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Voices From the Pandemic: A Missionary’s Journey Into the Desert

Sister Wardeh Kayrouz, from the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary’s Congregation (FMM), is a social worker in Lebanon who has been in partnership with CNEWA/PM since 2014.

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic was a misfortune to the world. At the same time, it is a grace because the Lord knows very well how to educate his people, not destroy them.

In Lebanon, this pandemic showed solidarity between people, overcoming ethnicity and nationalities, (Lebanese, Syrian, Iraqi, Ethiopian, etc.) and confessions (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestants, Sunni, Shiite or Druze). All have one Father who is God, and all were convinced that all must live.

We, as religious people, our role is to be a sign of hope, a bridge between the poor and the rich and to witness the wonder that has been done by the church and the good deeds of the laity. I took a solemn vow with the call to live the Gospel in solidarity with the suffering of the world. My work over the years has been within and for the poor, providing social and pastoral care for a large community in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. I work now in Lebanon through our social center located in Achkout village, Mount Lebanon, supported by five sisters residing at the center and a group of two social workers and a psychologist. Over the past seven years, the team has been providing moral, social and spiritual retreats (to cope with their situation and get over problems) to a large number of Syrian displaced and Iraqi refugees; they are supported by psycho-social assistance and home visits responding to the deprived medical, educational, social and other needs.

However, 17 October 2019 changed the equation in the country; it marked the start of the economic deterioration, which has led to thousands of Lebanese people losing their jobs and their source of income. Time and our work within the people have unfortunately showed us that in many cases the Lebanese citizens were more impoverished than the displaced and refugees who were receiving support from NGOs and international agencies. The Lebanese people now live in a country on the brink of bankruptcy with a dramatically devaluating currency. The COVID-19 outbreak has added to the misery with more people losing their jobs due to the total confinement. The poor are getting poorer. We expect to reach a phase with thousands of people unable to afford their daily bread.

My team and myself always seek the support from every person we know and encounter, in order to respond to the needs of the destitute; we turn to local and international benefactors, NGOs, dispensaries, supermarkets, shops, doctors and nurses, etc. Through this pandemic, we did not leave our people behind. We have kept up contact, follow-up, and guidance, conducted secured visits, distributed medicine, food packages and other goods within our best capabilities.

I’m reminded of this verse from scripture:

“The believers share their possessions; All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” (Acts 4:32-35)

I want to mention some benefactors who took initiatives from the first Christian community similar to the Acts of Apostles.

A local family owned a supermarket that lost the father to the coronavirus, offered us in his memory 37 food and hygiene packages that we distributed to the neediest families we follow-up with and guide through our social and pastoral work.  

A Lebanese woman living abroad donated money we disbursed for the provision of medications for more than 40 persons, especially the elderly and mentally challenged.

A hotel offered us all the food it had following its closing, such as eggs, vegetables, yogurt and cheese. And we, the sisters, provided it to around 33 needy families living in neighboring villages as well as to ‘’Baytouna al Jadid’’ center, i.e. our new home center for the mentally challenged, with food portions sufficient for two weeks.

“I am sure after this ordeal a new society will be born; everything is going to be changed.”

Sister Wardeh Kayrouz

As an example of some of suffering: 11 abandoned mentally challenged persons were isolated, for their own safety, each in a separate room. The poor are not able to realize why they are in this situation! They looked in tremendous pain. I tried to explain the situation to them, but with their conditions, unfortunately my attempt was unsuccessful.

Within our field of work, myself and the team meet families of different means of living —  poor, average and families we describe as rich to our eyes compared to our community. A few weeks ago, I met one of the families we called rich. The parents along with their five children were picking-up dry branches. At first, I thought they were picking ladybugs, enjoying springtime in the prairies! However, the truth was not as simple. The mother approached me crying and said, “Sister, we pick up the branches to get warm,’’ and she added after a moment of silence, “I am embarrassed to tell you that we are hungry. We accept anything to eat.”  This family’s refrigerator was empty, and the parents did not have any food to put on the table for their children. This is one case of many families whose breadwinner lost part or all of his income due to the economic situation in the country, a situation worsened by the pandemic and confinement that has forced numerous businesses, both large and small, to shut down. 

On the bright side: since the escalated quarantine began in early March, with the lives of thousands families turned upside down, the family house has become the school, increasing the parents concern and attention to their children’s education. Likewise, the house has become the church with families planning a time of prayer together, reading the Bible together, returning to their faith and relying on it to get over this situation.

Regardless of the brutality of the virus, the imposed quarantine brought families together under one roof — communicating, playing, cooking, eating together, etc. I quote Gaelle, a 21-year-old Lebanese: “All my life, we have never been together as a family for a meal except for now.’’ She was delighted to spend this time with her brothers and sisters. People returned to some basics in life, such as making bread at home and gardening; throughout my daily work, long trips and visits, people were plowing their gardens, tending the fruit trees, sowing vegetable seeds. 

Fortunately, no one I directly work with or provide services to has so far tested positive for COVID-19. What I am sure of is that God has been our protector and blessed us with his infinite mercy to go through this ordeal. Sadly, however, four of our sisters in Spain and Italy passed away from the virus — infected while treating patients at the congregation’s hospitals.

As sisters of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary in Lebanon, we decided to live with just the basic necessities, saving any medicines for just the oldest and most seriously ill nuns. This is to stand in solidarity with these people we serve. Though, the saved amount of medicines represented the widow’s mite, we were still able to help many families. For the community, it was the experience of the Lord in the desert, teaching us the importance of the desert in our lives. We are with him in the desert.   

For me, it was the desert of the Exodus: the people were lost 40 years in the desert, but they lacked nothing. God was with them at night in the column of light and during the day in the cloud. When the people were hungry, he gave them the manna; when they were thirsty, he gave them water from the rock.  The Lord allowed this to purify his people, to change their hearts, to unite them with each other in him.

I am sure after this ordeal a new society will be born; everything is going to be changed. But what will we learn from it?   

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