Yesterday, our last and most time-intensive day here in Lebanon, began as all of our days have, in the traffic-choked Beirut rush hour. But this morning, we were in for a dramatic change of scenery as we headed east over the mountains and into the Bekaa Valley. The fertile, flat landscape is where the majority of Lebanon’s 1.5 million Syrian refugees reside and where, in some villages, they outnumber the native population. From deep in the valley, you can see the last mountain of Lebanon and see a guard post where Syria begins.
Accompanied by our Beirut regional director, Michel Constantin, and programs manager, Kamal Abdel Nour, our first stop was the Community Center of the Good Shepherd Sisters in Deir-al-Ahmar, run by Sister Amira Tabel. Over Lebanese coffee (which has become a standard of all of our program visits) she explained the center’s multifaceted, holistic approach to the Christian and Muslim Syrian refugee population it serves.
“If a child asks what a nun is,” she told us, “I explain that a nun is someone who loves and serves everyone and doesn’t distinguish between their nationality or religion or anything else.” In addition to education following the Lebanese curriculum, the center also offers vocational training to young men and women and psycho-social training to parents and children. She has also worked to build a culture of peace and understanding, ensuring that the teachers are trained by social workers to utilize positive reinforcement to encourage every student.
Hearing Sister Amira describe her efforts was awe-inspiring. To ensure that children weren’t exploited by local farmers, she added classes to keep the kids at the school for longer hours. In another instance, Sister used cultural opportunities — such as how to remove henna — as a health lesson on how to wash hands. And when a student stopped coming to class for several days after a bad grade on a quiz, Sister invited the mother to sewing classes to encourage the family to remain involved in the school.
We were able to visit a few classes and saw firsthand how Sister Amira’s ideals have been put into action. Students of all ages warmly greeted us in English, Arabic and French — all of which are taught in the Lebanese curriculum. Their commitment to their education is a commitment to the future of Lebanon. It’s no surprise that the Fratelli Association we visited on our first day modeled their work in southern Lebanon after the Good Shepherd Sisters.
After a delicious lunch with Bishop Hanna Rahme of the Maronite Catholic Eparchy of Baalbek-Deir El Ahmar, and with much more to see in the region, we ventured south to the city of Zahle, the economic center of the valley. There, we visited a Syrian refugee camp supported by CNEWA through the local Melkite eparchy. Over the last year, we’ve provided heating supplies and hygiene kits to over 1,200 refugee families, both Muslim and Christian. The warm welcome we received was overwhelming. The residents, who have been there since 2012, were quick to show us their tents, with makeshift kitchens and sleeping quarters. Children, most of whom have never known any other lifestyle, joyfully ran among the alleys — while oblivious to the omnipresent tripping hazards. Women and girls gathered scallions from a nearby garden. A few men sat sipping cups of afternoon tea before resuming work on a concrete walkway, a vast improvement over the gravel that quickly turns muddy in the rain. With the help of the local church, families have adjusted to their new normal. While we’ve encountered joyful people throughout the week, here we saw the most resilient.
Saying several goodbyes to new friends of all ages, we drove up narrow lanes and steep hills to a diminutive apartment shared by two Catholic families from Homs, Syria. They clutched the rosaries around their necks as they explained that they had left behind everything amid the destruction of the city. The fathers are desperately seeking employment, and one explained that his wife is expecting a child. Through the work of the archdiocese, these families cannot be left behind.
After a long day, we climbed the mountain again in time to see the sun setting over the Mediterranean. We pray in a special way for the families we met, hoping that each day dawns brighter than the last.
Given the good work we’ve seen today, we know it will.