Military officials in Lebanon beat me as I tried to save Syrian refugees

As they began to hit us, they almost broke my nose. The next day, bruises covered my body on all sides and my eye turned black. Knowledgeable in first aid and CPR, we just wanted to help.

  • 1 year ago
  • January 10, 2023
6 min read
Refugees at Syrian camps in Lebanon face harsh living conditions with food, water, and medical supplies hard to come by. | Photo courtesy of Aisha Amella
Interview Subject
Aisha Amella is the Ambassador in Argentina of World Hijab Day. She holds a degree in Islamic Sciences and is a member of the Islamic community in Salta, Argentina. In March 2022, she traveled for three months to a refugee center in Lebanon to conduct research for her master’s thesis. There she chose to provide assistance at Lebanese refugee camps housing Syrians who escaped the war.

She had a particular interest because her husband, whom she met through family friends, is himself a Syrian refugee in Lebanon. Aisha says she witnessed the killing of refugees during what is now a widely publicized event where Lebanese military officials allegedly shot at a ship of refugees, resulting in loss of life. Aisha has repeatedly asked the Argentinian government to provide visas to some of these refugees, to no avail. She started a petition to urge the Argentian government to remove obstacles for Syrian refugees seeking visas and she conducts a campaign called “Save Syrian refugees” in order to give visibility to the harsh reality that they face.
Background Information
The Muslim community located in the province of Salta, Argentina, requested permission from the Argentinian government for the entry of five Syrian refugees into Lebanon. The young women (whose names are withheld for safety) are between 10 and 20 years old. Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon are divided into areas where it is difficult to get resources. The houses are precarious including plastic tents directly on the ground. The fields are divided every 200 people with only one bathroom. They are in different regions and far away from one another. According to Aisha, people often have to walk up to 200 kilometers for water, food, and medical supplies. The weather conditions are extreme. In summer it is too hot and in winter it snows.

According to The New Humanitarian, more than 1.5 million refugees remain displaced in Lebanon. In 2020, Lebanon hosted the second largest population of Syrian refugees around the world, second only to Turkey. At that time over 865,000 Syrian refugees were recorded as being in Lebanon. Stanford’s Immigration Policy Lab said in 2021 that the Syrian refugees wanted to go back, which highlights the story from Aisha wherein Syrian refugees were taking a ship out of Lebanon.

SALTA, Argentina ꟷ In March 2022, I traveled from Argentina to a refugee center in Lebanon for three months to complete my master’s thesis. One month later, on April 24, 2022, I experienced something I never imagined possible. Authorities discovered a ship with Syrian refugees escaping from Lebanon. Close to the coast, the Lebanese military could have easily made them return, but that’s not what happened. Instead, they attacked from all sides and tried to sink the ship.

Read more refugee stories from around the globe at Orato World Media.

They started shooting at the vessel which carried children, babies, and women. Stationed in the same city as our volunteers, those of us helping refugees came to the scene. We watched as they sunk the ship and shot at girls my son’s age. They shot at pregnant women, and they laughed as they did it.

Volunteer beaten trying to help dying refugees

As volunteers helping refugees in Lebanon, we tried to get past the fences to help the people in the boat. That was when the authorities attacked us. As they began to hit us, they almost broke my nose. The next day, bruises covered my body on all sides and my eye turned black. Knowledgeable in first aid and CPR, we just wanted to help.

As more people from Lebanon began showing up to the scene, the military could not cope with the situation. We got closer again and tried to save anyone we could, but we found ourselves fighting for our own lives in the sea. After beating us, they arrested many people and put them in prison for three days.

Not wanting to have trouble with foreign embassies, eventually they let the prisoners go. I still feel baffled that the Argentinian embassy did nothing for my departure. At 33-years-old, I never imagined experiencing anything like this. April 24, 2022, became the most terrifying day of my life.  

After the tragedy at sea, Islamic burial preparations began for the bodies that could be found. News spread of the burial plans, and extremists from Lebanon who opposed Muslim refugees went out into the streets with weapons.  

Along with others, I made my way from the mosque where we prayed for the dead and headed back toward the refugee camp. Suddenly the extremists began firing shots. It looked like a fireworks display – like a celebration but with bullets. I hid in a nearby business as the shooting ensued. Huddled there, I asked Allah to protect my son.  I was saved from the terrible beating the day before, and I thought, I may not get so lucky this time.

I worked in Lebanon to help the women left behind

When I arrived at the refugee camp in Lebanon for my thesis work, I met two young women – neighbors who became orphans during the Syrian War. When bombs destroyed their homes, only five women survived.

I learned the oldest of the girls was 20 and cared for a younger one. She had a degree from a major university in cybersecurity but said because of discrimination against refugees, she could not work in Lebanon in her field. Every day, she went to clean houses and work in factories, often describing inhumane conditions.

These two women constantly faced the fear of being captured by prostitution rings or organ trafficking networks. When I met them, they had been in the situation since 2013, for nine years.

Moved by their plight, I went straight to the Argentinian embassy and spoke to the Consul at the time. He showed no interest and informed me, they only made visas for people whom had the backing of the UN Refugee Agency. I explained the girls had been registered with UNHCR since 2013, but it did not matter. It seemed the whole world abandoned these young women in those camps. Along with my colleagues, we made several petitions, but the answer consistently came back negative. Today, we continue to fight.

Aisha shared a video interview she conducted with residents at the refugee camp in Lebanon (English captions available)

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