Marlene Chamieh pays a visit to Mira, left, and Vera, right, at the Hannoush home, December 1999. (photo: Michael J.L. La Civita)
Amid the rubble, substantial housing was built for refugees at Dbayeh, 1955. (photo: CNEWA Archives)
The scarred remains of the Pontifical Mission school, Dbayeh, 1998. (photo: Michael J.L. La Civita)
Packing for a trip to Lebanon has become routine. You can do it blindfolded by now, can you? joked a friend last time round.
Packing may be easy, but shopping for gifts to take along for my friend children often proves challenging. They can be big or heavy, as I only carry one piece of luggage. This year my search ended easily, however, at the local K-Mart. In one of the aisles I spied some small, soft toy baby chicks. According to the package, the chicks would chirp when placed on a warm surface, such as the palm of the hand.
I took a dozen of the feathery toys and proceeded to the checkout counter. As the clerk scanned my items, she said, All they need to chirp is a simple, warm touch. Just hold them in your hand. She demonstrated. Customers in line behind me smiled.
The day before I left, I pulled the chicks from their box and stuffed them into my bag. As I flew through the night toward Lebanon, I amused myself with the thought of the chicks I was importing to the Middle East.
Ten chicks quickly found homes in the hands of my friend children. I kept two in reserve. For what, I was not yet sure. Then came the day I traveled to the Dbayeh camp.
Located eight miles north of Beirut, the camp took shape in 1948 as Palestinian families fled their homes in Galilee with the establishment of the State of Israel.
Christian and Muslim Palestinians sought refuge in their co-religionist sectors of Lebanon. Dbayeh, the last Christian camp, is also home to Lebanese families who lost their homes during the 1975-1990 civil war; some are Christian and some, Muslim. Here marriages occur across religious and political lines. Today, Dbayeh is a mixed bag of people and problems.
There are almost three generations of Palestinian refugees in Dbayeh, still poor and facing a bleak future. As for the displaced Lebanese there, they too have produced a new generation whose home will still be the refugee camp.
My assignment was to profile one Dbayeh camp family. Sister Annie, a Belgian nun from the Little Sisters of Nazareth, was waiting for me when I arrived. Since 1987, Annie and three other sisters of the same community have served the camp, doing what they could to alleviate a multitude of inhuman conditions.
Always ready to help those in need, they tackle everything thrown their way, whether it leading the Dbayeh church choir or bargaining with hospital billing departments for reduced fees for camp residents.
The Palestinian refugee problem has always been at crisis level. Education, housing and social services present ongoing problems. Lebanon 15 years of civil strife, plus chronic local and regional tensions, have wreaked havoc on attempts to improve refugee lives. On each of my visits, the Dbayeh camp appears more crowded and more permanent. And the lives of the refugees not only appear but are more desperate. After each solution there is a new problem. Each problem is shared by more and more of the camp population.
Before the civil war, the Pontifical Mission, in conjunction with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, (UNRWA), supplied food, clothing and medicines to the Palestinians seeking refuge in the Dbayeh camp. In addition, Pontifical Mission built primary and secondary schools, providing education for the camp children and employment for some refugees. A church, built by the Mission, served the spiritual needs of this exiled community. The civil war devastated all of these things, leaving refugees with bombed-out schools and places of worship.
Sister Annie job was to find a family for my story. Unfortunately, there was no end to candidates at Dbayeh, but she narrowed the field to three. As I reached into my purse to review my notes I felt those little chicks. Immediately I knew which family I would profile.
Naaman Hannoush and his wife, Jeanette, live in the camp with their six children. Jeanette and Naaman grew up in the camp. They met and married there, and live in the house of Jeanette mother, Mary. It a simple concrete dwelling; she and her husband moved there several years after fleeing the troubles of 1948.
Mary has been a widow since 1993. She now lives in Sweden with her two sons who live there with their Palestinian wives. The young men emigrated in 1987; both have factory jobs. Because of Sweden family reunification policy Mary could join her sons. Her leaving Lebanon made it possible for Jeanette and her family to occupy the family house.
Did I mention that the house has only one bedroom and the simplest of bathrooms? Or that the washing machine is broken? Or that Naaman is an amputee and is unable to work most jobs?
