ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

A Sister Act Hard to Follow

The Little Sisters of Nazareth reach out to those suffering misfortune in Dbayeh refugee camp.

It is only a five-minute walk from home to church for the Dbayeh. But for some reason it always takes longer.

“Sister, Sister,” someone calls out in French. The greeting may be just a word of welcome, accompanied by a bunch of onions, a head of lettuce or a piece of fish. Or it may be more serious.

Seventy-eight-year-old Bassema cannot see very well, but she always catches sight of Sister Annie. She doubles over to roll down her stockings and show the nun her bumps and bruises. The sister’s sympathy and understanding are as welcomed as the medication she carries in her bag.

A widow, Bassema is one of the older residents of Dbayeh, a refugee camp that lies in the hills eight miles north of Beirut. This collection of crammed homes once housed a population of more than 7,000 Christian Palestinians – refugees who fled their homes in Palestine after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

Now the Palestinians number about 1,300, a minority among the 4,000 Lebanese Christians who sought refuge there when war broke out in Lebanon in 1975.

Since 1987, four Little Sisters of Nazareth have made their home in Dbayeh. Sisters Annie, Christine and Magda are from Belgium. Sister Laure is a native of Lebanon.

Their flower-filled garden and inviting home welcome the visitor; they are a healthy contrast to the bleakness of the camp. Why such care for the greenery?

“Because poverty is black,” the sisters say.

Their day often begins before the previous day ends. The little bell on a string hung by the front door jingles day and night. A woman, worried about her old ailing mother, pulls the string. The camp doctor did not show up today. Could one of the nuns take the mother’s blood pressure?

“This is how it goes here,” Sister Christine says as she hurriedly stuffs a blood pressure instrument into her bag.

Neither the sisters nor most of the camp residents are afraid of opening their doors after dark. Memories of 15 years of armed men sneaking through the camp have all but faded. But for the Palestinians in the camp, fears that began long before Lebanon’s civil war continue.

“How long are we going to stay like this?” asks a frustrated young shopkeeper whose book and toy shop is deceptively well stocked. The merchandise is coated with dust; evidently sales are slow. Suffice to say, he is a third generation refugee.

Despair is as much a resident of the camp as people. It vents itself in ugly ways. Men drink, gamble and squander money that should be used to feed their hungry families.

“Notice how many children are in the camp today instead of in school,” one of the sisters points out on a weekday afternoon.

Since the destruction of the camp’s school early in the war, the children are bused to other areas. But the cost and trouble of sending the children has led to parent-supported truancy. Children lucky enough to attend school return home to mothers who are too busy to help with homework, or who cannot help because they are illiterate.

A neatly handwritten ledger is kept at the Beirut office of the Pontifical Mission. It is a tale of sadness. Some 460 families and individuals are listed. Their professions appear in the first column: “fisherman, watchman, mechanic, day laborer, house painter.” The second column lists incomes that rarely exceed $15 a day. The comment column is crammed with problems: “roof needs repair, no refrigerator, mother needs kidney dialysis, father has artificial leg, unemployed, alone and needy.” And finally in the last column comes a little good news – the assistance of the Pontifical Mission: “stove, roof repair, partial coverage for operation, school fees paid.”

Even the camp’s open sewage channels have been sheathed by the Pontifical Mission. Now young soccer players no longer have to fetch balls from the filthy water.

Mr. Rabih Sabah, the Pontifical Mission’s Project Manager, points out that the papal agency’s commitment to the refugees is long-term and firm. Recently a sum of $45,000 was allocated to repair and remodel part of the school as an activity center that will also house a day-care program. Another $8,000 created a pastoral center, repaired the church and bought dental tools for the dispensary. Through a private donor, $250 a month is allocated for the daily needs of the camp residents.

The sisters receive help from other sources as well. Sister Magda tells a delightful story of how she met a Lebanese doctor who was trained in Belgium. She was hitching a ride one day (the sisters have no car and they often hitchhike), when he offered her a lift. Sister Magda told him about the children of the camp. By the time they reached her destination, the doctor, who was a pediatrician, offered to treat any child she brought to him, free.

The Pontifical Mission also has a program for the children of Dbayeh. Some 64 youngsters have been enrolled in the Needy Child Program since 1986. The children receive a monthly sum and an occasional gift. They are asked to write their North American sponsors twice a year and when there is a lapse in the letters the youngsters pepper the Pontifical Mission staff with questions: “Why doesn’t my sponsor write more often?”

Two future candidates for this program have recently turned one year old. Elie and Nasri are twins born to a woman who had four miscarriages before her sons were born two months prematurely. Both were in incubators for more than a month. When the family received a bill for $11,000, the sisters knew they had their work cut out for them.

They presented the poor couple’s case to the hospital and argued successfully for a reduction. They then turned to the caring ear of the Pontifical Mission.

Maybe it is the 18 years spent in the Middle East that has made them successful bargainers, but it is a little unusual to do so in the billing department of a hospital.

Sister Magda tells of one bargaining session of which she can be proud. The surgeon said to her. “I suppose you want a reduction for this patient’s operation.” Knowing the destitute state of the patient, she answered, “No, I want it for free.”

She got it. Here is a sister whose act is hard to follow.

Four years ago the church choir in Dbayeh was in a sad state. The position of choir director had been passed from hand to hand. As for the choir itself, the nuns say the talent was there, but the spirit was not. So the sisters took up the challenge.

With Sister Annie conducting and Sisters Laure, Christine and Magda joining in the choir, you would think you were seeing, not a remake, but a real make of the popular movie, “Sister Act.”

Using cassette recordings, Sister Annie has learned the traditional eight Arabic chants used in the Greek Catholic liturgy.

As the sisters make the rounds of the camp they literally collar the young lads who run by them with mischievous grins on their faces. “Don’t forget choir practice,” the nuns remind the boys.

Helping the less fortunate in a place like the Dbayeh camp is a full-time job. Sister Christine does her rounds in the village, making sure she stops to see Melhem and Hind. The wife is mentally disturbed and unable to cope with cooking. So Sister Christine, who has learned the art of Lebanese cooking, does her own version of Meals on Wheels.

The sisters have recipes for more than just nutritious meals. They also have one for lice, a chronic problem in the camp. When the commercial product they had been using suddenly disappeared from the market, they concocted their own anti-lice shampoo. They do not say what is in it, but the lice do not like it.

There is no page in the Pontifical Mission ledger for the Little Sisters of Nazareth themselves. But they deserve one.

Under “profession” it would be fair to write teacher, choral director, choir member, nurse, confidante, pharmacist and chef.

For “income” one could write a grand monthly total of $200. Sister Laure works at a chewing gum factory and Sister Annie oversees the facilities of a charitable organization that works in the camp.

Under comments, let the sisters speak for themselves. “If you don’t live with the people, you can’t love them. If you don’t love them, you’ll never feel their needs.”

Marilyn Raschka, a frequent contributor to Catholic Near East, writes from Beirut.

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