CNEWA
ONE Magazine
God • World • Human Family • Church

A Letter From Lebanon

Living in solidarity with the dispossessed

Saturday evening. The beautiful light of the setting sun envelops the camp. I feel it like a balm on the many wounds the refugees live with daily. In the evening silence, I hear their sighs: “How long, Lord? Will you utterly forget me?” They repeat the psalmist’s petition in Psalm 13, imploring to be heard and set free.

In 1987, the Lord called the Little Sisters of Nazareth — a community of women living the spirituality of Blessed Charles de Foucauld — to live in the camp of Dbayeh, north of Beirut. Initially, in 1951, Dbayeh was a Palestinian refugee camp and was entirely Christian. Since the civil war in Lebanon (1975-1990) and the war in Syria (2011-present), displaced Lebanese families and Syrian refugees have found a home here, too.

A nun speaking with a family.
Sister Magdalena receives visitors at her convent, located in the refugee camp. People of all ages — Christians, Muslims, Palestinian, Syrian, Lebanese — visit continuously, seeking help, support and encouragement. (photo: Raghida Skaff)

We share the daily life of these dispossessed: a daily life of joys and sorrows, marked always by the struggle for survival, by the struggle to obtain their human rights, by the eager desire for a dignified life. Our life of solidarity — through loving presence — translates into hospitality for every person who knocks on our door, for every person who seeks refuge, for everyone who needs to share a small part of their life, to tell their story. We are here simply to “be there” for them, listening to their stories, understanding more deeply their experiences — even in the words they do not speak — welcoming their joys and pains, their worries and needs, their challenges and hopes.

Listening makes us privileged witnesses. It obliges us and commits us to help where we can, by praying for all these intentions, but also by asking for help, so our brothers and sisters may live. After all, we are all brothers and sisters, children of the same Father, sharing the trust that has grown over the years. The camp in Dbayeh has become our home, the inhabitants are our family of Nazareth, and our life is a journey with them, sharing with them and bringing them a little of God’s tenderness, despite our smallness.

A nun's eyes reveal her smile from under her mask as she reads a flyer.
Sister Cecilia reads an obituary notice of a man she cared for who had COVID-19. (photo: Raghida Skaff)

Year after year, the living conditions of the camp’s inhabitants have become harsher and more difficult. We were already living through a social and economic crisis: Work had become more difficult to find, many fathers lost their employment, their families were deprived of income, as food and other basic necessities became increasingly expensive, not to mention children’s health care and school fees.

Our kind and generous benefactors responded to our urgent and growing needs. Solidarity and sharing were necessary for our survival. But the situation worsened day by day, and we continued our downward slide, from bad to worse. But how much worse could it possibly get?

A nun wearing a backpack and walking.
Sister Cecilia makes her way through Dbayeh camp on her home visits with a backpack full of medication and other supplies. (photo: Raghida Skaff)

Then, on 19 October 2019, the situation erupted. The revolution began. The country was declared bankrupt. Nevertheless, we remained hopeful for a better future, for a more dignified existence. People put up with the lack of money, food and water, for they believed the situation was only temporary. They believed better times would come.

But better times did not come and, on 4 August 2020, we were dealt the fatal blow. The Beirut port exploded and Beirut was devastated. The explosion was felt even in the camp, in our convent and in people’s homes, wounding our hearts. Many children were traumatized by the event and still suffer from anxiety.

“We are here simply to ‘be there’ for them, listening to their stories, understanding more deeply their experiences — even in the words they do not speak.”

Unfortunately, the revolution has not brought about the desired solution and COVID-19 has only increased the chaos. We have endured lockdown after lockdown, without any help of the government for its people — a crucified people, a people who has begged and still prays fervently for deliverance.

These were difficult times for us, Little Sisters, and very busy days: caring for the sick; responding to urgent needs; trying to find food for families without income; searching for milk for hungry babies, all while offering hospitality and listening to the people, despite all of the COVID-19 restrictions.

Two nuns doing paperwork and sitting with a woman
Sisters Magdalena and Cecilia check on a prescription for a resident of Dbayeh camp. (photo: Raghida Skaff)

During this period, the Lebanese currency imploded, causing unprecedented inflation. Currently, more than 60 percent of the Lebanese population — once largely middle class — now lives below the absolute poverty line.

The days and months follow one another at a frenetic pace. As I write this in January 2022, the situation continues to go from bad to worse. The descent into hell seems endless. Winter is harsh and cold. Everything is difficult and problematic, and everything is lacking here. There is little or no work; no income, therefore, little or no money; not enough food; no electricity; no water; no oil to heat our houses, and the price of a generator is often greater than a person’s meager income.

I can continue the lamentations, but not everything is darkness and misery. Over the past year, we have often experienced how God provides and is close to his children in Dbayeh with tenderness. He has sent angels with richly filled boxes of food for all the inhabitants, without distinction, so that no one would starve. Others have provided assistance with health care or children’s education. The residents of the camp are grateful for their generosity, grateful to all those who illuminate their daily lives and do not extinguish the small flame of hope. May God bless them!

A nun praying with children.
Sister Magdalena gives a catechism class to the children of the camp, who are preparing for first Communion. (photo: Raghida Skaff)

And we, Little Sisters of Nazareth, try to care for this little flame. Our strength and our joy are the words of Jesus of Nazareth, who reminds us that “ ‘whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me’ ” (Mt 25:40). And every day he sends us out to our brethren, saying, “ ‘Give them some food yourselves’ ” (Mk 6:37).

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