CNEWA Canada

Voices From the Pandemic: A Sister Serving the Good Shepherd and his Flock in Lebanon

Sister Antoinette Assaf is a Good Shepherd Sister and Director of Saint Antoine Community Health Center (CHC) in Lebanon.

Roueisset Jdeidet is at the heart of the socio-economic periphery, a suburban quarter of Mount Lebanon with a multi-cultural population. This is where the Sisters of the Good Shepherd based two of their missions in Lebanon, educating children and supporting women at our social center as well as offering primary healthcare at Saint Antoine Community Health Center (CHC), catering to over 50,000 people, Lebanese citizens (Muslims and Christians), Syrian displaced, Iraqi refugees and foreign workers coexisting together, united by poverty. 

Through the multiple wars and conflicts in the country, we, the Lebanese people, lived hardship and danger that taught us to be resilient. Alas, this new COVID-19 pandemic was one more adversity we had to learn to deal with. We, as sisters, have always relied on our Good Shepherd to accomplish our work. We have witnessed daily to God’s merciful acts with the poorest of the poor. When we felt powerless to respond to someone’s despair over some illness, abuse or misery, we turned to the Lord and he has proven to us time and again that he is always with us, through desolate times and good ones. “A person is of more value than a world.” This is our belief, just like the Good Shepherd who left the 99 sheep in good health to look after the lost one.

The COVID-19 pandemic took the world by surprise and the CHC was no exception. Lebanon is a very small country, where people commute a lot and are always in touch with each other. When the first infected person landed in the country on 21 February, everyone panicked; the contagion started spreading slowly but surely. As a CHC, located in a poor area serving a large population of destitute people unaware of the danger of the virus, and at the same time hopeless in facing it, we knew we needed to take measures to protect our patients and staff.  The entire structure of the CHC had to be reorganized. This was an urgent action that required the help of all personnel, who promptly responded; in a very short time, the setup was completed.

Dr. Lama Abi Khalil, the medical director, was the backbone of the whole operation. A devoted Catholic and mother of three young children, she worked initially 20 hours a week at the center. Realizing the urgency of the situation, she doubled her working hours; then, after putting her children to bed, she continued working late into the night from home, developing the new structure, measures and procedures that had to be implemented at the center. As her husband was also working from home, she took turns with him to look after their children. She was an inspiration to the team who, moved by her energy, contributed each, in their own way, with their talents and capacities, working after hours to make this operation a successful one.

“I intensified my prayer life and gave more time for personal meditation. This experience has helped me put my priorities back into perspective and seek what really matters in life.”

Sister Antoinette Assaf

The center was divided into two departments with an established infectious diseases’ side isolated. Personal protective equipment was dispensed to the personnel. They were also trained on infection control guidelines and their implementation. Most of the repartitioning fees, materials and equipment provided were covered through our programs run through partnership with the CNEWA Beirut office over the past eight years.

As the number of infected people grew, so did people’s anxiety, especially our personnel.  Respecting the rule of social distancing, and aiming to preserve their strength, energy, and high spirits, we made the decision to split the personnel in two teams, operating on alternative days. This did not include the doctors in charge whose workload increased, having to carry out consultations over the phone, and remain on call 24/7.

Due to the pandemic, most hospitals and health clinics focused mainly on COVID-19 patients. People suffering from other serious illnesses — such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure — were left unattended for. All the measures taken at the CHC were designed to keep doors open to these patients, in a safe environment, free from contagion. At the onset of the pandemic, the patients did not take seriously the preventive measures that the dispensary requested. But once they observed all the changes made on a structural and procedural level, they understood the seriousness of the threat and started following safety instructions.

As the CHC director, I usually divide my time between the different missions I am responsible for with the CHC and the congregation’s projects in Lebanon and Syria. Since the pandemic outbreak, I spent more time at the CHC, supporting staff and patients. We went through a very stressful time when three of our doctors were suspected of having contracted COVID-19. Only one of them tested positive and has been in hospital for six weeks.

All this was quite unsettling for the team and, running this institution, I needed to encourage, console and strengthen them. Fear, tiredness and hardships take their toll on people. The only way to confront them that I know of is through faith, charity and hope in God who is our only refuge. I ask for God’s grace, to help me be steadfast and resilient, to serve faithfully all the people who knock on our door — the hungry, thirsty, ill, strangers or imprisoned by any sort of abuse. And our presence as sisters at the center reassures and sustains the team. We help where needed, lift up their spirits and encourage them to deal with patients in a positive way. “Let zeal be the vessel which bears you on,’’ said the Good Shepherd Congregation founder, Saint Mary Euphrasia. In times of great distress, these words take a deeper meaning.

The coronavirus pandemic added to the dire and uncertain economic situation in the country. For the first time in its history, Lebanon defaulted on the payment of its debts. This came after weeks of demonstrations, demands for structural reforms in a context of recession and shortage of liquidity, rising prices, unemployment (5 percent of the population), and the formation of a new government in February 2020. About a third of the population was living on less than $4 a day.

The new drastic measures taken to stop the spread of the virus exacerbated the situation. More people lost their jobs and any small savings they had.

The CHC is known to aid people who have no other recourse, donating basic needs whenever resources were available. But now the numbers have increased greatly; people begging for food, medication, diapers for the elderly, etc. Relying on God’s providence again and again, we are prompt to offer assistance to the neediest ones, doing whatever is in our power to alleviate their suffering or need: essential food items, hygiene products, medicine, medical tests, etc.

Under the motto “Religion is for God and the CHC is for everyone,” we aim to strengthen social cohesion and reconciliation in the region through dynamic coordination with all the stakeholders present in this area. The CHC has become a gathering place for people of different backgrounds, nationalities and religions. During difficult times such as now, the local Sheikh offered his assistance, seeking to cooperate with us to overcome the crisis together.

To withstand the pressure, I seek God’s help, finding solace and fortitude in prayer. I intensified my prayer life and gave more time for personal meditation. This experience has helped me put my priorities back into perspective and seek what really matters in life. So many of us spend our lives rushing busily from one thing to another. This virus was a wake-up call, showing how futile that can be.

It is time to go back to the essence of life and its meaning, to the source of Life, to Jesus, our Good Shepherd.

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