Lives in limbo: Christian refugees in Lebanon’s long wait for asylum
World Watch Monitor

World Watch Monitor

Petros Babayan strains to sit up as if each bone of his paper-thin frame were heavy as iron. His wife Lydia and adult daughter Rita rush to help him. In their tiny rented apartment in Beirut, his single bed takes up a quarter of the room in which they live and sleep. His large sunken eyes, dark against his paper-white skin, stare straight ahead as he focuses on breathing. “I don’t wish for anything more,” he whispers. He points heavenwards, before adding: “I am at peace, my family are safe.” Two of his children are in the US, one is in Sweden, and one lives in Baghdad.

Petros and his wife left the Iraqi capital in 2010 as increasing violence made life there too perilous. “We came to a point where we couldn’t endure it anymore,” she says. They fled to Damascus in neighbouring Syria and were told they would be accepted as refugees in the US, but as the Syrian civil war escalated, in 2012 the US embassy was shut and its staff withdrawn. In 2014 the couple moved to Lebanon. “We have tried the US embassy in Beirut, but they were no help. We contacted the US embassy in Jordan but they said they couldn’t help us because we are in Lebanon.”

“We’ve had to pay for all Petros’ medical care. I worked for eight years in Baghdad, I saved every penny – and spent it all on Petros.”

Eleven months ago Petros was diagnosed with cancer, and the couple’s focus turned to Petros’ health. “The doctor said he’s had it for ten years or so,” Lydia continues. The couple believes he contracted the disease through exposure to carcinogenic chemicals in the weaponry used during his 14 years in the Iraqi army. Some Iraqi officials have linked the use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war, and the use of depleted uranium by US and UK forces during the Gulf War in 1991 and the US-led invasion of 2003, to a sharp rise in cancers and birth defects. The US and the UK have disputed this.

“We’ve had to pay for all Petros’ medical care,” Lydia continues. “I worked for eight years in Baghdad, I saved every penny – and spent it all on Petros.” Refugees can access some healthcare through the UNHCR, but may have to rely on charities or savings for other treatment.

Lebanon’s population of around 5 million has absorbed more than a million Syrians and tens of thousands of Iraqis with resignation. While a few thousand Syrians who fled civil war have begun returning home, the Iraqis who have applied for asylum in the violent years since 2003 have begun to make their home in their dreams of the West: they have no Plan B. They are stuck, refusing to return to a homeland they say is radicalised, and not yet permitted to resettle elsewhere. The refugee families World Watch Monitor met in Lebanon had spent several years applying for asylum and had relatives in Canada, Australia or the US. Thousands of Iraqi Christians have been granted asylum in the West. Although Lebanon is linguistically and culturally close to Iraq, it does not encourage its refugees to stay, and their experiences on the fringes of its economy, and their impressions of the West, have made them conclude that the better life lies outside the Middle East. Yet the financial and psychological impact of years of waiting is taking its toll.

A current petition about what needs to be done to guarantee a genuine future for Christians in Iraq and Syria has been signed by over 600,000 people in 142 countries. It highlights the precarious situation for religious and ethnic groups in Syria and Iraq, calling for “equal rights, dignified living conditions, and a role for them in reconciling and rebuilding society”.

After experiencing trauma, loss or rejection from their communities, these refugees have placed their hopes in God and the UNHCR. Although some Iraqi Christians are willing to return home, these Iraqis cannot countenance doing so. They believe their former neighbours have been irrevocably radicalised, even though the jihadists themselves are thought to have left.

Four days after World Watch Monitor met Petros, he died. Within hours, 20 or so mourners had attended his requiem Mass and burial. “If he’d died at home in Iraq, hundreds would have come to his funeral,” comments a European Christian who supports a number of Christian refugee families in Lebanon. For Petros the “Promised Land” remained a spiritual reality rather than a physical one. His family are safe, but scattered. If his widow Lydia is granted asylum, she will not be able to visit his grave.

The Middle Eastern Church’s massive loss over the last 14 years could be the global Church’s gain, enriching it with ancient traditions, new narratives, different experience of other faiths and, in the case of pastors such as Kevork, a formidable passion for evangelism. Scholars and others fret that Eastern traditions may blend within a generation into Western denominations or even secularism. But as the Seyfo histories attest, these are Christians with long memories. Meanwhile those Iraqis who have given up on their home country and placed their hope in asylum in the West feel the ongoing economic and psychological strain, and can but wait.

*Some names have been changed for security reasons.

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