ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Little Orphan Ahmed

A school and orphanage in a Lebanese Shiite Muslim village come to the rescue.

Beirut to Jibsheet – a Shi’ite Muslim village in southern Lebanon where the Saydi (Lady) Zeinab school is located – is a three-hour drive. The day of our trip was gloriously warm and sunny, a special treat for this writer coming out of snow-laden Wisconsin in November. The invitation, extended to CNEWA’s Beirut staff, with me in tow, was to meet the 18 children enrolled in CNEWA’s Needy Child Program and to tour the facility. A good impression would mean the program would be expanded.

Our appointment was for noon and we were running late. Engine trouble had delayed one of our two cars, which had started out in tandem. The young man driving the troubled car, a representative of the institution, had a cell phone. So did the team from the Beirut office, some of whom were in the other car.

Contact was soon made. My companions smiled in relief, but the smile on my face came from another source. In Lebanon, cell phones offer options beyond a simple ring; they can announce an incoming call with a musical tune. Forgive us Beethoven, but this driver’s cell phone played “Für Elise” in a jaunty, jingly style.

One quick repair job later the engine was humming and the two cars continued on their way. With more Für Elise messages coming from other sources we tore down the coast, up the foothills of the Lebanese mountains and into Jibsheet.

We arrived, however, long after noon, as the buses were picking up the 200 day students. Book bags loaded with homework seemed like anchors, keeping the restless children from leaving their spots on the school’s steps. Snacks also helped entertain the younger set during their wait. One child, a four-year-old boy with an impish grin, shared his snack with a four-year-old classmate, a little girl who appreciated both the sweets and the friend who shared them.

Every child, no matter how young, carried a book bag. Every child was wearing a smart school uniform, a long top worn over blue jeans. Hair was cut and combed. By the looks of these children, studies, grooming and discipline were serious matters at Saydi Zeinab school.

The buses filled quickly. The children were anxious to go home to their sisters and brothers, their parents and, most likely, a grandmother or grandfather – or both – who lived with the family. The children would study and sleep in a bedroom they shared with a sibling or a grandparent. The family would eat the evening meal together. Homework would precede and follow supper. Watching television would be limited.

Such is home life in Lebanon for many, but not for all. There are 230 children at Saydi Zeinab who do not board buses – they have no place to go. Some of these children are orphans; others come from broken, troubled or impoverished families. For these youngsters school is also home.

Right from our welcoming cup of coffee, we had the feeling that everything possible was done at the school to make it homelike. No one could replace a mother, a father or a family, but the “dorm mothers” and “dorm fathers” gave it everything they had. They guided the children while they did their homework. They shared meals with the youngsters and they and their charges competed with other dorm mothers and fathers for the cleanest and best-decorated dorm room. Competition was stiff. Spirits were high.

Administered by a Shi’ite charitable group, Saydi Zeinab opened in 1980 to provide schooling and parenting for children in need; “each according to his or her need” is the rule of thumb. Many families pay full tuition, however, because of Saydi Zeinab’s commitment to education.

The teaching staff includes individuals who, in university, have specialized in primary or secondary education. Most instructors take postgraduate courses.

The monitors who watch over the 13 bedrooms – which house 18 to 21 students apiece – are also responsible for the study hall sessions that start at 3:00 P.M. every day. Tutors provide help to those who need it.

No matter how distantly related, relatives are invited to visit on Sundays. Each month the boarding students are allowed to spend one weekend away from the school with whatever family member is willing and able to receive them.

A full-time doctor tends to the children’s medical needs. The dietitian and staff keep track of student likes and dislikes. They even keep abreast of foreign foods that have become popular with the Lebanese.

Director Adrian Fahs, who had invited us to lunch at the school, struck up a conversation on this subject.

No topic of conversation is more welcome in Lebanon than that of food. But this time the chitchat went beyond the usual discussion of what makes a good tabbouleh or where to buy reasonably priced pine nuts. This conversation wandered off to Dearborn, Michigan, where Mr. Fahs once lived. He had tried all sorts of American fast food, but he had a favorite. With a great smile on his face he announced his love of tacos.

CNEWA’s representative had heard of tacos, but Mr. Fahs sensed she needed the benefit of his full description. He turned to me for confirmation as he gestured the shape and listed the ingredients. I put in my two cents’ worth with a close translation of sour cream. He mimed the eating of a taco and in spite of the good meal we had just finished eating, he had us all wishing we had a taco. His obvious devotion to this delicacy made me wonder just how long it would be before tacos would be added to the school menu.

Touring the study halls on that sunny afternoon was an eye-opener. The boarders, following lunch and some free time, had returned to the classroom and were working with a tutor on homework assignments. Some students were crouched over their books, almost unaware of our presence. Arabic is a challenging language to read and write even for those for whom it is their mother tongue. Eraser crumbs were swept from the students’ copy books at a furious rate as mistakes were caught and corrected. Chalk dust fell like snow as the tutor added and subtracted.

Some of the students were laboring over their written English lessons. They looked at me as I had looked at those who were writing in Arabic, each wishing we were fluent in the others native language.

For 18 of these children this wish is partially fulfilled. They get to share in the lives and language of English speakers because they receive support from sponsors through CNEWA’s Needy Child Program.

At the end of our visit, and over a final cup of coffee, some of these children were brought to the director’s office, introduced and asked to give the names of their sponsors. Each had with him or her a Christmas card that was written for the sponsor. The cards were prepared in early November to guarantee their arrival by Christmas.

These children are all Shi’ite Muslim, as is the institution, so each letter began with the opening verse of the Qur’an: “In the Name of God.” A little sticker at the bottom of the letter read “Merry Christmas” in Arabic. The text of the letter, probably set by the English teacher or even the director, began, “Hello, I wish you a Merry Christmas. I also wish you the best in life.”

Some students stuck to the prescribed text, saying thank you for the sponsor’s support, asking about his or her family and often mentioning how much the child looked forward to the sponsor’s letters. Each mentioned school activities, especially outings and picnics. A few strayed from the teacher’s text to add personal notes about successes in school and sports.

As the children enrolled in the Needy Child Program gathered for a photo, the biggest smiles appeared on the faces of those whose sponsors write regularly and share their families’ lives through pictures.

Providing years of quality education should be a happy ending in itself, but Saydi Zeinab has looked beyond graduation. For the bright, promising students further educational possibilities are provided. Some graduates have returned to teach at their alma mater, to continue the tradition of being a fostering mother or father to the Elises, Samirs and Ahmeds of Lebanon.

We were impressed. We left with many good opinions. CNEWA’s sponsors’ generosity is bearing good fruit at Saydi Zeinab, but please, keep on writing those letters.

Marilyn Raschka, a long-time resident of Lebanon, has returned to Wisconsin after an extensive trip there in November.

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