ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A Light of Hope for Lebanon’s Addicts

A drug rehabilitation center offers its residents a new lease on life

Life without drugs is hard. But it is satisfying,” said Amal, a young woman recovering from a serious addiction to illegal drugs. In large part, she owes her new lease on life to the Oum el Nour (“Mother of Light”) Rehabilitation and Drug Prevention Center in Beirut.

Amal’s story contains all the telltale signs of a youngster disposed to substance abuse. She began drinking alcohol at the early age of 13. Since her parents drank heavily, they ignored her behavior. Her schooling was interrupted for a long period as well. The family moved overseas, where her parents enrolled her in a local school. Amal struggled to fit in, adapt and learn the language.

But it was when the family returned to Lebanon that Amal found relief in narcotics. At school, she felt misunderstood and excluded, describing herself as “fat” and “nerdy.” She soon fell in with a group of teenagers, peers whom she described as “outcasts like her,” and together they drank. By her junior year, Amal and her friends were smoking hashish. When she got to college, she started taking pills and using heroin.

Ignoring warnings from close friends, Amal continued using heroin and developed an addiction. Her drug habit quickly took over her life. She borrowed money from friends and never repaid them. She convinced her mother to give her money to see a psychiatrist, but purchased heroin instead. She stole from her parents and even her grandmother. Eventually, she experienced a narcotic-related nervous breakdown. One friend stood by her and contacted her parents, who were overseas at the time.

Amal’s mother finally convinced her to enter the Oum el Nour center. But she refused to participate in its treatment activities, leaving after only a month. Within a few months, she returned to using heroin. This time, her parents committed her to Deir el Saliib (Convent of the Cross), a respected psychiatric facility of the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross in Beirut that operates a drug detoxification program.

Amal’s four-month stay served as a wake-up call.

“I realized I had to get out of my problems. I had to do something with my life or I’d be spending the rest of it in Deir el Saliib,” said Amal.

She returned to Oum el Nour and began rebuilding her life. A year and eight months later, Amal graduated from Oum el Nour clean, confident and excited about life.

Regarded as one of Lebanon’s most successful rehabilitation centers for substance abusers, Oum el Nour began in a tent 20 years ago.

In 1989, a group of five friends, including Father Guy-Paul Noujaim, then a young priest, rallied around another friend with a serious drug problem. To prevent him from succumbing to his need for a fix, they pitched a tent near St. Maron’s monastery, which houses the tomb of St. Sharbel, Lebanon’s healing saint. For two months the five friends took turns around the clock caring for and watching over their friend until he finally overcame the withdrawal symptoms.

Word of mouth spread quickly about the group’s success in breaking their friend’s addiction. They began to receive requests from people for the same treatment either for themselves or on behalf of loved ones. First, the requests came from friends, then friends of friends and soon enough, people they did not know at all.

At that point, the group realized the need for a substance abuse rehabilitation program in Lebanon was far greater than their small tent could handle and more urgent than they had imagined. Little by little, a vision took shape and the Oum el Nour center was born as the group recruited additional volunteers and enlisted financial support.

Today, Oum el Nour is a large, modern facility that includes professional and clinical offices, conference rooms, residence halls, a dining hall, indoor and outdoor recreational spaces and even a small farm.

The center employs 56 professional staff, engages some 300 volunteers and has the capacity to accommodate 95 residents in two separate buildings — one reserved for as many as 60 men and the other for as many as 35 women.

At present, 57 men and 20 women reside at Oum el Nour. The average age among them is 23, which resonates with current trends in the country. Of Lebanon’s estimated 8,000 substance abusers, those under the age of 23 has jumped from 7 percent in 1990 to 42 percent in 2007.

Though secular, Oum el Nour receives substantial support from the Maronite Church, which donated the property on which the center was built. In addition, the facility continues to use church-run facilities. The center’s independent board of directors has repeatedly elected Father Noujaim, now an auxiliary bishop of the Maronite Church, as its president.

While the small tent is long gone, the spirit of love and good will remains. As a key component of the center’s mission, the staff works to create a sense of community and deepen camaraderie among residents. As ropes and pegs hold a tent in place, the emphasis on building community at Oum el Nour helps achieve the secure grounding and stability that its residents desperately need.

Prevention and crisis intervention rank among Oum el Nour’s priorities. The center offers age-specific prevention and awareness programs that target youth as early as age 12, alerting them about the dangers of drug use. Schools in Lebanon have incorporated the programs into their curriculum. The center also organizes groups of volunteers to engage children in after-school activities; most participants are from poor urban areas — such as Nabaa, a Christian community in Beirut — where drug abuse is prevalent.

Oum el Nour also operates a crisis hotline. When an individual contacts the hotline, he or she is urged to visit the facility for counseling, ideally with one or more loved ones. The individual is not alone in needing help with addiction. Loved ones struggle with how to deal with the problem and the associated taboo and shame. They, too, need support and counseling.

Before coming to Oum el Nour, individuals first participate in a detoxification process, usually at the nearby Deir el Saliib psychiatric facility. There, the doctors and staff monitor the patient day and night and treat withdrawal symptoms as much as possible. Deir el Saliib also offers patients therapeutic and recreational activities. Despite encouragement from doctors and staff, however, few feel well enough to participate.

After close physical and psychological examination, doctors release patients once they have determined that the physical addiction has been broken. But doctors also urge patients to participate in a rehabilitation program, such as Oum el Nour’s, if they want to kick the habit completely and treat the underlying psychological causes of addiction.

