Women prepare sweets as part of an income-generating program. (photo: Dalia Khamissy)
Ani Kaloust. (photo: Dalia Khamissy)
ONE magazine’s Don Duncan sat down not long ago to talk with Ani Kaloust, a 65-year-old Lebanese Armenian Catholic who lives in the eastern Beirut neighborhood of Geitaoui.
ONE: I have heard you work long days. Could you tell me how?
Ani Kaloust: Well, I work mainly with Caritas [the charity of the Lebanese Catholic churches and a partner of CNEWA] and with the Armenian Catholic Patriarchate in Bourj Hammoud, an Armenian neighborhood in eastern Beirut. I have been with Caritas for more than 25 years, working in Geitaoui, receiving and helping families in need. We give them money and food aid. Besides that, we have families struggling with illness — even cancer. We help them however we can.
My other job is with the Armenian Catholic Patriarchate, as a member of their charity arm. I’ve been with them for 40 years. In order to help the people of the area, you need to have someone who knows the families, right? Well, I know all the families in this community: rich, middle class and the poor. In the patriarchate, when people come knocking on the door asking for help, they say: “Go see Madam Ani.” I do a little interview to see what they need, and the patriarchate helps them if able.
ONE: I see in the room next to ours, there is a group of women working around a table preparing food. Is that one of your projects?
AK: Yes, this has been going on for 20 years. We sell baked goods to supermarkets. Eleven women work in the collective — widows and women in need. We make a range of savory biscuits, thyme biscuits with nuts, sweet biscuits, and more. For the women working here, we pay their travel, their salary and their social security. We distribute to most of the Lebanese supermarkets, as well as to Saudi Arabia, Dubai and France.
For Caritas, it’s a self-financing activity. With the current funding model, where there is less and less money coming from outside, we are obliged to do self-sustaining activities, so selling these biscuits helps us fund our other activities.
ONE: What other activities do you do with Caritas?
AK: For the past 19 years, we’ve been visiting prisoners. We help people who don’t have family visiting them. We talk with them.
If they need clothes, medication, food or drink, we provide that for them.
Some families who won’t come to visit have given up; their child has messed up to a point where the family rejects him. Others may not be able to afford to visit. The prison is at Roumieh, about 12 miles from Beirut, so if a family wants to visit their child, they need at least $50 to go, come back and bring provisions to their child.
ONE: I’ve heard the conditions are poor.
AK: Yes, they are awful.
ONE: Can you describe them?
AK: No. It’s atrocious — the dirt, the terrible conditions. In Roumieh there are 4,600 prisoners and we can’t help them all. We have people who come to us to register the names of people saying they need our help, or need to talk with us. We listen to them and sometimes we visit their families to see why they don’t come to visit and help their children. Up to now, we have managed to convince only three families to come visit their child but we usually don’t succeed. It’s very difficult.
ONE: How does your work at the Armenian Catholic Patriarchate help the refugees fleeing the war in Syria?
AK: When the Syrians started to come, the patriarch said: “We can’t refuse them; we must welcome them.” So, Syrians seeking help come to me and I do interviews: where they came from, where they live now, how many people are living where they reside, etc. Initially, we assisted Syrian Armenian Catholic families, and then we began to help everyone, regardless of ethnicity or religion. We went to CNEWA for money to buy them heaters, blankets and towels. We then made an agreement with the Armenian Apostolic bishop and with the Karagheusian Center [a CNEWA partner] to start giving children pillows, towels, pajamas, underwear and socks. Currently, we are helping some 1,100 families in Bourj Hammoud — about 4,000 people.
Everyone helps now, even the people who resent Syrians for the occupation of Lebanon. In 1978, we were stuck for ten days and nights in shelters. It was awful; you can’t imagine ten days of bombs falling on you. But now people say: “It’s not the people’s fault — we must help them.”
ONE: How did you become so deeply involved in charity work? Isn’t it all overwhelming?
AK: Since my childhood, I liked to help people. I was small and I worked in a dispensary beside our house. I liked that. I was in my 20’s during the civil war here in Lebanon and I helped everyone. I spent the whole war in this neighborhood. I didn’t leave it even for one day.
I am no longer a young girl, but I work more than a young girl does! And people say: “Oh, I’m tired.” Me, I can’t say that; I don’t get tired!
ONE: I have heard many personal stories here in Lebanon from the war years and I am sure the war made you very busy helping people. But surely there were moments where you had to help yourself?
AK: Oh, I have a story for you. In 1978, when the Syrians attacked us with the bombs, I was pregnant. I was taking shelter in the basement under our building and I could feel that I was going to give birth. I couldn’t breathe. I said I must go to the hospital, or will I have to give birth before 400 people! My brother came to take me there, and I was sure either I’d die or my baby would. I went to the hospital in a car of a Christian militiaman. I arrived with the baby’s head already coming out and I gave birth on the bathroom floor in about five minutes. Then a sister said: “You must leave. The hospital is burning.” I took my baby and she was black from the dirt. There was no water. About 10 or 15 minutes after having given birth, I was running through the streets with the baby to get back to the shelter. I arrived and could see my husband and kids across the street, but couldn’t cross because the bombs were falling so heavily. Finally, I got back to safety. Two hours later, there was a cease-fire.
ONE: Did such experiences — or indeed, does your charitable work — change you spiritually?
AK: No. I was a student of the Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception and I have had my faith since I was a child. Every day, when I wake up, before leaving the house, I have a picture of Jesus and I say to him: “I am leaving the house and I leave it to you. It’s up to you to decide if I make mistakes or not and you’ll always be with me.”
But prayers help me when life is tough. Without prayers, how do you live? Prayers are our protection. God stays with us when we pray and he doesn’t let us go astray.