ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Reaching the Margins

How the church serves Lebanon’s most vulnerable

When Wadad Bou Dagher-Kharrat saw the flat line on the monitor, her heart dropped. In 2009, she had brought her 18-month-old twins, Angie and Karl, to have their hearing tested. The children had never seemed to turn their heads when she called them by name. And even if the sound was blaring, they would also sleep in front of the television.

Although Mrs. Dagher-Kharrat had searched for benign explanations for these irregularities, she could not argue with the tympanometer’s results that day at the hospital — nor with the consultant who then told her that her children were deaf.

After receiving the news, she experienced a feeling she compares to mourning:

“We struggled to believe it, to admit that it was true.”

This difficult period included a faith struggle. Mrs. Dagher-Kharrat began to question God, to reproach him, asking: “Why us?”

For months she and her husband wrestled with this revelation, the internal strife often manifesting as arguments between them. Yet this hardship eventually gave way to an acceptance after which, she says, she has never looked back.

“I finally managed to say to God: ‘Thy will be done.’

“From that moment on, I was in an indescribable faith I had never experienced before. Since that moment, I have never faltered once. It was a radical change.”

Instead of resisting her children’s deafness, Mrs. Dagher-Kharrat embraced it. This led her, and the children, to the Father Roberts Institute for Deaf Children, a specialized school in the village of Sehaileh, some 40 minutes north of Beirut.

On a recent glorious June afternoon, Mrs. Dagher-Kharrat stood in the main lobby of the school, waiting for her twins to finish the day. It was the last day of the term, bringing the academic year to a close. Summer awaited.

Managed by the Basilian Chouerite Sisters of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, the Father Roberts Institute is one of many Christian institutions that form the mainstay of care in Lebanon for those with special needs, such as Angie and Karl; for the aged; and for those with mental illness. The weak Lebanese state has devolved to the point of leaving the provision of such care mostly to the religious sector.

The ethos of care that prevails at the Father Roberts Institute began with one Rev. Ronald Roberts, an English Catholic priest who first came to Lebanon in 1942 as a chaplain in the British army. While there, he noticed a gaping lacuna in the education of children with hearing impairments. He was moved by how society met their condition with stigma and ignorance; deaf children were often kept at home, hidden away and denied the opportunities given to other children.

Father Roberts saw education as the best way to counteract this. When he returned to the country in 1959, he established his school for the deaf, with a key focus on providing help and care for the poorest of the poor.

Today, that impulse has translated into a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary school for deaf children and, more recently, also for children with developmental disabilities. The Father Roberts Institute begins its work with children as young as 6 months old, leading them through the same curriculum followed by all Lebanese students, right up to a high school diploma. Beyond this, the school offers pre-university training courses and vocational training.

In parallel to academic studies, children at the institute benefit from an array of therapeutic and clinical support programs — from physical therapy to speech therapy and psychological counseling.

“They wouldn’t get this kind of therapy in a mainstream school,” says Joelle Wheibie, the school’s speech therapist.

Ms. Wheibie sits, microphone in hand, at a “vibration board” along with one of the students, 9-year-old Hamze. Underneath the board is a large speaker to which the microphone is connected. She urges Hamze to make various sounds into the microphone. Using the force of the vibrations coming from the speaker through the board and up his entire body, he can judge how to modulate the force and pitch of his voice.

“Using this technique, over time, and combined with other techniques, the child manages to gain power over his or her voice so as to be able to produce pitch and force appropriate to various contexts,” Ms. Wheibie says.

This scene, a small moment of one-on-one care, conveys something grand — a glimpse into just one of the myriad ways men and women of the churches of Lebanon work to serve the underserved, and provide for the needs of the nation’s most vulnerable.

That ethos of care that guided Father Roberts in his mission also led another towering figure of Lebanon: the Rev. Jacques Haddad. A Lebanese Capuchin priest beatified in 2008, he sought to build institutions to provide care for the mentally ill, likewise with a focus on the poorest of the poor. He is remembered for having sought out ill children and mentally ill adults at the margins of society, and taking them in to care for them. That spirit lives on today in the institutions he founded — such as the Psychiatric Hospital of the Cross in the Beirut suburb of Jal el Dib — administered by the order he established: the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross.

On a recent afternoon, about 20 psychiatric patients at the hospital sit at desks scattered about the room, busy at work in the institution’s art therapy workshop. On the walls around them hang the fruits of their labor: a heterogeneous hodgepodge of paintings, varying in color vibrancy and abstraction.

“The act of drawing is very important,” says art therapist Mona Esta. “For the patients, it’s a chance to externalize and express inner conflicts out on the page, through a painting.”

Making up between 60 and 70 percent of the hospital population of 550, schizophrenia represents the most common mental illness treated here. Other patients struggle with bipolar disorder and extreme obsessions or phobias, among other conditions. The hospital also treats a growing population of people recovering from addiction to drugs or alcohol — or both.