A man dignity in the Middle East is defined by his ability to support his family, both financially and spiritually. Naaman handicap makes this very difficult, and his eyes reflect that. He can do little to insure a future for his wife and six children. But for visitors and his younger children, he rises to the occasion and speaks with pride of his family as he cuddles the twins, resting one of them on his prosthetic leg.
Naaman suffers from arteriosclerosis extremis, a type of congenital bone malformation. All his children except Simon, his oldest son, were also born with it. Because of the condition, his excessive drinking habits of the past and his subsequent circulation problems, his leg was amputated.
In spite of her family hardships, Jeanette spirit keeps this family together. Mary presence helps too when she visits from Sweden. Jeanette is buoyed by her mother positive attitude, and no doubt by her generosity: She bought her daughter a new living room set. We sat on the new set during our conversation. The little room could hardly contain the furniture, and the family could hardly contain their pride.
One by one the children filed into the room. First came Mira and Vera. Fraternal twins, at six years old they are the youngest of the family. Vera was born with dysplasie trichorhinophalangea, a condition that causes swelling of the bones. She is afflicted with it in several parts of her body. Vera doesn follow any special treatment, but takes antibiotics when she has pain. Her doctor wants to wait until she reaches 18 years of age before she undergoes surgery.
Vera is aware of her condition; it makes her shy and self-conscious. Vera and her twin sat together while we talked; they were inseparable.
Samir, one of two sons, is 13. Very quiet, Samir is aware of his family predicament and of his uncle good fortune to be out of Lebanon.
Maggie, 14, and Maya, 16, are attractive young women with dreams. Maggie has a talent for drawing and would like to design clothing. Maya wants to be a kindergarten teacher. Emboldened, Mira piped up with a plan for her future: Holding her sister hand, she told us she wants to be a doctor when she grows up.
Maya works several nights a week as a clerk in a bakery. Her parents urge her to save her money. Maya must use public transportation, however, to reach her job, and there is always a fear of what could happen to a young woman out on her own in the middle of the night.
The sixth and oldest child, 18-year-old Simon, was absent during the interview, working at his sales job in a clothing store. He makes $220 a month. Most of it, however, is used for his own expenses.
There isnt much money coming into the Hannoush household. Jeanette works three days a week as a housekeeper at the camp medical clinic. She makes about $230 per month. Samir is still too young to work. Naaman finds odd jobs as best he can.
It is a blessing for all the families of Dbayeh that the Little Sisters of Nazareth, whose activities are supported in part by the Pontifical Mission, have the faith, fortitude and know-how to live by the fishes and loaves principle. Somehow, crucial medical care is found and bills are paid. A gift is always found for a new baby or to brighten someone day.
Helping too in these matters are the sponsors of CNEWA Needy Child Program and people like Marlene Chamieh, Sponsorship Program Coordinator for Pontifical Mission Beirut office. Marlene tries to visit all the children in the program, but sometimes she falls behind there are so many children in need living at Dbayeh. She knows Mira and Vera, however, and is aware of the medical conditions of the twins and the rest of the family.
Both Mira and Vera are enrolled in the sponsorship program; Vera condition will require operations and much patience. Other family members need help too: Simon has a hernia. Naaman finally has a prosthesis for his leg but needs physical therapy and a job that he can do. Maggie has a bone condition that needs examining.
As I ended the interview, the level of hardship endured by this family struck me. With the lack of funds and the number of people living in their tiny house, even the simplest tasks must be a challenge.
I suggested we step outside to take some pictures. Only Mira, however, warmed to the idea of a photo shoot. Samir didn appreciate being tucked into a bevy of girls, Vera was self-conscious and the teen-age girls well, they were being teen-agers.
How limiting such a photo shoot can be: There are no parks or attractive settings for the perfect shot. And the Hannoush family, along with others in Dbayeh, are surrounded by this lack of beauty.
Searching for just one more photo venue, I asked Mira and Vera to sit in some chairs outside. Both looked serious and the camera made Vera nervous. I knew what to do.
I placed the last two fluffy chicks into the hands of the girls. A simple touch and the chicks began to chirp. Delight spread across the girl faces. Samir wanted to all but dissect the toys to find out why they chirped. But Mira and Vera held them tightly and kept them chirping.
Toy chicks and a refugee family in Lebanon strange partners in a lesson that is wonderfully true: sometimes just a warm touch can make all the difference.
Marilyn Raschka is a frequent contributor to Catholic Near East.