Church aid workers scrambled to find housing for hundreds of Syrian refugees who have fled to neighbouring Lebanon because of ongoing violence between Syrian forces and armed rebels.
About 200 families – more than 1,000 people overall – made their way to the border town of Qaa in the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon and were struggling in the region’s near-freezing temperatures.
Fr Simon Faddoul, president of Caritas Lebanon, told the American Catholic News Service that “women and children and the elderly are coming out in the cold, with nothing but the clothes on their backs, to seek safety”.
“It’s very cold, and they have nothing,” he said.
The UN refugee agency said that as many as 2,000 Syrians crossed into Lebanon on Monday and Tuesday to escape the violence that has claimed hundreds of lives.
Fr Faddoul said most of the refugees arrived on foot from areas near the besieged city of Homs.
“They are leaving the young men behind in Syria to guard their houses” from attack, Fr Faddoul said.
“These are people fleeing from war, their homes under bombardment. Things are getting out of hand,” he added.
Before the latest surge, about 100 families had fled to Lebanon in recent weeks and were receiving assistance from Caritas, the priest said.
Fr Faddoul estimated that about 40 of the newly arrived families were Christian, while the rest were Muslim.
“This has nothing to do with religion. Whenever there is suffering, we have to be there with them and to help them,” he said.
Caritas has deployed two social workers and about 15 volunteers in Qaa. They have distributed 300 blankets and personal hygiene kits.
Fr Faddoul said the availability of adequate housing in the poverty-ravaged town of Qaa is limited. About 30 to 35 refugees are crammed into rooms that are about 126 square feet in size. Caritas is collaborating with municipal officials to locate homes that three or four families could share.
Caritas Lebanon has had a regular presence in the Bekaa Valley, with coordinating programs in agriculture, farming and irrigation to address the region’s poverty in the region.
“Now we have so many concerns, how to find shelters, especially if the situation (in Syria) drags on,” Faddoul said.
“We hope the situation doesn’t deteriorate further,” he added.
In Ottawa, Ontario, Carl Hetu, national director of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, said his agency was monitoring the situation of Christians in Syria.
“Right now there are thousands of people who are displaced, among them are Christians, but that has been because of the conflict, not because of direct attacks on them,” he said in early March.
“Christians are stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Hetu said. “They cannot show approval of the Assad government, but they have to be careful because they can’t be seen to be supporting the rebels, either.”
He said his agency was preparing for a possible massive influx of Syrian refugees to neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan should the already tense situation grow worse.
“Our offices in Jordan and Beirut are expecting the worst if the country goes into wide civil war or the Assad government falls,” he said.
Contributing to this story was Deborah Gyapong in Ottawa.