While reporting on the work of the Good Shepherd Sisters in Lebanon, writer Diane Handal spoke to one Lebanese Maronite villager who volunteers with the sisters to help Syrian refugees, most of whom are Muslim. Elias Kayrouz offered his perspective on life from his village in the Bekaa Valley, from Lebanon’s civil war to Syria’s.
ONE: Tell us a little about yourself.
EK: I am 40 years old. I was born in Bechouat. I am a Maronite Christian.
I studied until fifth grade, and then I started farming lentils, tobacco and wheat. I worked as a tobacco farmer until two and a half years ago.
My mother lives here. My father is dead. We had five boys and six girls in our family.
My sister who owned a restaurant passed away and now her children and her husband run it. I helped them in the café before, but less now — only when they need the help.
ONE: When did you get involved in volunteering with the Sisters of the Good Shepherd? How did you learn about their work?
EK: I met the sisters two and a half years ago. My neighbor Yusuf was volunteering at the school and introduced me to them.
About the same time, the war in Syria had started, so there was a need for more volunteers.
ONE: Do you work elsewhere?
EK: Yes, I work as a doorman and security guard at a local high school in the afternoon.
ONE: Could you tell me a little about your childhood that inspired you to help others?
EK: I grew up hearing stories about my father and grandfather helping the hungry and the poor people for years from wars. It left an impression, and now I’m carrying on that tradition.
ONE: Was there anything growing up in Bechouat during the civil war that shaped your feelings toward people of different religions?
EK: I grew up in a Christian village and saw the civil war in Lebanon, the hatred and violence between the Muslim and Christian people. It came from the differentiation of sects and religions, and watching it taught us not to differentiate — to be open to seeing one another as human beings. We learned to understand what others are going through, regardless of background.
ONE: Did you have any Muslim neighbors before the war started?
EK: Before, there were only Maronite Christians. The only others were Syrian workers, migrant farmers who would visit for a season at a time.
ONE: What has your work as a volunteer working with Syrian refugees taught you?
EK: Through working with the Syrian refugees, I have come to know hardship. Some of them say: “You can’t help us; we need more.” That makes me feel down — even frustrated — but at the end of the day, you can only do so much.
ONE: What is your personal advice to others in helping Muslims, bridging the differences and exposing biases?
EK: I think to myself: When I lay my head on my pillow, what would make me feel more at peace — if I work against other people and feed into the negativity, or if I help other people? Which would help me sleep better at night?
I advise everyone to think deeply about this.
ONE: Have you suffered any backlash from friends, family or fellow Christians?
EK: I know some people who say, “Good for you,” and others who say, “What business do you have with the Syrians?” But this is mostly because of preconceptions and prejudices. For example, a Syrian worked on someone’s house and he did a bad job. When the owner told other people about it, he said unkind things about all Syrians.
ONE: Can you tell me what changes you have witnessed over the last three years in this region as a result of the war in Syria?
EK: A lot of things have changed, being so close to Syria. We see fewer travelers. Tourists from Iraq, Jordan and Egypt no longer visit — they are scared by our nearness to the border, by the fighting and retaliation between Shiites and Sunnis. Christians worry about being caught in the middle.
ONE: Do you have any words to share about your philosophy on how this sectarian conflict can be resolved?
EK: We are one. All we need is for people to see how Muslims and Christians treat each other as human beings.
Think about the animal kingdom: The strong animals kill the weak ones. If this is how human beings live, the strong keep killing the weak, there will be no progress — just the law of the jungle. For me, doing good differentiates me from the animals. Over time, maybe I will help other people because of my example.
I do good in order to differentiate myself from the animals. I am sorry to put it so simply, but it is the truth.