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In Lebanon, a doctor offers comfort and healing to refugees from neighboring wars

Dr. Irad Beldjebel spends his days not only treating refugees, but serving as an all-round counselor to those fleeing violence – a trusty shoulder to lean on for people who are often traumatized by the past and unsure about the future.

By Correspondent / April 9, 2013

A Syrian refugee man and wife are seen at a refugee camp in Mafraq, Jordan, near the border with Syria in early March. The UNHCR says the number of Syrians leaving their country has increased dramatically in recent months. They often arrive traumatized and without possessions. Dr. Irad Beldjebel is among those pitching in to help refugees who make it into Lebanon.

Muhammad Hamed/Reuters/File

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Beirut, Lebanon

It takes him a good 20 seconds to get his bearings, but, sitting up in his bed, Matti Tourrani smiles and says hello, muffled by a drowsy cough. His right leg is swollen – so much that it is now twice as thick as his left. "It's not so painful; I'm more concerned about my knee,” says the elderly man.

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Southeast Asia Correspondent

Simon Roughneen is a southeast Asia correspondent, filing for the Monitor since September 2011. He's based in Myanmar (Burma) but travels the region as much as possible. In the past, he's reported from several countries in Africa, from Pakistan, and has been on shorter assignments to Haiti, India, Israel, Korea, Kosovo, Lebanon, Turkey, and the West Bank. You can visit his personal website at www.simonroughneen.com

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Mr. Tourrani has traveled with his wife, Maysoun, from their small village near Mosul in northern Iraq for knee-replacement surgery, a procedure that would cost more than $23,000 and for which the family mortgaged their house.

Their part of Iraq is still violent: Last week a bomb killed two people just a mile from their home. “We're used to it by now,” Maysoun says.

But the family is concerned that they might have traveled in vain. Before any knee surgery, the leg must heal more, says Irad Beldjebel, a doctor who works helping Beirut's unknown thousands of refugees.

The Algerian-born Beldjebel spends his days not only treating refugees, but serves as an all-round counselor – a trusty shoulder to lean on for people who are often traumatized by the past, worried about the future, and unsure about the present. People such as the Tourranis, who are staying in a compound with other Iraqis, themselves long-time refugees in Lebanon.

Dr. Beldjebel is not only treating Tourrani, he is helping the family work through a deadline and a dilemma: whether or not to go ahead with the knee operation.
“Our visas will be out of date in 10 days,” Maysoun says. “Someone said we will have to pay $2,000 each to extend our stay,” she adds with a sigh.

Beldjebel tells her that the figure is suspiciously high. He suspects that the official in question is trying to extort vulnerable Iraqis – people who are in a bind and unaware of the Lebanese law.“We will check out the process fully for the visa issue,” says Beldjebel, trying to reassure the elderly couple.

It is all part of a typical day for the doctor, who has been in Lebanon for four years and now is the sole representative here of the St. Elizabeth College of Public Health and Social Work, based in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Lebanon currently hosts between 400,000 and 1 million Syrians, who have fled the brutal war there. Lebanon's own 1975-1990 war was prompted partly by an influx of Palestinian refugees, around 400,000 of whom still stay in sometimes-violent camps around Lebanon.

Beldjebel has been “a tremendous help to those people he assists,” says Michel Kasdano, a retired Lebanese Army general who has worked with the Chaldean Catholic Church in Lebanon to provide assistance to Iraqi refugees.

There are around 8,000 Iraqi refugees in Lebanon – mostly Christians who fled after the 2003 US invasion and subsequent ethnic and sectarian blood-letting across the country.

Beldjebel's history makes him perhaps uniquely attuned to assisting Christians in this region: He is a convert to Catholicism from Islam and as a consequence has not been able to travel home to Algeria to see his parents since 2009.

Sitting in a small, austere apartment above the Mar Elias church in East Beirut, near where the doctor often does his rounds, Nohoud Najib, an Iraqi Chaldean Catholic, is hoping to be resettled to a Western country. She's in her second stint as a refugee, having fled to Lebanon in 2012.

“Before that, we were in Damascus[, Syria,] since 2009” she recalls. “But when the fighting got closer and the situation became too dangerous,” they had to move.

Prior to Damascus, they fled their home in Baghdad, Iraq, after threats of being kidnapped.“Our neighbor said our son's name was on a list at a mosque nearby, and that it was no longer safe for us,” Ms. Najib says.

That was in 2007. She and her family spent the next two years in Dora, which was a mostly Christian area of Baghdad but has since seen many of the non-Muslim residents leave.

Now the worry is that Syria's war could spread to Lebanon. Last week, Syria carried out airstrikes in northern Lebanon, saying that Sunni Muslim rebels were being sheltered there. The Syrian government is backed by Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shia militia that is a powerful player in Lebanon's complex sectarian politics.

“Fighting seems to follow us around,” Najib jokes. “We just want to go somewhere safe, and where my children can resume their education. We feel like we have been in limbo for years.”

Dr. Beldjebel has been a friend to the family since they arrived in Beirut, with handshakes and banter testifying to the warm relationship.

That type of relationship is one Beldjebel tries to cultivate with all the refugees he treats. His job is not just about diagnosing and prescribing, he says."We are also here to listen to them. It's a big part of our time," he says. "They need to voice out their sufferings and the violence that they have been going through.”

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