The Middle East has seen conflict and repression for so long that it seems to offer only negative lessons for the rest of the world. Not so. After nearly four years of civil war in Syria in which almost half of its people have fled their homes, millions have found an open-door welcome in neighboring countries, especially Lebanon and Jordan.
This is a lesson often overlooked by the West yet one that may be necessary for restoring peace in Syria, as well as Iraq.
In Lebanon, Syrian refugees make up a quarter of the population. In Jordan, one refugee camp has become the country’s fourth largest “city.” Those two nations now have the world’s highest ratio of refugees to citizens. Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt, meanwhile, play host to more than a million Syrians.
In many cases, the Syrians live with locals or in makeshift shelters rather than in isolated camps run by aid groups. They are allowed access to local schools and health systems. A recent United Nations report summed up the main reason for this relatively successful accommodation of a migration of biblical proportions: “Hospitality is central to Arab culture.”
To some degree, this empathy and compassion arise from a shared familiarity with violence and instability in much of the Middle East, as well as historic ties of kin, trade, or religion. Yet this cultural trait – a welcoming of strangers, a transcending of prejudice – has helped avert another tragedy in the Middle East. And the hospitality, which is more than feeding mouths or providing shelter, serves as a moral counterpoint to the killing in Syria, especially by the militant group that calls itself Islamic State.
Syrian refugees tell aid workers of their gratitude toward their host nations. The kindness is often repaid when many Syrian families open their refugee homes to unaccompanied children. They say their own generosity helps relieve the stress of life away from home.
In a recent visit to Lebanon, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, said the country is setting an example “of hospitality and protection for which the whole world is grateful.” He added that the Syrian crisis has become “the defining humanitarian challenge of our times.”
A similar challenge lies in Nigeria, where the militant group Boko Haram has forced some 300,000 people to flee. Most of the displaced have received little government assistance and instead rely on the hospitality of other Nigerians and religious institutions. In the city of Yola, near where Boko Haram is trying to set up an Islamic caliphate, the average household now has about 30 people.
Western countries, which so far have a relatively poor record of taking in Syrian refugees, must provide a sustainable amount of aid to these countries. Tensions and resentments are rising as these conflicts linger on. Resources are being stretched. Refugees often raise rents or lower wages for local residents. Many of the displaced may harbor terrorists.
Yet for the most part, the world must also pay tribute as well as help pay for these extraordinary examples of people hosting strangers in their midst – for years. Someday, the gratitude will play forward in terms of peace.