Many of these patients have been rejected or abandoned by their families. All have faced hardship, both from their illnesses and the stigmas attached to them. And yet despite — or perhaps because of — this struggle, the flame of faith burns strongly in the hearts of most of the institution’s beneficiaries.

“I love my Lord,” says Melanie, a patient in her 60’s at Our Lady’s Hospital for the Chronically Ill, another institution founded by Blessed Jacques and run by the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross in Antelias, a suburb of Beirut.

“I pray every morning to the sainted Jacques. I offer my day to him.”

In the evening, Melanie prays with her rosary beads, using each bead to mark a new intention.

“With each new bead, I name a new person I wish to pray for and in that way, I don’t repeat the prayers emptily. Each prayer has its own distinct intention.”

Geriatric patients comprise the largest population group in Our Lady’s Hospital for the Chronically Ill — people whose families can or will no longer care for them. Many of these patients suffer from mental conditions, including a large number with Alzheimer’s disease.

Sister Tammam Salameh, mother superior of the facility, performs her rounds, spread out across a number of pavilions. On her route, she pauses to exchange words, jokes and pleasantries with patients and staff alike. Sister Tammam brings to each room a warm and buoyant atmosphere, in juxtaposition to the condition of many of the wards themselves. The age of the buildings, most of them built some 40 years ago, is beginning to show. Patients live in crowded wards, without air conditioning, surrounded by peeling paint.

“These buildings are now old and we need to restore and enlarge them. That’s our vision and it’s urgent,” Sister Tammam says as she makes her way between wards.

Such a renovation and enlargement project would cost about $1 million, says hospital accountant Elie Rizkallah, but such funding is nowhere to be seen.

“We don’t have the money set aside,” he says. “We are living day to day.”

Of the 450 patients at the hospital, only 20 are private, fee-paying patients. For public patients, the government pays a symbolic subsidy, which amounts to about $10 per person per day, far below the real costs of care.

The Father Roberts Institute and the Psychiatric Hospital of the Cross face this same funding conundrum. United Nations agencies such as UNHCR and UNRWA contribute money respectively for Palestinian and other refugees taken in as patients or beneficiaries. CNEWA and other Catholic agencies, such as l’Œuvre d’Orient assist with non-operational support.

For example, CNEWA has helped the Father Roberts Institute to build a pastry kitchen from which the institute produces, packages and distributes Father Roberts Institute-branded cookies and cakes to supermarkets all over Lebanon. It has become a new mode of income generation and a cornerstone of the institute’s slow move toward self-sufficiency. CNEWA has also provided funding for educational materials for the school and for hearing aids for students.

Despite these specific boons, all three institutions operate their finances on a month-to-month basis, depending heavily on Providence. In the meantime, the core infrastructure — put in place decades ago — is crumbling.

Although brick and mortar do not last forever and these centers will indeed require serious investment soon, their collective work has contributed to an ever-expanding space in Lebanese society for the dignity and acceptance of those who were once marginalized and cast out — in particular, the deaf and the mentally ill.

For that space to continue to grow and consolidate, these institutions seek out more outside support.

Where once deaf babies were kept at home and neglected, now confident youth are able to emerge as active participants in society. Where once the mentally ill were cast out, now they can begin to find a place and contribute through workshops and community engagement.

Back in the lobby of the Father Roberts Institute for Deaf Children, Wadad Bou Dagher-Kharrat glances at her watch and cranes her neck. The children are unusually late showing up.

The noise emanating from the schoolyard explains why.

As it is the last day of the school year, class has been canceled and replaced by a full day of activities. Angie and Karl spent the morning planting seeds at the nearby park, followed by sport and games. Once they returned to the school grounds, traditional Lebanese flatbread sandwiches — called saj, after the frying pan used to make them — awaited them with a choice of water or soda.

Once all the children were seated and nibbling on their sandwiches, bongo drums made an unexpected appearance. The subdued contentment of some 30 hungry children snacking quickly gave way to an impromptu session of dabke dancing in the yard. Even the lunch lady joined in, waving her rolling pin over her head, to the delight of the children.

All that activity explains the flush on the twin’s cheeks when they finally burst through the lobby double doors to join their waiting mother.

“Here at the school, they’ve taught our kids how to assert themselves,” says Mrs. Dagher-Kharrat. “They know how to manage their lives, how to take initiative. They don’t feel different. They are not trapped by their difference.”

Karl wants to be a football player when he grows up. Angie wants to be a dermatologist. But for now, they hug their mom and arch their necks to look up at her as she speaks. Each twin has learned to use a combination of lip reading and deciphering the sound they receive from their cochlear implants to understand what their mom says as she speaks.

“It’s summertime!” she announces with a large grin.

The twins cheer and the family makes its way to the car — and to two whole months of school-free summer.

A regular contributor to ONE, Don Duncan has covered the Middle East and Africa for The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The New York Times and Agence France Presse.

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