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Restoring Lebanon

Through the good times and the bad, the Pontifical Mission had been a beacon to the people of Lebanon.

Lebanon is complex. For centuries, Christian, Muslim and Druze communities have found refuge in its spectacular snowcapped mountains and golden valleys. More than 80 percent of Lebanons population, however, now lives in its cities; a third lives in greater Beirut alone.

Although planted in the eastern Mediterranean world, Lebanons urban society reflects Europe. Conversations in Arabic are peppered with French idioms. Women in fashionable European clothes mingle with elderly men wrapped in Arabic dress. Unique to Lebanon, these alluring complexities deceive the eye: the Lebanese are recovering from a bitter and bloody civil war that nearly destroyed them.

Since its establishment in Beirut in 1949, the Pontifical Mission has cared for the nations Palestinian refugees and, since the beginning of the civil war in 1975, displaced Lebanese families as well. Except for a brief period in the spring of 1990, when intense intra-Christian fighting laid waste to much of Beirut, the Pontifical Mission remained in operation. The staff maintained emergency relief, provided medical care, shelter and home repair, rehabilitated social welfare institutions such as churches, schools and childcare centers, and ensured uninterrupted support for thousands of children enrolled in the Needy Child Sponsorship Program.

“Every morning, as we left our homes for work, we wished our families farewell,” recalls Marlene Chamieh, the Beirut offices Sponsorship Program Coordinator. “We did not know whether we would return safely.

“Working helped us deal with the reality of war,” she adds. “We tried to maintain normal lives. There were times, however, as shells fell all around, when our only concern was for shelter.”

In a nation that suffered the loss of its central government, infrastructure and basic social services, “our staffs desire to work was amazing and their accomplishments, astounding,” writes Sister Maureen Grady, C.S.C., Director of the Beirut office from 1986 until 1990.

None of the staff or their immediate families had been injured during the war, but they were exhausted, hungry and discouraged. The final blow was the fighting in eastern Beirut that involved various Christian factions.

“I think the circumstances of this last battle – that is, Christian versus Christian – have been a source of shame and sadness to them,” wrote Sister Maureen in a letter to Msgr. Robert Stern in the spring of 1990. Sensing their fatigue, Sister Maureen temporarily evacuated the staff and their families to Cyprus.

After visiting the staff in Cyprus, Msgr. Stern recalls that they were in great spirits:

“While they were happy to get out of Lebanon for a while, all seemed eager to return home to work as soon as possible.”

The Pontifical Missions determined Beirut staff returned to a city engulfed in violence. “This is more than a routine job,” said Issam Bishara in 1990, at the time serving as Associate Director. “We are taking our work home, even if during the whole night there is shelling…. We all feel more needed at this time.”

With the end of the war in 1991 and the restoration of stability, there was a period of assessment and evaluation. The Pontifical Mission began an emergency housing repair program in the most devastated areas of Beirut. The Beirut staff realized, however, that the more pressing need was to resettle those persons who had fled their native villages (which were under siege) and had illegally settled in Beirut. This initiated the Pontifical Missions program to provide adequate housing for the displaced in their native villages.

Shelter alone, however, would not sustain these renewed villages. The Pontifical Mission realized that refurbished infrastructures and healthy economies would restore life in these villages. In addition, Christian villagers needed the presence of a church.

Recognizing the success of the Pontifical Mission village restoration and resettlement program, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) provided financial assistance in 1993. A second USAID grant was awarded in 1997.

With Misereor, Kinderhilfe Bethlehem, YMCA and Mercy Corps, the Pontifical Mission selected villages in regions near urban areas, where most Lebanese had found employment.

The approach to the village of Faouara, which lies on the side of a mountain range some 20 miles southeast of central Beirut, is shocking. Scarred earth and piles of rubble – broken concrete, twisted metal and mounds of stone – mar its bucolic beauty. A lonely church bell breaks the quiet.

The Mukhtar (mayor) of Faouara points to the rubble – the remains of houses – and recites the names of the families who, before the war, once lived in them. Until one early autumn night in the 1980s, Faouara was a prosperous Christian village. Its inhabitants, like many of the villagers in the region, farmed the rocky land, cultivating olives, lemons and other produce.

“The Druze began to shell Christian villages that night,” the weary Mukhtar recalls. “We could hear people in the valley below us fleeing the mortar fire and shells that chased them. We were in our houses and as the shelling turned on us, we too abandoned our homes, joining the thousands of people in the valley. We had no time to collect our family pictures, clothes, money or jewelry. We carried our children on our backs as we ran through fields and waded through streams.

“Everything,” he continues, “was left behind, including the elderly and the sick.”

The villagers of Faouara believed those too weak to flee the village would not be harmed. They were wrong.

“They gathered into the church all those who remained in the village. Then they blew it up with dynamite,” the Mukhtar says. “Over there,” he points out, “that empty spot with the shrine is where it all happened.”

Horror stories such as the massacre of Faouara are heard throughout Lebanon. And no one religious community may monopolize the grief or guilt associated with these tragedies.

Initially, the Pontifical Mission focused on providing housing for the displaced villagers, “most of whom had to be coaxed to leave their illegal refuges,” says Issam Bishara. He has been Director of the Beirut office since late 1990.

