ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Counting on God

A place of hope and sanctuary in Lebanon

The story of a local bad boy who makes good is hardly the standard inspiration for starting an order of sisters. But the Ephremite Sisters do trace their roots to just such a lad.

The tale begins between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in A.D. 303 in what is now Turkey. During her pregnancy, the mother of this boy dreamed of a baby with the face of an elderly man and from this strange child’s mouth came a vine full of grapes.

From birth, the boy, Ephrem, was a handful. One story tells of how he beat his father’s cows, which undoubtedly were the family’s livelihood. School did little to tame him and his father kept him at home. The boy’s isolation gave him time to think. Thinking brought about regret. Regret led to repentance and repentance led Ephrem to dedicate his life to God.

At age 20, he entered a monastery. He wrote poetry, became a deacon but felt unworthy of becoming a priest. Ephrem requested permission from his superiors to become a hermit. Again isolation led him toward thinking and regretting. And again he sought permission – this time to leave his life as a hermit.

Ephrem then began working with the sick and handicapped. He started a hospital. But perhaps it was his own wayward childhood that inspired him to begin working with youth.

Open doors and hearts. Ephrem lived to be 73 and is remembered as the patron saint of the Order of the Ephremite Sisters of the Syriac Catholic Church. The community is small with 11 sisters in Lebanon and 6 in Syria. There are 10 novices.

In 1970, the sisters opened St. Joseph’s Orphanage for girls. They also opened their hearts and doors to social cases – that catchall phrase for children whose lives have been heart-wrenchingly sad.

St. Joseph’s is located in Batha, high above the Lebanese coastline where you breathe in mountain air, only to have it taken away by the beauty of the views.

Originally located on Beirut’s once infamous Green Line, a boundary formed between east and west Beirut during the civil war (1975-1990), the orphanage was moved to Batha, where an abandoned convent proved safer.

Through the years the home has sheltered some 900 girls – and has done such a good job that “class reunions” are held annually. Today, there are 36 girls at St. Joseph’s – 27 are orphans and 9 are in tremendous need.

Sister Marguerite Amsih has been the director since 1984. She knows there are many more needy girls in Lebanon. But as she looks down the hallways of the dormitory, at the tables in the cafeteria, at the study hall and even the chapel, she knows that no matter what the need is, she cannot accept any more children.

Sister Marguerite’s hope is to make more room. She is currently in the midst of an expansion project – a three-story building next to the present orphanage will house up to 75 girls.

But the price tag is $900,000 and Sister Marguerite has so far collected only $400,000. When funds are sufficient to call in the builders, they come and build. When the money runs out, they stop work and she starts yet another round of visits to raise more funds for this vital sanctuary.

Give us this day. Order in the home is a given. The girls awake early to tapes of classical music – they then wash and dress in their school uniforms.

The girls are educated at a nearby school run by the Syriac Catholic Patriarchate. Each girl carries a packed lunch: fruit, sandwich and cookies. The discipline imposed at the orphanage carries over to school where the girls are high achievers and a credit to the sisters.

For outings, which the sisters organize, a bus is rented. For smaller excursions the girls simply pile into the sisters’ car. The girls visit whatever family they have every two weeks. For many, the sisters and the other girls are their only “real” family.

Rising costs. Sister Marguerite runs a tight ship – she knows exactly how much money it takes to educate and shelter each girl. Annual school fees are $900 per student; other monthly expenses average $300. Ten years ago, the average cost per child was just $55 a month.

All but three of the girls are enrolled in CNEWA’s Needy Child sponsorship program. When Marlene Chamieh, who administers the program from CNEWA’s Beirut office, arrives for a visit the expectation level leaps. Each girl hopes for a letter, a card, a bookmark or just a note with a kind thought from her sponsor.

Life at the orphanage is neither Spartan nor five-star. Meals are hearty, but not fancy. The girls are treated well, but not spoiled.

Sister Marguerite says, nihna mnintikkle aan Allah – a mouthful meaning “we count on God.” She also counts on CNEWA’s contributors. In 1990, they donated a generator, the school van, a piano, a knitting machine and clothing. In 1992, they presented the sisters with six carpets for the study rooms and aluminum frames for bedroom windows. More carpets came in 1998 and now in the present construction period the sisters have submitted a request to CNEWA to finance one floor of the three-story addition.

Along with these contributions, funding also comes from the Lebanese Ministry of Social Affairs and various bishops and priests. The Syriac Catholic Patriarchate covers some deficits.

But deficit is the defining term at the home – deficits in the lives of the 36 girls. Their stories are all sad. Picking one story over another is enough to cause tears.

One child lost her mother and father in just six months. A brother took charge of her, but his wife refused to take the child on a permanent basis. It was the sisters who provided the child with a permanent home – with all the comforts both physical and psychological.

The sisters spend as much time planning for their girls’ futures as they do for their daily needs. In this youngster’s case the plan is to send her to technical school to do computer studies. During summers, she studies English. And in the future, inshallah, or God willing, Sister Marguerite said, that girl will also attend reunions at the orphanage.

Meanwhile, the sisters – with all tikkle, or reliance on God – will see other girls benefit from a completed, improved, enlarged and always welcoming St. Joseph’s Orphanage.

Marilyn Raschka is a frequent contributor to CNEWA WORLD.

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