‘Jesus Will Always Be With Us’
12/1/2017by Doreen Abi Raad | photos by Tamara Abdul Hadi
The Christian community in Lebanon aids thousands of refugees with ongoing K of C support
On a hot afternoon in September, some 400 Iraqi refugee children sat cross-legged in rapt attention in a Catholic school courtyard in Beirut, Lebanon. A priest recounted the Old Testament story of how Joseph forgave his brothers, and in so doing, helped them to be more loving.
Mariam, an 11-year-old Syriac Catholic from Bartella, Iraq, took its lessons to heart. “I learned from the story of Joseph to be more patient and to be strong in my faith,” she said.
During a break, music erupted from the speakers. To the tune of a hit Spanish pop song, the Arabic lyrics proclaimed, “Jesus will always be with us. ... He will save us.” The small outdoor space overflowed with joy, with some children dancing and others chatting or playing.
Before school buses arrived to take them back to cramped apartments scattered in poorer neighborhoods throughout Lebanon’s capital, the children quietly assembled for prayers. With heads bowed and eyes closed, they concluded, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I give you my heart, my soul and my life.”
The summer program for Christian refugee children is just one way that the Syriac Catholic Patriarchate in Beirut is assisting families with support from the Knights of Columbus. Through the Order’s relief efforts, including renewed pledges of more than $200,000 of aid to Lebanon in 2017, the patriarchate is assisting around 2,700 families who fled Iraq and Syria.
“The humanitarian assistance — to so many people who lost everything in their home country — has many dimensions,” explained Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan, who is based in Beirut and is a member of the Knights.
“Our major concern is to help those refugees recover from the catastrophic impact on their life,” Patriarch Younan stressed. “Christian hope,” he added, “inspires renewed trust in the Lord and prevents them from falling into despair.”
HOPE AMID SUFFERING
A small nation with a history of religious pluralism, Lebanon currently has the highest proportion of refugees in the world. Since 2011, some 2 million people have fled to the country, which is about two-thirds the size of Connecticut and had only 4.3 million inhabitants in 2010.
Most of those who have sought safety in Lebanon are Syrians displaced by their nation’s six-year civil war. About 20,000 Iraqi refugees have also come to Lebanon since the Islamic State overran the Nineveh Plain region in the summer of 2014.
Situated on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, Lebanon has the highest proportion of Christians of any country in the Middle East, other than Cyprus — about 40 percent. While most of the Iraqi refugees are Christian, 97 percent of the Syrian refugees are Muslim, which has upset the demographic balance of the country and caused tensions.
As the refugee crisis has strained Lebanon’s resources, the Order has offered material support to ministries serving both Lebanese and refugee populations — helping to provide food, lodging, health care and children’s education.
“My message to all the Knights is to first keep the faith and defend it in whatever earthly situation they encounter, either moral, social or political,” stressed Patriarch Younan. “Support for their brothers and sisters enduring much suffering in the Middle East is a profound witness to their love to Christ.”
With K of C support, the Syriac Catholic Patriarchate operates the Salesian school for refugees as well as the summer camp. This year’s camp focused on the Old Testament story of Joseph and the theme “Because You Are With Me.” Led by two priests and 21 volunteers, themselves refugees, nearly 400 Iraqi children attended the eight-week program, which combined religious instruction with skits, uplifting songs and handcrafts, such as making rosaries.
The summer program offered Mariam and her and her two siblings — as well as their cousins — a much-needed break from their living situation. A total of 17 relatives share their three-bedroom apartment, and there’s no room for the children to play outside in the crowded neighborhood.
The three families were among some 100,000 Christians who escaped to Erbil in northern Iraq when the Islamic State militants overtook the region. Two months later, the three families came to Lebanon with the hope of emigrating to a Western country. They have been waiting since 2014.
Close bonds always characterized the relatives, which include three brothers, their wives and children, and an unmarried sister. Even in Iraq, they saw each other every day.
“We’re inseparable. We support one another,” said Ghassen, one of the brothers, who had a flourishing iron crafting business in Iraq but has not found work in Lebanon.
Ranna, Mariam’s mother, said that the most important thing now is for the children to continue with their studies.
“We know they are in a good place under the care of the Church,” she added.
The patriarchate also helps the families with food. “It’s not just about the assistance,” Ranna said. “We feel that the Church is by our side and will never leave us.”
Suitcases and winter blankets are stored in one of the bedrooms in the apartment, while neat stacks of crates contain her family’s limited clothing and shoes.
“We have to live like this for now,” Ranna said. “With all our struggles, the only thing keeping us going is our faith. We have to smile, or we’ll always be down.”
A BETTER LIFE FOR ORPHANS
Lebanon’s refugee crisis is taking an economic and social toll on the country, particularly the Church’s efforts to help support poor Lebanese Christians.
In the town of Beit Habbak, some 40 miles north of Beirut, the Missionary Sisters of the Very Holy Sacrament serve struggling Christians in neighboring villages. Syrian refugee families, most of whom are Muslim, have also migrated to the area, which is about 90 percent Maronite Catholic.
“Our presence here is very important, especially in praying and welcoming people from all religions,” Mother Superior Mona-Marie Bejjani explained. “This is a testimony, a witness to Christianity, to be mothers to all.”
Ancient churches, some dating back 1,000 years, dot the winding roads surrounding Beit Habbak, where the sisters’ main convent and school is situated, 1,770 feet above the coastal town of Amchit.
Most of the 1,325 Lebanese students enrolled in the sisters’ school come from families in need. Although the government previously assisted with tuitions, the school has not received any of that funding since 2013. Likewise, many charity organizations that donated to the sisters’ mission have shifted their focus to the refugee crisis, further straining the sisters’ meager resources.
“Now the Knights of Columbus are helping,” said Mother Mona-Marie. “We thank God that Jesus Christ is sending people to help us.”
Bishop Gregory Mansour of the Maronite Eparchy of Saint Maron in Brooklyn, N.Y., was instrumental in obtaining K of C assistance for the sisters. In addition to tuition aid, K of C funding supports the sisters’ residential orphanage for girls who come from broken homes, have lost one or both parents, or have a father in prison. Currently, 80 girls, ages 4-18, are residential students during the school year.
“We are helping the girls to have a better life and to have values,” Mother Mona-Marie said. During evening prayers with the sisters before the Blessed Sacrament, many of the girls offer intentions for a father, a sick mother or a relative who died.
Among the K of C-supported initiatives is the congregation’s dispensary, which offers free consultations with doctors and fills medicine prescriptions for a nominal fee. Last year, for example, 500 poor children were vaccinated, among them students from the school and Syrian refugees.
In conjunction with the congregation’s Beirut convent, the sisters also organize three annual events for refugees — gatherings for children at Christmas and Easter and a day trip during the summer.
Finally, aid from the Knights helps the sisters in a religious education apostolate that is distinct from their school. As they prepare children for first holy Communion and teach catechism to hundreds of children and teenagers, the sisters simultaneously conduct sessions for parents on marriage and family.
In remote areas, a priest may be responsible for up to five parishes and therefore relies on the support of the sisters’ ministry.
“We are helping to keep the villages alive,” explained Sister Maguy Adabashy. “To give hope that Jesus didn’t leave this land and won’t leave this land.”
DOREEN ABI RAAD writes from Beirut, Lebanon.