On World Refugee Day, we think everyone should read An Unsafe Haven by Nada Awar Jarrar. The book is fictional and a relatively easy read, but it contains a clear and important message about the way we see the Syrian conflict and its victims. It shows the destabilising effects of the war on neighbouring Lebanon and reminds us that millions of refugees remain extremely vulnerable and in need. Most importantly, it offers a much-needed message of hope and resilience.
Lebanon has suffered the fallout out of the Syrian conflict more than any other country, except perhaps Iraq. An Unsafe Haven by Nada Awar Jarrar offers a moving insight into this devastating fallout, showing through the eyes of its characters the ways in which Lebanon itself is extremely vulnerable.
The book follows the lives of a Syrian family and a couple living in Beirut whose lives are changed after a chance interaction with a young Syrian woman and her son. The author thought-provokingly explores themes of identity, memory, clashing cultures and the impact of conflict on families and communities. She also shows how the very foundations of Lebanon are unravelling before the eyes of a population familiar with the traumas of war and displacement.
The principal characters have all lived through conflict in their homelands – Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. They are all shaped by their experiences and their countries have contributed crucially to their identities. In Lebanon, daily life depends on a delicate political balancing act and fractious politics constantly threaten the country’s future. Conflict, colonial history and sectarian tensions have complicated the notion of Lebanese national identity. Through her characters, Jarrar suggests that the concept of Lebanese national identity is so fragile that the spill-over of the conflict in Syria, which has led to a massive influx of over a million refugees, might be enough to unravel it completely.
The book also highlights the dilemma faced by many Syrians (and in fact anyone displaced by conflict), who are torn between a love for their homeland and a desire to remain in the only place they know, and the need to protect their families from the horrors of war.
Residents of Yarmouk refugee camp queue to receive food supplies from the UN in Damascus (image: Business Insider)
A poignant theme of the book is the impact of the Syrian war on individuals, families, communities and whole countries. War has affected each of the book’s characters in different ways, whether by provoking difficult questions about themselves, causing tensions in relationships, or by physically displacing them. Yet what is really striking about this book is that it represents an important reminder of the fallout of the conflict for neighbouring countries like Lebanon.
The wave of refugees arriving on Europe’s shores has given rise to social and political tensions throughout the continent, and many in the West have been unwilling or unable to see the effects of the Syrian conflict beyond their own borders. It has been all too easy to forget that the region most affected by the war has been the Middle East, particularly Syria’s neighbours – Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.
The book painfully illustrates the difficulties faced by Syrian refugees in Lebanon, where they face rejection, isolation and a lack of basic rights and opportunities. It reminds the reader that Syrians making the perilous journey to Europe do so not because they are searching for a “better” life. For those without work, a home, an education for their children, leaving is simply the only option.
Syrian refugees in Belgrade, Serbia wait for an opportunity to cross the Hungarian border (image: Al Jazeera)
This book offers a rare insight into the dilemmas faced not only by Syrian refugees, but by anyone forced to leave their homeland and seek safety elsewhere as a consequence of war:
The painful memories of your country before conflict turned communities against one another; The sadness but inevitability of leaving the only place you have ever called home; The difficulty of integrating into a new society that rejects your presence and already has problems of its own; The decision to put your children in a boat in the hope that, if you make it, you might be able to feed and provide for them and offer them a future.
An Unsafe Haven shows the human side of the Syrian conflict, a side it is all too easy to forget when politics, stereotypes and terrorism get in the way.
A young Syrian girl in a refugee camp in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon (image: UN)
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