ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

A Recipe for Christian Sharing

A meal program in Lebanon caters to the land’s displaced elderly.

Over 3,000 of Lebanon’s displaced elderly are regular lunch guests at the Restaurant du Coeur, or Restaurant of the Heart. Today’s dish, at the “Welcome” branch, is called makhlouta, meaning “all mixed together.”

That’s a big order. But for Helene, Zakia, Josephine and Jamila it’s just one of many tasks they need to get done before their 300 guests come for lunch. The guests too have been picked carefully. Their advancing years makes them eligible for the free meal that Hanayneh, Nabbiha and Jallina help the other women prepare.

Most of the elderly are in their 60s and 70s, but a good number have reached their 80s and 90s. A special few have passed the century mark.

But the years they speak of most are the recent ones – the 15 years of civil war from 1975 to 1990. This decade and a half of conflict left them homeless and without a livelihood. Fighting and fear removed them bit by bit from the “earth and stem” of their villages, making them refugees in their own country.

They number in the tens of thousands. Some live with sons and daughters, others with nephews and nieces. The real down-and-out live alone in walk-up apartments with no telephone, irregular electricity and endless water cuts.

As poor as they are the elderly come to the restaurant scrubbed and neatly dressed. Village men wear woolen caps or Arab headdress. Townsmen prefer the now rarely-seen fez. The occasional safari or Western hat suggests a period of time spent abroad. The women wear black dresses, a sign of mourning for a son or daughter, a husband or a brother. Each has lost someone near or dear. But now they are all mixed together, and as they sit together at lunch time the bad times are set aside.

The women volunteers, many of whom have been helping since the program began in 1983, spend four days a week at the restaurant preparing lunch for the displaced elderly. But some of the work, like soaking the chick peas and beans, needs to be done the night before a meal, so they do it at home. Dedication and cooperation are major ingredients in the success of this meal program.

The volunteers themselves are displaced from villages and towns around Beirut. In their bright blue, orange and green checkered aprons and scarves the women lift the lids of the giant pots and stir the contents. No need to announce the menu; the aroma of the home-cooked meal does the trick.

But charity begins long before it becomes home-cooking at the Restaurants du Coeur. The program’s best friend is former president Charles Helou, who has been an active supporter since it began in 1983. His personal contributions have been many, including his commitment to dining regularly with the less fortunate. His sense of humor has worked with his well-off friends.

“I tell them to eat a little less and contribute a little more,” Helou jokes. He compares the spirit of the meal program with ancient Christian tradition: sitting at the same table, sharing the same food, enjoying the fellowship of friends.

Helou’s personal prestige, both as a former Lebanese president and as president of the Friends of the Restaurants du Coeur, has meant that charity, begun at home, has made friends abroad. Gifts of rice, pasta and canned goods come annually from a number of organizations in Europe. In 1990 some 30 tons of food were donated from abroad, but it gets used up fast when 3,000 guests come to lunch on a regular basis. Just ask the 300 volunteers at the 23 branch restaurants.

Is it the smell of frying onions that brings the elderly to the restaurants hours before lunch is served? While they wait the men play cards or throw dice for tric trac. The women knit and chat. But inside activity moves faster than the dice or knitting needles as knives chop, pots boil and the checkered figures crisscross the cooking area.

Located in churches and unused schools, the restaurants double as social centers where, from time to time, clothing and basic medicines are distributed. Four volunteer social workers keep a watchful eve on the elderly making sure that both their basic and special needs are met.

There may be time for a cup of coffee, but the tables – all 80 of them – still must be set. Their spotless white tops complement the blue plates and shiny silverware. Add a can of corned beef at each settingsomething for the elderly to take home and have for supper. Crown each can with a juicy Lebanese tangerine. Stand back and admire the view.

At Eastertime bags of foil-covered chocolate eggs were at the center of the tables. At Christmastime there were other sweets, including a traditional pastry filled with nuts and dates called maamoul.

Still no time to rest. The basic Lebanese lunch ingredient, bread, is missing. The 15-inch round loaves of pita bread need to be cut into quarters-all 240 loaves. Put them back in the plastic bags where they will stay soft and fresh. Now fill the water pitchers and set them out.

The smell now acts like a lunch hell. The tric trac players abandon their game. Knitters drop stitches. Conversations end in mid-stream. As the 300 sit down on the wooden benches, a picnic atmosphere takes over. Cane in hand, 92-year-old Mikhail Makhoul seeks out his favorite spot, where his friend Zaki Fakhoury is waiting for him. The walk to the restaurant used to take him 10 minutes; now he needs 45. But it is a rare day that he doesn’t come. “If they didn’t feed me here, I wouldn’t eat,” he says.

There’s one more thing to do: the giving of thanks. Everyone stands together, but each prays his own thoughts. Some say the Lord’s Prayer. Mikhail, whose layers of clothing offer many a pocket, interprets “give us this day our daily bread” to mean supper as well as lunch, and he slips three or four pieces into a few of them.

Selma, Samira and Wadad say sabteen, Arabic for bon apetite, as they take serving bowls and start dishing out lunch. Along with the sound of knives, forks and spoons is the hum of conversation. Family problems, politics, neighbors, day-to-day life brings nods of agreement, smiles and sometimes hearty laughter. These too are ingredients for a well-balanced meal.

In a half hour the guests have finished. The volunteers do the dishes, clean the tables and put everything back in its place. Now, what’s for tomorrow’s lunch? No matter what it is, a dish found at every meal is a big bowlful of love and respect served with warmth. And at the Restaurant du Coeur there is always a second helping.

Marilyn Raschka is a freelance journalist living and working in Beirut.

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