Middle East Airlines takes off from chilly London on time, headed for Beirut, where I am headed to render aid to Syrian refugees on behalf of Comfort Aid International donors. Next to me sits a burly Lebanese man with a massive gut who fidgets impatiently for the seat belt sign to come off, then signals a stewardess over; orders whiskey with soda water. He downs the entire glass with a flip of his wrist, then orders another, then another and more, making me increasingly apprehensive. What if he becomes belligerent, like most drunks do? I need not worry; the guy is dead to the world as soon he consumes a massive lunch, then snores all the way to Beirut.
Immigration at Beirut airport is a breeze; a teenage officer asks me if this is my first visit to Lebanon then stamps my passport carelessly and waves me through. New security laws bar me from using my cellphone, it has to be a local Lebanese bought instrument. The cheapest available is US$100; I decline. The ten-minute taxi ride from airport to Holiday Inn gives my heart palpitations; the driver speeds around recklessly, radio blasting verses from the Quraan. I shout at him to slow down but he cares not, perhaps thinks I am enjoying the torment, for he bares teeth happily and screams Formula One, Beirut style! I walk into the hotel wobbly but thankful I am in one piece.
Beirut is perhaps the most expensive city I have set foot in; I feel like shedding tears every time I eat or take a cab or surf the Internet. Why, a simple breakfast of two eggs, coffee and toast sets me back US$20! For varied reasons, security mostly, I stay in an upscale area, full of trendy hotels, restaurants and shopping, well fed faces. Women wear clothes that seem second skin and streaks of ghastly hair dye highlight even ghastlier hairdos. Indonesian, Pilipino or Ethiopian maids trail behind mothers, pushing infant laden carts. I am handicapped without a working cellphone so very politely, with the widest smile I can muster, beg pretty Preity Zinta lookalike receptionist at Holiday Inn to call my local contact and instruct him to come meet with me. She hmmmms and hmmmms then asks me why I can’t use the phone from my room. Well, I say, because one local call will put me back a cool US$3; she bats kohl laden eyelids at me and makes the call.
Haji Jihad, an instantly likable, soft-spoken man comes to meet me. Ahlan, ahlan wa sahlan, welcome, welcome, he says in excellent English, please don’t look so lost in Lebanon. Thank you for travelling thousands of miles for the sake of humanity; I commend you. What can I do for you, my brother? These compliments always make me squirm, so I uncomfortably shift in my chair. I tell him I want to assess the situation of refugees from Syria, tell him I have heard they eat but one meal a day, tell him CAI will help with food aid, especially with Ramadhan around the corner. I tell him I want to go see and meet with the refugees personally.
Haji is blunt; he scans my face with steel grey-blue eyes and nods. Very admirable, brother, but reality about Syrian refugees is this: The areas they are housed in are rightly, tightly controlled by Lebanese security; I’ll have to get you special permission to go there, which may take days. Alternatively, you can go through Hezbollah... No! I say instantly, urgently. I tell him I do not want to, even remotely, break laws of any country, especially mine; I will not meet or associate with Hezbollah under any circumstances. Haji nods his head knowingly, wisely. I thought so. Anyway, Hezbollah will put you under their own scrutiny, to make sure you are not an enemy and who knows where that will get you, so we’ll forget about Hezbollah. Why not go through the offices of the marjeeya? They are non-political and are actively helping the refugees anyway. Yes, I agree, lets do that.
I am set.
Abu Hyder and his son Mahdi arrive two hours late, carrying gifts of Lebanese pastries, apologizing profusely; their drive from Damascus to Beirut was murderous. They speak rudimentary English, excellent Arabic and French; my Arabic is even more elementary and French language sounds, to me, like a person barfing so conversation is much labored. I can understand them all right but my spoken Arabic is pretty pathetic; I vigorously flail my hands to augment my speech instead.
A grim picture of cold-blooded murder, pillage, rape, hunger and desperation in Syria emerges from horrid tales they relate. Refugees, especially those professing the Shia faith are not only hungry and destitute, but in real danger of being cleansed away due to their faith. Now, they relate a lot of incidents, a lot of atrocities committed by the fighting in Syria (and I thought I have heard and seen it all in Afghanistan and Pakistan). I can’t relate them all here but one I must.
