Not so many years ago, Christmas Day for the Kouriehs began with Mass at the village church. The family would return home for an afternoon feast of rice and meat with sides of salad and hummus.
Neighbours would stop by to extend holiday greetings. Children would play next to the Christmas tree.
That was before the Islamic State and other extremists started kidnapping Christians like the Kouriehs, before the relentless violence, before civil war tore apart their country.
That was before the Kouriehs had to flee Syria for their lives.
“It used to be beautiful there,” Joseph Kourieh, 57, recalled from the dilapidated apartment in Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, where he, his wife and five of his grown children now live.
More than a million Syrians have taken refuge in neighbouring Lebanon, a country of barely 4 million people that can hardly cope with the influx. Among the mostly Muslim refugees are hundreds and possibly thousands of Syrian Christian families that also endure the hardship and humiliation of displacement.
In recent years, the number of Christians living in Syria and Iraq has plummeted as a result of unrest and attacks by militant Islamists. Scores have fled to Lebanon, which has a large and vibrant Christian community of its own. But faced with growing tensions with local residents and a lack of access to education and health care, refugees here, including Christians, say the country is no home.
The Kouriehs and many other Syrian Christians here have applied to the United Nations for resettlement in the West. Some have successfully been relocated to such countries as Germany, Sweden and Australia. But the process can take years and is not guaranteed, convincing a number of them to join the wave of fellow refugees making their way to Turkey for a perilous trek to Europe.
The Kouriehs have given up on the idea of returning to Syria, where the nearly five-year crisis has left more than 250,000 dead and empowered groups that espouse anti-Christian views. So the family is forced to live in limbo, relying on handouts to pay rent for their two-bedroom apartment. Local churches provide them with food.
Tightened restrictions on Syrians residing in Lebanon have made it difficult for refugees to find work. The Kouriehs, as a result, struggle to pay for such things as fuel for an electricity generator, a necessity in a country plagued by frequent power blackouts. During the frigid winter months, the family huddles in an unheated living room wearing donated ski jackets and sweaters.
“There’s nothing here for us — just emptiness,” said Joseph’s wife, Noura, 50, as she sat on a sofa in an unlit living room.
The family plans to attend service at a nearby church on Christmas Day, followed by a lunch of mostly donated food. They’ve watched as much of Lebanon has been decorated with Christmas spirit, including nativity scenes and elaborate lighting displays.
This year, though, the Kouriehs can’t afford a Christmas tree.
“It will be a sad day,” Noura said.
Before the peaceful Syrian uprising of 2011 turned into civil war, Christians representing a variety of denominations formed about 10 per cent of the country’s population of 24 million. Christianity’s roots run deep in the country. Tradition says that Paul the Apostle converted to Christianity on the road to Damascus, Syria’s capital. Some communities still speak dialects of Aramaic, the language of Jesus.
Recently, extremists have killed and kidnapped Christians. In eastern Syria earlier this year, marauding Islamic State militants kidnapped some 250 Assyrian Christians, an ancient people whose roots in the region trace back 6,500 years.
In a statement released Wednesday, President Barack Obama expressed concern for Christian communities in the Middle East that have faced “brutal atrocities committed” by the Islamic State.
“In some areas of the Middle East where church bells have rung for centuries on Christmas Day, this year they will be silent,” he said.
Lebanese authorities and the United Nations do not keep figures on the religious affiliation of Syrian refugees, who number about 4 million in total and also reside in countries such as Turkey and Jordan.
Yatroun Colliana, a priest at the Saint George Assyrian Christian church in Beirut, estimated that thousands of Syrian Christians have taken refugee in Lebanon. His church helps them with everything from food donations to cash for medical care.
Despite difficult conditions in Lebanon, Joseph said he had no choice but to move his family here. During the summer of 2014, the Kouriehs’ small farming village of Shelhoumia had faced repeated attack by militant Islamists, he said. Fighters from the Islamic State and other groups kidnapped scores of Christians in the area, including a former mayor of a nearby village and a close friend of the Kouriehs, Joseph said.
“They were targeting Christians because they thought we had more money to pay ransoms,” said Joseph, who worked as farmer.
In August 2014, suspected militants torched his summer harvest of wheat and lentils, he said. The incident nearly destroyed him financially and made him realize that his family was no longer safe. So the Kouriehs gathered up their belongings, packed into the back of a white Kia pickup truck and headed to a nearby airport. They flew to Damascus and then took a taxi to Beirut.
“The village began to empty out after that,” Joseph recalled.
Kurdish forces have since driven Islamic State militants out of swaths of northeastern Syria, including areas near Shelhoumia. Located in northeastern Syria, the village had a mixed population of Kurds and Syriac Orthodox Christians, such as the Kouriehs.
In Lebanon, the Kouriehs manage to find solace at a Syriac Orthodox church near their apartment. Other displaced Syrians also attend Sunday services there, which offer the family a sense of community and reminders of happier times together back in Shelhoumia, said Huda, Jospeh’s 34-year-old daughter.
Back then, she recalled, Christmas Day involved spending hours preparing the family lunch. She oversaw the stewing of lamb and meticulously assembled mezzes of vegetables and meats wrapped in grape leaves.
Nowadays, because her mother struggles with several medical conditions, Huda does much of the cooking and cleaning at their apartment in Beirut. She has put hopes of finding a husband on hold to keep the family together, something that has become increasingly difficult, she said.
Two of her brothers are stuck in Kurdish-held territory in eastern Syria. They fear that if they attempt to return to Beirut, Syria’s government will force them into military service, the family says.
Another sister and her husband are in the process of being resettled in Germany, but the rest of the family is still waiting to hear whether they will also be accepted for resettlement.
“We’re being pulled apart by a war that has turned our lives black, “ Huda said.
She has become concerned about her 26-year-old brother, Hani, who tries to work odd jobs to pay the family’s expenses. Hani increasingly talks about paying smugglers to take him to Turkey, where he would then board a boat to Greece. Joseph, the father, says he begs his son not to leave.
It’s a dangerous journey that may have already taken the life of a Kourieh relative, Fadi, who also had been living as a refugee in Lebanon. Four months ago, Fadi, who was then 26, called his family before boarding a smuggling vessel departing for Greece from the Turkish coast.
“No one has heard from Fadi since,” Joseph said.
As he spoke, Joseph grabbed a photograph taken of the family at a wedding before the war. Wearing suits and dresses, parents and children are shown standing together at a church, all of them smiling.
“I want to keep my family together, even if that means we stay here and starve to death,” Joseph said.
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