Fire destroys homes in Syrian camps, takes lives

Lebanon (MNN) — Last Sunday, a fire broke out in the largest Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon. It was followed by another fire on Tuesday in a separate camp. Both fires took place in the Bekaa valley, and both claimed the lives of at least one person.

SAT-7, a Christian satellite television ministry to the Middle East and North Africa, has been serving these refugees alongside Heart for Lebanon. The two ministries have shared resources in order to provide education, share the Gospel, and answer other needs as well.
Sunday’s fire
(Photo courtesy of SAT-7 USA via Facebook)

A spokesman from Heart for Lebanon, Tom Atema shares, “Sunday, a fire broke out in one of the camps in the Bekaa Valley, which houses the most Syrian refugees of any location in the whole country of Lebanon.”

While the numbers are uncertain, there are between 900,000 to 1.6 million refugees in the Bekaa Valley, Atema says, and about 600,000 are children between the ages of five and 13.

“Most of them, 58 percent of them are women and children. Men are either killed in war, serving in war, or have been injured in war.”

He says preliminary investigations suggest the first fire began electrically. The fire spread quickly, too, due to the materials used in the camp to construct tents — materials like cardboard and tarps. To make matters worse, propane tanks used to fuel stoves stood in the way of the fire.

“These [propane tanks] caught fire and started to explode which caused more damage, which caused more fire, which caused more injuries.”
What caused the fire?
How the fire started is important, but not just so we know how to prevent future fires. The cause of the fire actually proves just how desperate these refugee families are. As individuals seeking refuge in Lebanon, Syrians are not really allowed to do anything. They have illegally taken up residence meaning they can’t get a job or pursue their education. Atema says they can’t even spend money, even if they could somehow come up with an income. The way he sees it, there are three outcomes in the camps for people in this situation.

One, he says, is that organizations step up and fill the gap in “humanitarian aid, Christ’s love, conversations, delivering what they need to sustain life, and bring them into a relationship with Jesus Christ for eternal life.”

(Photo courtesy of SAT-7)

But if organizations and ministries don’t attempt to fill that gap, someone else will. This is the second outcome: “Radical groups fill that gap — and they will, and they are filling that gap with hatred and hiring kids as early as eight years of age to march for pay against the West.”

And finally, if neither of the previous outcomes have come true yet, they will steal what they need to survive. This final outcome seems to have contributed to the fire.

“Too many people were stealing electricity off the pole, and it caught fire, went down, and lit a tent on fire,” Atema explains.
Tuesday’s fire and a girl named Hagar
It would appear that the second fire began in a similar way. In fact, despite the low number of fires that have occurred in refugee camps, Atema says there are many precarious situations in the camps that could cause a fire at any time.

Heart for Lebanon does not currently operate in the camp where Sunday’s fire was. But they do work in the second camp and witnessed the devastation there. The fire broke out early in the morning, around 12:30 am when much of the camp was asleep.

“Bottom line is, 25 tents were burned to the ground. And when you have a fire in the West, most of the time we lose everything, but we can restore it. When refugees lose everything, it’s very hard to restore it,” Atema says.

And as we know, this isn’t the first time these families have lost everything they owned, including their homes. But one family in this camp lost something that could never be replaced. Atema shares the story of one man named Abdel: “Abdel’s tent caught fire and burned while his kids were sleeping. As I said, it destroyed 25 tents. Hagar, which is Abdel’s six-year-old daughter, was burned to death inside the tent.”

The family buried their young girl yesterday. The pain of losing a child — or a sister — is indescribable. But even with this tragedy, there is hope to cling to. Through Heart for Lebanon’s Hope educational program, Hagar and her family heard the Gospel. All of them, including this six-year-old girl, had given their lives to Christ.

Atema asks that we pray for those who have been injured, especially those in critical condition.

In addition, he asks, “Pray for the family that lost a child… and number two is for God’s protection on the refugees as well as on the staff that works with refugees, whether it be SAT-7 or Heart for Lebanon. And number three would be [pray for] wisdom.”

Finally, pray for the resources to be provided to help these two ministries.
The refugee crisis
As we pinpoint painful stories like this, the refugee crisis seems insurmountable. Atema says it’s such a big problem, it’s possible the refugee crisis won’t be relieved until Christ comes back. Nobody knows. He explains how this gives mission organizations a huge challenge. But, rather than despair, he counsels us to consider, “It also gives us, if we get our head around it, the greatest obligation, or privilege, or opportunity to share the love of Christ.”

Hagar’s story is one that should light the Church into an urgency. It reminds us that when people are in need, humanitarian aid is not enough. Only Jesus can provide for our eternal needs. Atema asks the question, what if Hagar had never heard the Gospel? Would there be any hope in her story at all?

(Photo courtesy of SAT-7)

As Heart for Lebanon has been running their Hope educational program, SAT-7 has been catching it on video so they can broadcast it to other camps. This means as kids learn how to play instruments with Heart for Lebanon and put on a concert for the camp along with a play that presents the Gospel, kids far away can also hear the hope of Jesus. Additionally, SAT-7 has been assisting with their Hope on Wheels ministry which travels from camp to camp to give kids a break from the hard life they’ve come to know in the camps and allow them to be a kid again.