The Babies of Beqaa Valley
by Katy Johnson
Walk the refugee camps of the Beqaa Valley and you realize at its root, the Syrian crisis in Lebanon is a crisis of children.
Seven years since the outbreak of the war in Syria, the valley no longer cradles hundreds of children, but thousands. At last count, the international community believes 75,000 Syrian children have been born in Lebanon alone over the last four years.
If you sit in the tents of those children’s mothers, they share a common fear: “What will happen to our little ones?”
This is the question at the front of my mind as well as I scoot my chair a bit closer to a Syrian mother playing with her son during our team’s visit to a local Lebanese initiative called the Baby Project.
The Baby Project provides formula, diapers, medicine and parenting classes for the first 12 months of a baby’s life, empowering mothers to meet their babies’ needs during the most critical stage of childhood development. Attachment theory says the development or delays experienced in bonding and meeting basic needs during these first 12 months will set the tone for each baby’s life, which is why the Baby Project works to accept as many mothers and children into the program as possible.
Each year, the program works to identify the most vulnerable babies and mothers, and accepts as many as possible based on the number of donors who offer a one-time gift of $1,080 or a recurring gift of $90 a month to fund a mother’s participation in the program. Last year, funds enabled over 80 mothers to join the program; this year there are funds for only 20. My new friend—we’ll call him Adnan—and his mama are two of the lucky few participants.
I notice Adnan’s mother has taken particular care with his outfit today, much to Adnan’s fascination. The blue and white leather shoes he wears with velcro tabs cause Adnan’s brow to furrow. I watch him ponder how the tabs work, and then I begin to play—sticking and unsticking the tabs rapidly. His brows knit closer together under his stocking cap; Adnan is boggled by the velcro technology. With his focus, Adnan’s mother giggles, flips him forward and starts to engage in a new game, naming various body parts in Arabic and beaming as Adnan touches the corresponding feature of her face—mouth, eyes, nose. Adnan is bright, and his mother clearly intends to cultivate his curiosity. Adnan and I begin to play a hand clapping game; more giggling quickly ensues. I start to build some trust and Adnan agrees to let me hold him after we’ve clapped hands enough times; his mother is gracious, continuing to sit close and coo with her son.
I watch and a pang in my chest starts to grow; at the back of my mind I know: Adnan is likely one of the Beqaa Valley’s forgotten babies.
While some of the Beqaa Valley’s refugee children are birthed in hospitals, most are delivered with the aid of midwives within the camps and none of the birth certificates issued to these children grant citizenship. The rights of a refugee in Lebanon are highly contentious. Many Lebanese fear the impact of granting citizenship to refugees. If you ask, Lebanese voices will cite many different social, economic, political and cultural factors as cause for concern in regards to legitimizing the stay of the Syrian people or naturalizing them into the country.
This political morass has yielded the crisis of the forgotten babies, because children without citizenship in Lebanon cannot sit for official exams or receive formal transcripts marking their education progress. And so, on paper, Syrian children do not exist, and are often barred from the path of educational mobility.
What is a life where you do not exist?
The first babies of Beqaa Valley are now turning five and six years old, already starting to lose ground in the educational system. This is how the Lost Generation of Syrian children begins to gain shape and take form. What will become of these children? What radical ideologies might prey upon these young ones, neglected and abandoned by the more privileged citizens of the world? The questions make my chest ache as I continue to make popping noises with Adnan, his pudgy fingers reaching for my lips, wondering how it is they make such a loud sound. What educators will instill in him the love for learning that breeds progress and hope, not just for himself, but for his family and for the world?
The issues of the Middle East, of Syria and Lebanon, of Muslim radicals and Christian aid workers—they will not resolve themselves quickly. Those narratives are complicated; requiring nuanced conversation, understanding, and relationship. However, bearing witness to the pain of Syrian mothers and the needs of Syrian children is not so difficult. Our work starts with initiatives like the Baby Project. From there, we can move into developing education solutions for Syrian children.
This is why One Million Thumbprints has dedicated our time and resources in Lebanon to partnering with organizations that strategically empower mothers and invest in children. We see these two efforts as critical to the mission of hope for those in crisis. We invite you to join us by donating specifically to the Baby Project, or contacting us directly for emerging projects in developing childhood education.
When we accomplish this work, we align our hearts with the heart of Jesus, and we help Syrians redefine their cultural narrative:
“Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” –Mark 10:14
Thank you for joining us. Thank you for believing in all of God’s children.