ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Calling All Sponsors

An update on CNEWA’s Needy Child Sponsorship Program in Beirut: There is still more work to do.

Sponsors of children enrolled in CNEWA-Pontifical Mission’s Needy Child Program in Lebanon, this one’s for you. I owe you. You’ve done the work. I’ve had the fun. You’ve given generously. I’ve received the thanks.

On a sunny January day in Beirut, I met up with Marlene Chamieh, PMP’s Needy Child Program Coordinator. We visited three institutions where your sponsored children live, study, or come for social assistance: the Mouvement de la Jeunesse Orthodox (The Orthodox Youth Movement), the convent and school of Zahrat al Ihsan and Our Lady of Presentation. All three are important social welfare institutions sponsored by Metropolitan Elias Audi, the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Beirut.

Behind the Arabic or French names you write on your checks and cards are boys and girls who know you as Mr. or Mrs., plus their renditions of your surnames. In short, these children appreciate your monthly checks, treasure your letters and cards and hope this message reaches you. But that is much too short.

Each child has a story – some are sadder than others. But you deserve the bottom line: thanks to you, these sad stories have, and will have, happier endings.

Let me begin with Ghassan, a pudgy six-year-old with rascal written all over his face. As we sat in an office, waiting to meet the two dozen or so mothers and sponsored children who had come to meet us, the door eased open. Expecting someone to bring in the traditionally offered cup of coffee, I raised my eyes to the height of an adult. Instead, I had to adjust quickly, for this impish child, Ghassan, was peeking around the door.

Ghassan, who is autistic, had spent most of his young life withdrawn and silent. Hours of work with a speech therapist produced no results. Sessions with a psychiatrist didn’t help either. But professional contact with his family helped the psychiatrist peg the problem: emotional abuse.

Ghassan’s smile today is a recent addition. His words are the beautiful result of the work of a center for abused and neglected children the Pontifical Mission also supports. It was there that he spoke his first words. But life is not like those first words, soft and shy. Ghassan needed yet another helping hand, one that could give him a little training in assertiveness.

When Samira Tabbal of the Mouvement de la Jeunesse Orthodox took on Ghassan she took her cue from life around her. In Beirut, the freshest vegetables and fruits are available from itinerant vendors. Some sell from carts, others from pickup trucks. The truckers announce their arrival in the neighborhood by blasting news of their produce and prices through a loudspeaker system. As they move through the streets, a simple “50 cents for a kilo of oranges” is turned into a 10-second soliloquy on citrus.

Samira knew that Ghassan’s pudginess didn’t come from being a picky eater. With a stroke of genius, she combined his love of food with every child’s love of make-believe. Offering him a megaphone, she soon had him pretending he was out in the streets selling potatoes and watermelons and, of course, those wonderful oranges: “Bataata. Battiikh. Boordhan.”

Slowly, the “crutch” of the megaphone was put aside and Ghassan could face the world with words and that beautiful smile, Samira had conquered his shyness.

For some children, their letters to you are as good as a session with a social worker. Mae Martin of Wisconsin sponsored a boy who lived through some terrible times. He “talked them through” in his letters to her:

Hello. How are you? I hope you are fine. In fact, I am writing this letter and everything around me is ruined, the broken glass and a lot of stones are all over the orphanage. The days were very horrible. But thanks God there were no injuries. We lived in the shelter with the nuns were very nervous sometimes because they thinks of our safety. Christmas will be soon so merry Christmas and happy new year. Thinking of you always. Pray for pace. All me love and thanks to you. Sincerely in Christ, Rifaat Fawaz.

At Zahrat al Ihsan, a convent and school with boarding facilities, I met a couple of dozen of your children. As Marlene and I sat in the convent’s formal salon with Sister Barbara Bou Brahim, who directs the orphanage, the children were called from their classes.

In groups of twos and threes they came in, delivering a small curtsy to the three of us. The students knew someone was here from the United States, someone who knew their sponsors. Standing at attention, the children were quizzed: “How are you today? What’s your name? What’s the name of your sponsor? What grade are you in?”

The anticipation was so great some of the kids gave the names of their sponsors when asked their own. They blushed when they realized their errors.

My impressions are important to share with you, and for you to share with your children and your friends. I was impressed in every respect. School uniforms are the norm here. They are required not to combat gang rivalry in the corridors of education, but to combat the rampant economic disparity in the country.

“No one looks or thinks he’s better than the other,” Sister Barbara stated. At Zahrat al Ihsan, you see no oversized sweat shirts, battered blue jeans or unlaced sports shoes. No bedraggled or wild styles of hair. What you see are neat, tidy, groomed, polished and polite children.

Just after my return from Lebanon, the school uniform issue broke the news scene. I caught a program on National Public Radio and recorded it. Out in Long Beach, Calif., a long way from Beirut, came this report: “When a small group of mostly minority and immigrant parents first talked about school uniforms and predicted that a lot of good things would come out of them, no one took them seriously.”

Then the growing incidence of drive-by shootings and gang activity, culminating in the LA riots in 1992, sent parental fear sky-rocketing. Many parents changed their minds.

