We have all heard the axiom “water is the stuff of life.” Father Guido and I spent today with a group of Maronite Catholic farmers in Deir el Ahmar, a village in northern Lebanon. Their lives have been changed by a water project (old/broken link: https://cnewa.org/default.aspx?ID=932&pagetypeID=6&sitecode=SSSS&pageno=1) engineered by the staff of the Pontifical Mission, CNEWA’s operating agency in the Middle East.
We left our Beirut residence in the warm morning sun and began what seemed like a never-ending uphill climb on windy roads. As we climbed we observed only rocky terrain and the temperature plummeted to freezing — I did not expect to find such radical extremes in climate.
On the other side of the mountains, we descended some 5,000 feet and met some members of a farming cooperative who couldn’t wait to show us their artificial lake and the success of their reclaimed land, which is now being planted with apple trees.
How could anyone farm on this land, I thought. Typically, 10 feet of snow blankets the area and just last week, the roads were blocked — we were lucky to get through.
About 15 years ago, our Beirut staff began working with these Maronite Catholic farmers who feared that, without new opportunities for their children, their farming community would collapse and their families would be dispersed.
Armed with initiative, a few loans and the ingenuity of our staff, the villagers built a lake about 7,000 feet above sea level. A vast area was lined with an artificial membrane, which sealed the soil and collected water from rainfall and melting snow. Our engineers then laid more than 10 miles of plastic pipe to channel water over a large area to help “reclaim” the land. Meanwhile, the villagers transported topsoil and planted fruit trees, especially hardy apple trees. It took two years to change this rocky terrain — devoid of any topsoil — into a fertile, thick blanket of deep (nearly 7 feet) dark topsoil. While the trees are already bearing fruit, they will reach maturity in another six years or so.
The change in Deir el Ahmar is significant. Thanks to our generous donors, our Beirut staff has provided a future for these farmers (who once grew hashish, the only plant hardy enough to grow in these severe conditions), enlivened the local economy and maintained a Christian presence in a land that has offered refuge to the followers of Jesus for more than a 1,000 years. Keeping together their families and their faith, they said to me, means more than anything.
The villagers also took us to see their new church, which remains unfinished but usable enough to celebrate the sacred mysteries. Though begun 11 years ago, the community is no hurry. They are determined to build it stone by stone. And it happens to be located right next to a newly “reclaimed” hectare of land. So, as the apples mature the church, too, will be completed.
From there we traveled over some rough terrain, often seeing the miles and miles of irrigation pipes that delivers the water down to the farms. We met a farmer considered the best of the best, and we enjoyed chatting with him as he pruned some of his trees, much like a barber giving a fine cut.
Expressing hospitality to visitors is important in the Middle East. And the lunch at the house of one of the leaders of the cooperative was fit for a king. Many times over the farmers and their wives expressed their thanks to all of you who support CNEWA for changing their lives and giving them the dignity of just being good Christian farmers. Their life is very hard work, but they do it lovingly and cooperatively. And, best of all, they are filled with faith.
I have to tell you, as wonderful as the food was at this banquet, all of which came from their own land and from their own hands, the best was one of their apples.
They all awaited for a sign from me about their apples: Did I like the taste? Was it as good as the apples in the United States? You bet it was! It was a County Fair Award-Winning Apple if I ever tasted one.
They were relieved and happy to get a thumbs up and a big smile.
I have a great appreciation of how water can change lives. I also have a better appreciation of how the human spirit can accomplish wonderful things with just a little bit of assistance. And that’s where CNEWA can really help make a difference in the lives of so many people. Just a little help can be enough to encourage people to do great things.
Next time you enjoy an apple, think of these great friends of ours in Lebanon. Pray for them as they certainly remember you, their benefactors, in their own.
By the way, we’ll end our day with these delicious apples. I brought back a few to our residence here in Beirut; they’ll be plenty for our meal tonight.
Below is a short video with some highlights of our day.