Monday, January 20, 2014

In No Man's Land, a Village Helps Refugees

By: Kaylyn Hlavaty
Based in Beirut, Lebanon

In the northeast corner of Lebanon is the predominately Christian village of Qaa. It shares a border with Syria and is located just about 5 km away from Hermel; a town that is feeling the repercussions of the neighboring war in Syria. After a four-hour ride in a small ten-person van, I arrived at night in the small town of Qaa with two of my friends.  Our friend, Fernando who is a seasoned freelance photographer greeted us with open harms as we stepped out of the van and into the cool, crisp air. The sky was lit up by stars and in the distance a thick fog casted a white cloud over buildings and the mountains. Once out of the car, we headed to Fernando’s friend Abuna’s house. In Arabic, Abuna means father. His real name is Elian Nasrallah. He is a Greek Orthodox priest who lives with his family next to the church. He welcomes us and we have a dinner filled with labneh, bread, vegetables and chai. He is one of two priests in the town. Following dinner, we gather in the room heated by a gas burner and Turkish coffee.  The conversation is mostly spoken in Arabic with the exception of my friends translating for me in English. The disadvantage of not speaking Arabic is a barrier I’m constantly working to overcome. 
On left: Church and Abuna's house right next to it. Photo taken by Kaylyn Hlavaty

Soon after the coffee was depleted and our eyes became heavy, it was time to head back to Ferando’s place and get some shuteye for the long day ahead. Being the kind person he is, Abuna offered to drive us home.  A drive home turned into a tour of the village. In the short time I was in the car, I learned that,” when I’m with the Abuna, anything goes and he has the influence to do so”. To prove my point, he drove us past the Lebanese army at the border. They waved, smiled and ushered us through. Then we passed a Hezbollah guard and it was the same reaction. From there, I was literally only 300 m away from the Syrian border. For now, it’s the closest I’ve ever been to the border. Qaa is a place where any stranger can enter, but if you don’t have a contact in the village, a person is sure to be stopped by Hezbollah, special forces, a retired solider and even a local. They are all working together to tighten security by patrolling the area at all hours of the night. Once evening falls, around five p.m., the village feels like a ghost town. The occasional ship owner still keep his door open and lights on for a villager who wants some fruit, labneh or bread. 

On left:the Greek Orthodox church and Abuna's house next to it. Photo taken by : Kaylyn Hlavaty

The following morning, our day started early. The air was crisp and the sun was shining. It was a pleasant change from the constant beeping and traffic that polluted Beirut. My lungs and sanity appreciated the break for two days. I saw more locals proceeding with the daily tasks of village life. One woman was picking and sorting cotton and another nearby was hanging laundry on the clothesline. We headed to Abuna’s house for breakfast before going to the clinic to help treat the injured children and adults. As we were eating breakfast, we heard the news of a suicide bombing in the Hermel, which is a town over from Qaa, about 4 km away.  Throughout the past night and the following morning, I heard rockets launched in the distance. A village that was probably silent and calm before the conflict was now muddled with the sounds of BOOM, BOOM, BOOM. In the afternoon, I walked across the street to the building that serves as a clinic in the morning and a school in the late afternoon. The building is basic in all sense of the word. The top floor is used for medical services and the bottom is used for classrooms.  

Syrian children waiting for a check up. Photo taken by Kaylyn Hlavaty

Since 9 a.m, there was a constant traffic of adults and children waiting to be looked at by the staff of only two doctors,one nurse and a couple of volunteers. Ferrando invited us into the room of general medicine. Lying on the bed was Syrian boy about five- years- old. He was born paralyzed and was going to die within a day or so. The doctor recommended the family take him to the hospital, but they didn’t want to bear the costs since he was going to die anyway. Throughout the day, I saw cases where mothers waited up  to ten days to take their child to see the doctor. Many of the refugees are not educated and to no fault of their own, don’t know preventive health practices. Many are afraid of the potential financial burden.

A doctor examining a young boy. Photo taken by Kaylyn Hlavaty

By mid-afternoon, my friends and I were planning to head back to Beirut. Since there is no set time for transportation, we wanted to  make sure that we didn't miss a bus. Ferando suggested we stay another night so we can see the children come in for school. With no Internet and computer, we opted to get back home and we decided we would come back the following week. On the way back, a Lebanese solider gave us a ride to the next town over so we could catch a bus. The trip to Qaa gave me the opportunity to find many story ideas and it was nice to be in a place that wasn't saturated with  journalists. Once we got back to Beirut, Syrian missiles struck the town of Qaa. It was a good thing we came back when we did, but I still wished I was there to report about it. This week, I plan on going back to no man's land.

A woman getting her foot wrapped. Photo taken by Kaylyn Hlavaty

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