On went the school uniforms and down went the crime. Suspensions for disruptive behavior decreased: attendance went up. As a proponent for school uniforms argued on the program, “These kids are begging for boundaries.”

At Zahrat al Ihsan, there are plenty of boundaries, plenty of discipline and plenty of homework. Sister Barbara ran through the children’s weekly schedule. I never hear the word “TV,” but I noticed one when we walked through the social room. The most noticeable thing about the television was that it was off and covered with a large, hand-crocheted doily. A bouquet of flowers and a few other little decorative pieces held the doily in place. I had the feeling the kids saw more daily doily than daily TV. A mind reader par excellence, Sister Barbara looked at me and said, “mish miti America,” not like in America.

Very little reminded me of America in the girls’ dorm: The uncarpeted room had two straight lines of beds, towels hung over the rail of each bed, no jumbled piles of clothes on the floor, no compact disks or cobwebs of wires for computers and stereos and no frilly Mickey Mouse bed covers. The occasional picture pasted to the wall depicted full-blossomed spring flowers or the real Madonna, not half-clad pop stars. Indeed. I thought, “mish miti America.”

This simplicity appealed. And then I realized why. I had come across a real live version of my favorite children’s book, Madeline. Remember? “In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines lived twelve little girls in two straight lines. In two straight lines they broke their bread, brushed their teeth and went to bed.” No, I didn’t meet a Madeline, but there was a Joelle and a Roula and a Liliane and a little girl who reminded me of Audrey Hepburn. And, of course, there were several Georges, a Simon and a Fahim.

Except for a mid-morning sandwich, there is little snacking. And the Lebanese man’uushi is the healthiest “sandwich” going. Built from pita bread dough 12 inches in diameter, the man’uushi is given the once-over with a liquid basting of olive oil, sesame seeds and spices before being baked to a bubbly crisp. Once-in-a-while pocket money is a special treat. The thrill of shopping equals the candy itself.

A good appetite is therefore ensured and the women working in the kitchen make sure that each appetite is satisfied. When I visited, the cooks were busy preparing Lebanon’s signature salad, tabbouleh. Back in the U.S., I checked the local press for the school menus. At the grade-school level there were no salads. Carrot and celery sticks were standard. I asked why. “Kids won’t eat salad,” I was told. The thought of a Lebanese child not eating salad, especially tabbouleh, scooped up with fresh lettuce leaves, definitely drove home the “mish miti America” theme.

No matter how poor your sponsored children may be, I promise you they eat healthier than many here in the U.S.

Your sponsorship covers a full range of cases. Although some of the children are orphans, most are social cases and are worse off than orphans. A common problem occurs when a parent dies and the surviving parent remarries. Stepparents often refuse to have the children live with them. Shunted from aunt to grandmother, these children live with guilt.

Scenario two involves fathers who leave families behind in search of work in a foreign country. Once established, some start a new life and family, abandoning their responsibilities back home. Marriages across sectarian lines seem more vulnerable than others. When a divorce occurs, mother and children are often left penniless.

The economic hardships of postwar Lebanon were the common topics of conversation, even with intact families. One father, once a fishmonger who sold his harvest from the trunk of his car, was fined and ordered off the streets when new laws were passed to control hygiene and bring order to Beirut’s chaotic streets.

Other families have lost their homes, not to war but to construction. Old buildings are being replaced with luxury high-rise condominiums. “Daharuuna min el-bayt,” they force us to leave, was the frequent cry. Compensation is paid to the displaced and it sounds generous. But affordable lodging is often only available in outlying areas. Again the social fabric is torn, with fathers forced to commute and friends left behind.

Medical problems abound. One father, injured in the early years of the war, had undergone 16 operations. Kidney dialysis is common. Amputations force disabilities and, often, unemployment. Mothers with too great a load of responsibility suffer nervous depression.

Our Lady of Presentation runs a Child-at-Home Program, in which some of the children enrolled are sponsored by you. The day Marlene and I were visiting, the mothers were asked to bring the children to meet us. Many had to skip class, travel some distance and, in all cases, fight the miserable traffic of Beirut.

They sat politely and quietly as Marlene talked. She reminded them that it was almost time for their “maktuub Pacque,” or Easter card for their sponsors. She told them that I would be getting in touch with their sponsors back in the U.S. Was there something they wanted me to relay to you? At first their answers were the predictable “Thank you.” Then, once the ice was broken, a flood of questions came.

“Why doesn’t my sponsor write?” some asked, “Could they send pictures of their house and family?” “Why did my sponsor stop?” According to Marlene, only one third of the sponsors write on a regular basis. A diplomat of the first class, Marlene covered for those who don’t write, saying, “You know, he might be very busy. I’m sure he’ll write soon.”

It wasn’t so easy to cover for the sponsors who have dropped the program. Marlene mentioned how wonderful it is when sponsors stay with the child until he or she has reached 18 years of age and leaves the program.

As she passed out your cards and letters, which she had brought with her, each child who received a card was set apart from the others – even the school uniforms didn’t help. Holding them like gifts of gold the children left that afternoon knowing you cared. Those that left without cards are waiting. They believed Marlene when she said you will write soon.

Marilyn Raschka, a long-time resident of Beirut, now writes from Wisconsin.

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