To avoid a climate of dependency, families received Pontifical Mission grants to finish the reconstruction of their homes themselves. “Many also employed local skilled laborers from outside their traditional religious communities, thus rebuilding interfaith rapport and increasing employment opportunities,” Issam adds.

“During the war, houses that were not razed were stripped of anything reusable: doors, doorjambs, windows, wiring and fixtures,” says Michel Constantine, the Beirut office staffs veteran engineer. “Only the shells remained.”Once houses were built or reconstructed, Pontifical Missions engineers rehabilitated village infrastructures, again utilizing local committees and labor. Though Lebanon is rocky and mountainous, its farmers once cultivated low yield yet high quality produce. These agricultural lands, however, suffered cruelly during the war: ancient olive groves were uprooted, grapevines burned, fruit trees cut down. Mortar blasts and erosion changed the landscape, altering watershed patterns.

Working alongside the governments ministry for electricity and water, the engineers have designed retaining walls; rehabilitated networks for electricity, drinking water and irrigation; purchased thousands of fruit trees; and created agricultural roads linking fields to villages and villages to villages.

While a network of roads will expedite the cultivation and harvest of crops, agriculture alone will not sustain a village.

“An additional component of our village resettlement project is a microcredit plan,” explains Issam. “Villages need butchers, bakers and other shopkeepers.” The microcredit plan provides start-up funds for potential entrepreneurs, thus encouraging villagers to invest in their own communities.

In addition to houses, shops and infrastructure, villages need schools and houses of worship. The Archdiocese of Cologne, Germany, has provided the Pontifical Mission with funds for the renovation or construction of more than 30 churches.

Archbishop Pablo Puente, the former Apostolic Nuncio to Lebanon, was amazed that villagers wanted to build churches when their homes lacked roofs.

“The village church is the heart of village life,” he reflected. “Life begins here. Lifes joys and sorrows are celebrated and commemorated here. Lifes journey ends here.

“If the church is repaired, then schools will be started. And if classes begin, people are sure to return.”

In the mountains north of Beirut, about 10 miles east of Tripoli, the villagers of Merkebta were fortunate not to have been forced to leave their community. Though not destroyed, the villages infrastructure is nevertheless wanting. The villagers are building a sewage treatment plant that will not only affect the water for Merkebta but for those villages below them as well.

“We used to have septic tanks,” volunteers a villager in his forties. “After the war, I came back to Lebanon with my wife and children. We had been in Australia. Concerned about the seepage of raw sewage into our water supply, our village club met and asked Pontifical Mission for help in designing a reliable sewage system. This is our village club,” he adds with a smile. “And this is our sewage treatment plant.”

Not far from Merkebta, the Muslim villagers of Korhaya display a banner next to the village mosque thanking the Pontifical Mission and USAID. Korhaya is poor: until the Pontifical Mission built a channel for drinking water, villagers had to use suspect water sources. The new water system also provided the village with additional irrigation sources for its fields, which have been recently planted with apple and lemon trees.

“Instead of planting saplings of lower quality, the Mukhtar agreed with our suggestion to plant a smaller number of larger, healthier trees,” states Charles Tohme, an architect and Project Coordinator for Pontifical Mission.

The entire village turned out as Charles and Marie-Gabrielle Corm, another Project Coordinator, worked with the Mukhtar to distribute trees to the village farmers equitably. Children hid from the Beirut visitors as the mothers served tea. It became a village event: all thanked “baatha babawia,” the Popes mission, for remembering them.

Nor has the Pontifical Mission forgotten the welfare of those people whose plight first inspired Pope Pius XII to found the Pontifical Mission: Palestinian refugees. About eight miles north of Beirut, Dbayeh camp was once home to 7,000 Palestinian Christians exiled from Galilee. It is a squalid mess; Dbayeh now houses more than 200 Palestinian refugee families and 250 displaced Lebanese families.

In the center of the camp, three Little Sisters of Nazareth have set up a residence from which they distribute clothes, first aid and doses of advice and love. Not far from the convent stands the battered shell of the camp school built by the Pontifical Mission more than 30 years ago; its pockmarked walls now provide an ideal spot for children playing war. The sisters operate a daycare center and kindergarten in one portion of the second floor that was recently renovated by the Pontifical Mission.

“The situation here is bleak,” says Sister Annie Vos, a young Belgian native. “Take for example Rania, a young mother of two. Her husband needed kidney dialysis, but he was unable to receive it: no health insurance. He died, leaving 24-year-old Rania devastated and penniless. Ranias two children, a two-year-old girl and a four-month old boy, are supported through the Needy Child Sponsorship Program, which is Ranias only source of income.”

“Fifty-five children from Dbayeh are enrolled in the sponsorship program, which the Little Sisters of Nazareth administer carefully and with lots of love,” reports Marlene Chamieh, Pontifical Missions Sponsorship Program Coordinator. “They know the camp families well; the door of their house is always open.”

“These sisters deserve so much support,” an enthusiastic Issam Bishara says. “They know that life in Dbayeh has its evils – but they are always among the people; [the sisters] know their needs.”

This statement could also describe the Pontifical Mission in Beirut. In good times and bad, the Pontifical Mission is always among the people. It knows their needs.

Michael J.L. La Civita is Executive Editor of Catholic Near East.

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