Look Homeward

“You can take a man out of his village, but you cannot take the village out of the man” applies to James Alwan of Peoria. But we are not talking about Peoria. It is Aitou, in northern Lebanon. When Mr. Alwan left his native land more than 50 years ago, he vowed to never forget his homeland and to return whenever possible.

He made good on his promise and has visited there often. Along the way, he has become a generous supporter of its Catholic school, the Rif School. When he was a student there in the 1930’s and 40’s, there was one teacher for all the students. Today 16 teachers educate some 100 students. When he visited the school several years ago, Mr. Alwan was impressed with the polite and carefree children and the well-maintained building.

“There is nothing like a face-to-face meeting with the children,” he said. “You can tell a great deal about the school by observing the kids, whether they’re happy,” he added.

Fighting and internal strife have taken their toll in Lebanon, leaving the country economically depressed. Jobs are scarce and parents have difficulty providing their children with the necessities. There is little money left for tuition at a private school. The obvious answer for Mr. Alwan was to take on the task of spreading the news about the Rif. He has in fact unofficially adopted the school, enlisting the Lebanese community in Peoria to help fund it.

His friends are eager to help, pointing out that a dollar goes farther in Lebanon than it does in the United States. A small contribution easily pays a year’s tuition for a student. Mr. Alwan funnels his funds to the Rif through Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), a papal agency that supports the churches and peoples of the Middle East, Northeast Africa, India and Eastern Europe.

Mr. Alwan also fears for the minority Christian population in a predominantly Muslim country. He is dismayed that large numbers of Christians are immigrating to Europe, the Americas and Australia. More troublesome, he said, as the Christians leave, the Muslims are buying their property. The remaining Christians would like to hold on to the land.

Education is, of course, the answer, Mr. Alwan continued. He reported that some of the students who attended the Rif School came to the United States for their higher education. After receiving advanced degrees, he said, they accepted jobs at leading American companies, turning their backs on Lebanon, although they had families there. Mr. Alwan and his fellow émigrés in Peoria would like to see a reversal of this trend, with the young, educated Lebanese returning to their homeland and establishing a strong Christian presence.

Mr. Alwan is a Maronite Catholic but attends St. Jude Roman Catholic Church in Peoria. His wife, Lauric, died of cancer in late 2003. They have a grown daughter, Ramza, who is a graphics designer. He retired from the grocery business in 1988 and has since devoted his efforts to supporting Lebanese charities, notably the Rif School. Mr. Alwan mentioned that his mother also gave financial assistance to the school while she was alive.

He learned about CNEWA from friends some 10 years ago and does not hesitate to tell others about the mission of the papal agency, founded by Pope Pius XI in 1926. He particularly likes being kept informed about his donations. “I like these project reports. I like to know where my money is going.”

Aside from his financial aid to the school, Mr. Alwan is also a supporter of CNEWA’s needy child program, specifying that the children come from Lebanon. He cannot recall how many children he has helped over the years. ”The young people are the hope of the country,” he said. “They are the ones who can rebuild Lebanon in a Christian image.”

Mr. Alwan looks forward to the letters the children send and files them with their pictures and background information he receives from CNEWA. He readily quoted from a note a young boy sent: “Thank you for your good care of us.”

The donor from Peoria is a hands-on supporter. He makes frequent trips to his homeland and a stop at the Rif is always on his agenda. First he checks with the teachers to find out how the children are doing and then he asks the administrators for their wish list. He makes sure they all get what they want.

Though Mr. Alwan provides for the school, he does not forget the children themselves. “I always make a point of giving them a few dollars for themselves,” he said. “What they don’t know,” he added, “is that the biggest gift I am giving them is their education. My fervent prayer is that they don’t forget Lebanon.”

Recent Posts

Get to know us and stay informed about the impact your support makes.

Nous constatons que votre préférence linguistique est le français.
Voudriez-vous être redirigé sur notre site de langue française?

Oui! Je veux y accéder.

Hemos notado que su idioma preferido es español. ¿Le gustaría ver la página de Asociación Católica para el Bienestar del Cercano Oriente en español?

Vee página en español