Virginie Lefèvre from medico partner Amel Association in Libanon is talking with medico. How Lebanese interact with 1.5 million Syrian refugees. About misery and perspectives of the war in Syria. And about the nomination of Amel for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Katja Maurer: Virginie, how can we imagine the situation in Lebanon?
Virginie Lefèvre: I believe you cannot imagine, because having 1.5 million Syrian refugees in a country, which has 4 million inhabitants is not something you would see in other countries. You need to add to this 200.000, 300.000 Palestinian refugees, who were already in Lebanon and 50.000 Palestinian refugees from Syria. So in terms of figures, you cannot imagine it. Also because Syrian refugees in Lebanon are more or less living with the Lebanese. We don’t have those big camps you find in Jordan or Turkey. Lebanese, from the very beginning welcomed the Syrian refugees, since they were considering them as their brothers, it’s all the same region. It’s not one country, but they have this common and shared story.
So I believe that to understand and to imagine the situation of Lebanon, you need to go and to discuss with the refugees and to understand really what are their dire living conditions. No access to education, very limited access to health, very limited access to housing. And then to realize that the situation is just dramatic and that this country can collapse at any time. And that we are just doing the minimum. This drop of water to prevent this collapse, but we never know what is going to happen tomorrow in Lebanon.
For many years you live on this edge between peace and war. What is the task of Amel?
Amel is a Lebanese NGO created in 1979. We are non-sectarian, what is quite unique in Lebanon, a country which is very divided, very politicized. We are working through 24 centers and 6 mobile medical units all over Lebanon, but particularly in Beirut, in the Bekaa next to the Syrian border. And in South Lebanon as well.
We are active in different sectors, but basically our approach is to have a comprehensive set of activities and services all contributing to ensure the dignity of all the population without discrimination. So we have health services, and this is where we are working in partnership with medico international. But as well we have education, child protection, livelihood. This is for everything in relation with emergency. But we also keep development programs with support to rural cooperatives, support to migrant domestic workers, a summer school on international humanitarian law. But basically and with all the population affected by the Syrian crisis, what we are doing is that we are ensuring that they have their basic needs met. And that they can be, to a certain extent, empowered, so that they can be self-reliant.
medico is one of the first NGOs, who contacted Amel saying "We see what is happening, we are listening to the news. What can we do to support you?" And from the very beginning, we started in the areas affected by the crisis, in Arsal, in the Bekaa to be able to respond very quickly to the needs.
You participate in many of the programs. What was the most awful moment during that time?
My first response would be to tell you that everyday is horrific, because I don’t see the end of what is happening. It’s horrific to see a woman, who doesn’t have the means to pay the hospital to deliver properly. It’s horrific to see a child begging in the street and not being able to access education. Now what was particularly difficult for me was, and is still, the situation in Arsal, were we are working in partnership with medico. In this particular area, we have more Syrian refugees in the small city than Lebanese and no access to anything. There are no job opportunities, there are very few possibilities to access education, protection services and health. Amel is the only NGO which stayed there, even when there were some particular critical times of violence.
What can Germans learn from the Lebanese people?
People in Europe and in other countries of the world should be inspired by the generosity of the Lebanese people. It’s a model and we need to highlight it. They should also be inspired by the fact that even though Syrian refugees have seen such horrific things, they are still able to integrate in another country. They should be "wow, how can they do this? How can you come from a country, which is at war and then just reintegrate and resume not your normal life, because you are not in your country, but try to survive." What Germans could learn from Lebanon as well, I think, is a commitment, a commitment to humanity, to say "I don’t care where you are coming from, I just need to host you."
What could be a solution to the Syrian conflict?
First, and it’s very important to remind it constantly, that this crisis will never end without a political solution. This may sound very obvious, but when you are seeing people relying so much on humanitarian action, we are funding humanitarian action on the one hand, but selling weapons on the other hand, it does not make sense. So yes to humanitarian action, yes to development action, but first and immediately, we need a political solution. What is going to be this political solution? This political solution can only be democracy. Now I don’t want to go into details, this is for me what makes sense. This political solution should come from the Syrian people and they have this ability. We see them everyday, they want to go back to their country, they want to rebuild this country.
When you are discussing with youths, they don’t want to stay as refugees, they don’t want to stay unemployed. They don’t want to rely on humanitarian aid, what they want is to go back to Syria, work, rebuild their country, having in their hands the tools to construct, to build their own future. So the political solution is with the people of Syria and as well it’s with the international community. It should be a priority. We know from previous history, that as soon as the international community will make the decision "we need to stop this war”, this war will stop.
What does Amel expect from medico?
I think that, already, what we are doing together is really interesting. Through a fair partnership between a German NGO and a Lebanese NGO, we are able on a monthly basis to provide thousands of consultations and access to health to the most vulnerable population. And this has been ongoing for more than three years. This is already amazing. What we are expecting from medico as well is to help us to continue and to keep the focus on the situation in Lebanon, on the neighbouring country of Syria and to raise attention on the importance of having a political solution to this crisis. On the importance of having European countries opening their borders to Syrian refugees. And on the importance as well of international solidarity with Lebanon in terms of funding, indeed, because we need the support to continue to sustain this country, to keep all these people alive.
Amel is nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Can NGOs bring peace nowadays?
Amel was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by the former Lebanese minister of finance, his Excellency Georges Corm. So this is already very good, because it’s a recognition of our non-sectarian work with the most vulnerable population since 1979. So already we are happy that this is being recognized. Is this a solution to peace? No. But it is a tool to promote peace. The purpose of it is not the prize, the purpose of it for us is to bring visibility to this crisis, so that this crisis will not become a forgotten crisis. And also for all those NGOs such as Amel, such as medico, which are independent, which are non-sectarian, which are working besides political connection and everything, we are able to make a difference at the field level. This would be a recognition and a way to highlight this work.
Virginie, thank you for this very interesting talk and hopefully we see each other in Lebanon very soon.
Hopefully, you are more than welcome to join us in Lebanon. Thank you.
side view mirror are talks with medico partners from the global South, objections into debates, reflections on aid and political perspectives.
All parts of the series are available here.