A Shia Muslim couple with two children live in a two-room apartment in Zain Abedeen village. Al Nusra group kidnaps them, butchers the man, makes steaks of his body and places these in a bag inside their apartment. Nusra then releases the wife and kids, allow them to return to their apartment. The wife finds her husbands remains this way, blood soaking through a bag. Abu Hyder relates the wife weeps and beats herself in anguish daily. What can I do Akhi, he laments, what can I do? I help her with food and pay the rent for her apartment, apart from this, what can I do? I feel so numb and horrified; I think I will throw up.
Villages of Halab, Nib al Zahra, Mashad, Al Rabwa, Al Hyder, Zarzooria, Al Mazraa, Dalaboos, Al Raqqa, Ghoor in Homs are besieged, over 19,000 families affected. For about seven months all roads from Nib al Zahra to the nearest town of Halab is closed, too dangerous to travel. The price of bread, twenty US cents then, shoots up to US$1.20. People cannot go to see a doctor if sick. Al Nusra fighters, mostly Chechens, agree to look the other way if a bribe of US$200 - $300 is forthcoming. The government relieves some hunger by airdrops of food and medicines.
Abu Hyder tells me about the good life he lived before the war. A businessman, he lived a generous life, practiced the Shia faith freely, helped the poor and cared for orphans, feeding and schooling them from the wealth he earned. All gone, khalaas, he says ruefully, clapping his hands miserably. Why? Because I am a Shia, what have we ever done, Ya Allah? I am not political, I don’t care who rules Syria as long as I am left alone to earn a living, follow my faith and help others. By Allah, we give water and feed animals before we slaughter them for food, this is basic mercy our religion teaches us. These people slaughter humans? Do animals do this? All in the name of religion? And then take sadistic pleasure in it all? Ya Allah! He proceeds to show me piles of documents with photographs of widows and orphans he is currently helping. He has other children, with giveaway Shia names of Hyder, Mahdi, Abbas, Mohsin and Hawra. Are you not afraid they’ll be targeted by the Al Nusra and harmed, I ask. Abu Hyder regards at me intently for a moment before responding. If I have to sacrifice my children in the love of Ahlul Beyt, so be it.
Later, Haji Jihad takes me to the offices of Grand Marja Mohsin Al Hakeem’s office in the south of the city. Where there is flesh and opulence in the area I stay, it is the opposite here. I see not a single woman without hijab, the place is much crowded, the buildings not so fancy. To one side is a sprawling Palestinian refugee camp and to the right, 750,000 Shia Muslims reside. Syed Hyder Ali Hakeem runs the charitable offices for Syrian refugees from Beirut, relocated from Damascus when it becomes much too dangerous. Like other ulema offices, the Syed is super busy; I am lost among array of amaamas. A relatively young man, soft spoken and calm as a cucumber, he gives Haji Jihaad and me private audience and repeats the same heart retching tales as Abu Hyder. He shows me neat and meticulous paperwork on over 19,000 poor and destitute refugees.
Haji Jihaad informs me there are but a handful of restaurants that serve halaal meat other than South Beirut, ajeeb, but treats me to a sumptuous dinner downtown. Beirut city here is very modern, clean and chic, people are very well dressed and look affluent; the prices of everything certainly reflect this. The traffic is congested but orderly, even if Lebanese tend to be super emotional drivers and can be overtly expressive with hand gestures. Haji Jihad insists he shows me some of Beirut tomorrow. I know he is a super busy businessman, apart from his humanitarian activities, so I protest. Ah, he waves my protest away, you have travelled many miles to come here, you must see Beirut. As for trouble, umm, what are brothers for?
An unsolicited knock on my hotel door late in the evening unnerves me but it is only the hotel manager, felicitating my country’s birthday, bearing me a delicious looking chocolate cake. What a nice touch, makes me proud being an American.
I go sightseeing with Haji Jihad; what a treat!
Comfort Aid International has in place a program to feed 3,000 refugee families with basic food supplies that will last about 6 weeks. The distributions of these relief supplies will begin as soon as procedures, logistics are in place; by next week insha’Allah.