoon.  A “porch” is created by rows of tin can planters in which grow basil, jade, roses and sunflowers.  I stoop under the blanket awning, step over the plants and perch in a plastic chair at a small table to interview Hasan, a 48-year-old father who fled the Damascus suburbs with his children and wife after his 65-year-old father was kidnapped from his home.  I glance at Hasan’s 9-year-old son and ask whether we should be talking about this violence in front of him.  Hasan shrugs.  He’s heard worse.  He’s seen worse

I’m struck by the effort to beautify the stifling, futureless camp with flowers that grow more naturally than the children.  As the afternoon deepens, the sunflowers raise their chins to the sun, secure in a nourished future, while Hasan leans languidly against a tent pole, cupping the chin of his son and gazing up at the mosque beyond the walled camp.

Kelly Hayes-Raitt visited Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon last month.  An award-winning author of a forthcoming journalists memoir about refugees, she blogs at




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