Gerson: The children among the ruins
BEIRUT, Lebanon — A 5-year-old Syrian refugee explains the picture he has drawn: "This is a boy. This is a bed. This is a bomb. This is an apple." Wondering if the apple has some special significance to him, I ask (through the interpreter) why he included it. He looks at me like an idiot foreigner. "Because I like apples."
It is the bomb that is out of place in his memory. Others around the low table, children 4 to 6, have drawn pictures including helicopters, explosions, burning buildings and sniper rifles. "My home is all broken in Syria," one girl explains. Another girl's drawing includes her mother, a house, a fire, a scorpion. "A rocket came," she says quietly, "and hit my father in the head." When the group was asked what they hope to be when they grow up, a 5-year-old boy offers, "I want to be ISIS." Which clearly represents strength to him, in the midst of helplessness.
The young can be admirably resilient. But seldom in history have adults managed to traumatize children on so vast a scale. What will be the eventual effect of millions of children torn from their homes, exposed to violence, hardened by loss, deprived (in many cases) of education and introduced to the hatreds and resentments of their elders? We yawn at a civilizational catastrophe, then complain about how violent all these foreigners seem to be.
Here in Lebanon there are somewhere between 1.2 million (the number formally registered) and 1.6 million refugees. This is about a third of Lebanon's population. (By way of contrast, the number of refugees President Obama is proposing to take is about .003 percent of the American population.) There are now more Syrian school-aged children in Lebanon than there are Lebanese school-aged children in Lebanon.
This represents a remarkable historical turn. Ten years ago, the Syrian army controlled Lebanon, and the country was an inch away from being absorbed into "Greater Syria." Now the Syrians are back, this time as the homeless and helpless. In this light, Lebanon has been welcoming. But the welcome frays. Wages are depressed. Housing prices are inflated. Syrian children report being taunted and bullied.
The Lebanese government — what there is of it — lives in an official state of denial. Given its experience with 12 Palestinian refugee camps — squalid, restive and apparently permanent — Lebanon has not permitted the creation of formal Syrian refugee camps. So about 20 percent of the refugees live in "informal tented settlements" (the term of art) ranging from five to perhaps 100 families. Organizations such as World Vision (my host for the trip here) are providing water and encouraging sanitation and hygiene. The other 80 percent of refugees live in basements, garages and sheds, or a few families to an apartment.
Many Syrians have burned through their savings and borrowed from relatives and stores. The average refugee family is about $1,000 in debt. Some have pulled children out of school to take jobs. Others have forced daughters into early marriage. Many refugees dream of a promised land of welcome and opportunity: Germany. America no longer seems to play that role, or wants it.
Whoever is responsible for this radiating wave of misery — and many are responsible, through action and inaction — the Syrian refugee crisis is now the greatest humanitarian challenge since the height of the AIDS pandemic. As with that tragedy, it is a generational test.
If the global refugee response is insufficient here, it is insufficient. If American churches and charities are not relevant here, they are irrelevant. If American foreign policy is resigned or indifferent, it has badly lost its way.
When American politicians stir up fear of Syrian refugees, I will think of Abir, a woman living in a plastic tent with her five daughters in the Bekaa Valley. She tells of being driven from place to place by combat, of being shot in the leg by a sniper. Her husband is missing. "I'm always scared for my girls," says Abir, who keeps them under close watch to preserve their honor. The oldest, Batoul, 13, has written out a letter in neat Arabic. "I miss you dad," it says, "I feel like I'm choking when I tell my story because it ends with you not next to me." When Abir talks about her daughters' future, the despair in her voice needs no translation. "They haven't seen anything from life yet," she says through tears.
Nor will they, without help. Nor will millions of other children, living in the ruins of their childhood.
Michael Gerson is a columnist for The Washington Post.