What Headlines Don’t Tell You About the Middle East

Middle Eastern cultures have shown how incredibly welcoming and hospitable they can be.

If your impression of the Middle East comes only from the headlines, it might be easy to think it’s a place of social chaos. Uprisings here, violence there, civil strife everywhere.

In just a few weeks, I’ll be going to Lebanon, a country of four million people and one million refugees. This is my second trip to the region since the start of the Syrian conflict. And what I’ve seen is far from social chaos — the Middle Easterners I’ve met have taught me profound lessons about caring for people.

Over the last three years, since the war in Syria and then Iraq began pushing refugees across the borders into Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, Middle Eastern cultures have shown how incredibly welcoming and hospitable they can be. In fact, they may be far more hospitable to suffering people seeking refuge than we in America have shown ourselves to be. When Christians in Iraq were directly targeted and their homes were marked by painting them with an Arabic “n” for Nazarene (Christian) some Muslim neighbors put their own lives in danger by worshiping with Christians or painting the Arabic “n” on their own homes.

Eight-year-old Syrian refugee Hani sits in the room that his family calls home in Lebanon. Courtesy of World Vision.
Eight-year-old Syrian refugee Hani sits in the room that his family calls home in Lebanon. Courtesy of World Vision.

The war in Syria has displaced roughly 12 million people, more than half its population of 23 million. Most of those women, children, and men have fled their homes and sought refuge within Syria, but many escaped to neighboring countries. More than three million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries.

In Lebanon, the situation is particularly acute — and it has many of its own internal difficulties. Some of those challenges are the result of accepting hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees decades ago. Since then, the country fought a brutal civil war between 1975 and 1990. More than a quarter of its population lives below the poverty line. Despite this, Lebanon has mostly kept its borders open, though with so many refugees the situation is changing and once welcoming attitudes are shifting.

Still, to put Lebanese hospitality into perspective, that would be like the United States receiving more than twice the population of Canada. Imagine 85 million refugees coming across our border — a 25 percent increase in our national population in three years time. Would we open our homes and schools to them as the Lebanese and Jordanians have?

It’s hard to imagine that we would. Earlier this year, protesters in California stopped buses carrying refugee children. They simply didn’t want these “illegals” to be housed in nearby facilities. At the time, it was national news that roughly 60,000 minors had crossed the border, many of them fleeing violence from gangs in their communities. Most of these children simply sought safety with family in the U.S. Sure, Americans were shocked, disturbed, upset, politically engaged, but the general tenor of our response was not really one of compassion.

Some of those protestors’ concerns are valid. It is true that hosting so many refugees puts severe pressure on the economy, social services, and infrastructure. Refugee families, with no possessions, are willing to work for meager wages, putting many local workers out of their jobs. These kinds of tensions have made racism a real problem, and social stability in Lebanon is seriously threatened. The U.N. has warned that Lebanon cannot handle the strain caused by such a massive influx of refugees. “It is unthinkable that [Lebanon] should bear the brunt of this pressure without massive international support,” said Ross Mountain, the acting U.N. resident and humanitarian coordinator in Lebanon.

In Lebanon, despite these tensions, hospitality is the norm. Meet Youssef. He was born in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, near the Syrian border where one third of Syria’s refugees have settled. The war in Syria first destroyed his business dream. He was in the middle of constructing a two-story building to house his family’s yogurt business when the builders refused to continue working because they feared a violent spillover from the fighting just across the border.

Then, Youssef found a newlywed couple hiding in the half-finished building next to his house. He helped the couple settle in. Then mothers began knocking on his door, asking for food. He watched widows and children weeping as they walked past his home down into the valley.

Today, Youssef’s front yard overlooks a spontaneous settlement of tarps, twigs, and containers organized into tiny shelters for war-torn people. He wishes that his unfinished building could offer more comfort to his new neighbors. “I have to make sure I care and do what I can for people who are suffering,” he says.

The Middle East, of course, has a long tradition of hospitality. The biblical story of Abraham is one of leaving home and making a new life in a foreign country. Acts of generous hospitality were a legacy passed from generation to generation. It became a core characteristic of God’s people to welcome outsiders. “You are to love those who are foreigners,” Moses says in Deuteronomy 10:19, “for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” Centuries later, Jesus Christ was a child refugee, as his family fled to Egypt to escape King Herod who wanted to kill him.

Hospitality is now a cultural value that has remained for millennia, one that even in these difficult times allows for a refugee family to find a safe place to stay. There is much more to the people of the Middle East than what we see on the evening news — and much of it we can learn from.

Image via World Vision.

Richard Stearns
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  • bakabomb

    Thanks for this timely commentary. You’re correct that we too often ignore the charitable efforts of other peoples and faiths, while aggrandizing our own. “Zakat” is one specific example of how charity is a core principle of a religion other than Christianity and a culture other than American.