Ravens tight end Benjamin Watson missed the first round of the NFL draft.
At this time last week, he was in Lebanon, about 20 miles from the border of war-torn Syria.
Watson and a group of seven pastors and a few others flew into the heart of the Middle East crisis to join World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization, to assist Syrian refugees that have fled to Lebanon.
The 2016 Walter Payton Man of the Year finalist spent three days on the ground talking with families and leaders in the relief effort, and he left with a much deeper world view and flood of emotions.
“What I came away with is that things over there are very, very complex,” Watson said, shaking his head. “In the meantime, I want to have compassion for people.”
Watson became part of the trip through his church, Bridgeway Community Church, in Columbia, Md. Senior Pastor Dr. David Anderson led the excursion, and asked Watson, who has been attending the church for only about two months, if he’d like to go.
“He was like, ‘Do you want to go to Lebanon?’ I was like, ‘Umm, no,’” Watson said. “But my wife said, ‘You know, for some reason, I think you should go. I don’t want you to go, but knowing how you feel about people and wanting to help people, I think you should go.’”
Watson’s group spent one day in the Bakaa Valley near the Syria/Lebanon border, one day in Akkar (North Lebanon) and another day in the city of Beirut. The Bakaa Valley and Akkar are two of the poorest areas in the country.
Because of the carnage, it’s estimated that about 5 million Syrians have fled. About 1.5 million have gone to Lebanon, and are living in temporary tent settlements like the ones Watson visited. Some have been there for more than five years.
According to Al Jazeera, about one in five people living in Lebanon are refugees from Syria’s civil war, which started in 2011. That means Lebanon has more refugees per capita than any other country in the world.
“It’s like if the United States all-of-a-sudden had an influx of 100 million people,” Watson said. “How crazy would that be?”
Lebanon has long been a place where refugees have gone in the tumultuous Middle East. It does not have formal refugee camps, as some politicians fear it would lead to permanent settlement. Opponents of that strategy, and two recent studies from Oxford University and the International Rescue Committee, argue that refugees could help a host nation’s economy if they were permitted to contribute.
World Vision has been trying to help as much as possible. It goes to the poorest settlements to provide clean water, sanitation (toilettes) and other basics. The group gives people vouchers to buy food and other bare essentials. The group also provides early education to children, who are often sent out to work because their parents are not allowed to leave the camp.
Another issue is that refugees can face hostility from their host country. In April, Lebanon Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri warned that his country is close to a "breaking point" and that he fears "civil unrest." Thus, World Vision also helps Lebanon and its people by improving the infrastructure by laying pipes, sewer systems and other utilities, Watson said.
Outside of learning about World Vision's work, Watson gained greater understanding by talking to people in the crisis themselves.
“I had a chance to sit in some of the tents and talk to the families and just hear their stories about what happened – their houses being bombed, traveling all night long and coming into Lebanon with nothing,” Watson said.
“I like to try to solve things. I want to find a solution for the whole conflict. But we live in a world where this stuff happens all over the place. It’s so sad.”
But what also struck Watson was the compassion of the Lebanese. He said the Syrian army occupied Lebanon as recently as 2005, but now the Syrians are seeking asylum in the areas they used to control. It’s quite a paradox, and a test of one’s empathy.
“I ask myself, ‘Why should I help them? Why should I do anything for them after what they did to us?’” one woman told Watson. “But I realize these are citizens, these are children, these are people who are in need, so I’m going to do the right thing and help them out.”
Watson thought about how the refugee crisis relates to the United States’ stance on immigration. He said those in Lebanon are keeping a close, leery eye on American politics. Once again, it’s a complex issue for Watson.
“There is the law, there is the job of the government, which is to protect its citizens. We have to, as a sovereign country, know who is coming in and out of the borders,” Watson said. “And it’s also important to help those in need. It’s a delicate balance.”
Another big lesson Watson took home is that many of the refugees don’t want to be a burden. They just want to go home, but it’s not safe. Watson sat in a tent with a man, his wife, their three children and another family sharing the same space. They sat on the floor on tiny pads and spoke through an interpreter.
“They said, ‘We go to bed every night and we dream that we’re going to wake up back in Syria and everything is going to be OK,’” Watson said.
“A lot of times in the United States, we feel like everybody just wants to come here because this is America and we’re the best. You should have pride in your country – definitely. But for a lot of people to go across the world and assimilate is tough. They just want to go home.”
Sadly, the situation in Syria doesn’t appear to be getting resolved any time soon. And even once it does, Watson heard estimates that it would take 10 years or more to rebuild.
“Honestly, a lot of them are not going back.”