Some addicts seeking a new start believe only detoxification is necessary. But according to Dr. Rory Hachem, who heads the medical center at Deir el Saliib, all those who complete detoxification but choose not to treat the root causes of addiction return to drug use. Even most of those who pursue further rehabilitation do not stay the course.

Though Oum el Nour remains among the most successful programs of its kind in Lebanon, on average only up to 40 percent of residents complete the program on the first try and remain drug free in subsequent years. Three-quarters of those who leave the center prematurely return. In 2007, more than half its residents completed the program.

Upon arrival, the residents follow a structured and carefully monitored daily regimen. Though staff members do as much as possible to create a warm and supportive environment, rules are strictly enforced.

For the first three months, friends and family are asked not to visit. During this time, it is hoped the resident will bond with peers and that trust between the resident and staff can be established. Later, as the resident makes progress, family visits are arranged.

And when a resident approaches the end of his or her stay, he or she is encouraged to spend weekends or holidays with family. For residents who are mothers, separation anxiety further complicates rehabilitation efforts.

Much of the residents’ time is structured around group activities and therapy sessions. Perhaps the most central component of the recovery program is group therapy, in which the residents learn to be open and honest about their addiction.

The center also embraces arts and crafts as a form of therapy. Some of the residents’ artwork hangs in the dining hall.

Not surprisingly, many people arrive at Oum el Nour in poor physical health — thin, haggard and with dark circles under their eyes. The center encourages the residents to exercise, with the idea that an improvement in their physical health will restore hope and confidence. There is an outdoor court for volleyball and basketball and plenty of open space for soccer. And recently, plans to install a pool are in the works — a gift from grateful parents.

The American University of Beirut has donated its used fitness equipment to the center. At the moment, the male residents are converting a shed into a small gym. They have already painted its walls with a lively mural, which features Oum el Nour’s mantra: “Hope against dope.” The residence halls also boast a recreation room, which offers pool and foosball tables and darts.

Residents are also required to take on basic responsibilities, such as preparing their own meals and doing their own laundry. They also must tend to the small farm on the premises. They look after the chickens, rabbits and sheep, and they pick fruit during the harvest. Accomplishing these tasks generally instills the residents with a sense of pride, helps them regain their self-confidence and reestablishes their priorities.

In the meantime, the staff at Oum el Nour works with the residents’ parents and close relatives, providing them with psychological support as well as strategies to encourage their children to complete the rehabilitation program and stay clean and sober.

Residents of Oum el Nour are among the country’s more “fortunate” substance abusers. Their family and friends intervened before their inevitable arrest. Lebanese laws, which prohibit the possession of narcotics, are especially strict, partly because the government has stepped up efforts to crack down on the production of and trafficking in illegal drugs. If apprehended, persons in possession of narcotics face serious criminal charges and are often imprisoned. In some cases, however, the judicial system places an addict in a rehabilitation program.

For its part, Oum el Nour collaborates closely with the ministries of Public Health, Social Affairs and the Interior. It and other institutions of its kind often advocate for providing the individual with treatment rather than prison.

Most substance abusers in Lebanon have no criminal records, apart from possessing and using narcotic substances, and come from working- to middle-class backgrounds. Yet, drug abuse touches men and women of all ages, in every economic class and from all of Lebanon’s diverse religious and ethnic groups. Christians and Muslims, for instance, make up an almost equal proportion of drug addicts. But women with substance abuse problems, especially mothers, often face considerably more ostracism from family and society.

As residents conclude their treatment at Oum el Nour, they are given the opportunity to test the waters, so to speak, in the outside world. Still fragile, they require safe environments, where they are treated with respect and given responsibilities to help them regain self-worth and confidence.

Over the years, Oum el Nour has built relationships with a number of charitable organizations, enabling its residents to take small jobs within safe work environments. Typically, these jobs are part time and last between three to six months.

One such charitable organization is Message de Paix (or Message of Peace). Founded by a Lebanese dentist, Message de Paix has been providing disabled persons with small but meaningful and remunerated jobs in its workshops.

In 2002, Message de Paix partnered with Oum el Nour, employing former addicts to serve as mentors and managers for the disabled who work in its workshops.

They begin slowly, first working one day a week, followed by a second the next week until they can manage a full, five-day week. More than 80 people have already participated in the program.

The quiet hallways at the Message de Paix facility lead to workshops full of activity and chatter that exude a sense of pride and accomplishment. A variety of different products are made for sale.

In early 2009, for instance, Message de Paix’s marketing group approached McDonald’s with a product idea for Mother’s Day, which is celebrated on 21 March. The committee proposed that Mother’s Day candles be given away to customers during Mother’s Day weekend. McDonald’s bought the idea and ordered 1,200 pink candles from Message de Paix with a Mother’s Day message and, of course, McDonald’s logo.

Once the residents of Oum el Nour successfully complete their temporary employment assignments, most are ready to leave. Some of the graduates find immediate and permanent employment at these same institutions. One former Oum el Nour resident, who had demonstrated exceptional interest in and skill with a computerized laser at Message de Paix, now intends to study computer science at college.

Graduation from Oum el Nour, however, is not a scene of throwing caps into the air. Rather, it is a time for reconciliation with family and friends and personal reflections.

This year marks Marilyn Raschka’s 20th as a contributor to ONE magazine.

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