ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Rough Start, Fine Finish

The Lebanese Child Home Association in postwar Beirut provides the city’s children with the support they desperately need.

Hani got off to a bad start. He was born in Beirut in 1975, the same year that Lebanon erupted into civil war, and grew up in the streets of a lower middle class neighborhood. Tensions between his parents made home a hateful place. The need for a loving, understanding mother and an encouraging, proud father were so lacking that he sought them elsewhere – on the dangerous streets of Beirut.

Soon Hani met Michel, another child of the street. Then the two found Georges. These “three musketeers” were innocent boys who shared the same problems and, predictably, sought solutions in all the wrong places.

Today at 18, the three are still musketeers, but they volunteer their free time saving Beirut’s postwar youngsters from the dangers of the street. The turning point in their lives was an organization called AFEL, whose French acronym is translated as the Lebanese Child Home Association.

The staff and volunteers of AFEL run three centers, including one boarding home, that welcome children whose home life is often nightmarish. Marital problems, parental illiteracy and overcrowded living space are not conducive to emotional and intellectual development. And “culturally hidden” is how counselors account for the lack of information about the physical and sexual abuse suffered by some children.

“It’s a shame for the family to admit a problem,” said one psychologist. This is just another way of explaining how the Lebanese barely recognize the problem of child abuse.

Saving the family’s reputation in the Lebanese culture is seen as more crucial than protecting the child. The authority of the father is rarely challenged – even by the law.

Since 1976, AFEL has been walking a tightrope, striving for a balance between the rights of the child and the sanctity of the family. Their work has earned them the respect of both local and international organizations, including the Pontifical Mission’s Beirut office, which has over 60 donors who sponsor many of the program’s children.

At the main site in Beirut, lunch is served to 150 kids who come directly from school. They chow down tasty, nutritious food cooked by their mothers who take turns preparing lunch. The director, Samira, smiles when she describes how proud the children are to tell their friends that “of course it’s delicious, today my mother is cooking.”

The philosophy of AFEL is to keep family ties in place, not to segregate the children or to label them as different. “No one can point and say you have no family,” said Mrs. Simone Wardeh, AFEL’s founding mother.

At lunch a little home cooking goes a long way toward achieving the program’s goal of creating a better environment for children. Afterwards the children break up in groups and, under the supervision of a tutor, do their homework in small rooms that provide quiet and comfort. In this case, homework done away from home is homework better done.

Lebanese parents traditionally put education before everything else, often jeopardizing their financial security to pay for schooling. In many areas of Beirut the public schools were looted, burned and occupied, leaving parents no choice but to send their children to private institutions. Many institutions used their connections to keep the militias at bay.

When a parent pays a hefty sum for his child’s education he expects that child to be a top student. If the conditions are not right, and the child is not performing well, abuse may be leveled at the child. The child is frequently called “himaar” (Arabic for donkey), which is a “cliche of Lebanese culture” one expert said. Abuse is at first verbal, but sadly it does not end there.

Teachers invest their time in the top students, knowing their own performance will be judged by those students who perform well. The average child is neglected and the below average student, berated. He even hears “himaar” at school, often in front of his classmates.

AFEL’s boarding center outside Beirut provides 35 children with a home. Their family homes exposed them to more danger than just verbal abuse. Drugs, prostitution, sexual abuse, mental illness – it is more than these youngsters could face alone, and thanks to AFEL they do not.

In one room, children are busy finishing their Arabic, French and English homework. Roy is studying the Punic wars in Arabic. Hanan and her friends are sharing a book – and an eraser – as they do their English homework.

The exercise for the day is “change the following sentence into the future tense.”

Hanan writes with enthusiasm, “She will leave for Paris next week.” There are plenty of flights between Beirut and Paris, but Hanan’s family does not know the kind of people who can afford such a trip.

“I will visit poultry farms,” one of the girls writes. If this sentence comes true it will be next summer when annual summer camps and excursions are organized.

For five brothers and sisters the sentence, “Mother will be back in the afternoon,” brings only painful memories. After their father’s death, their mother broke under the strain of being a single parent. One day she failed to pick up her children from school. She has not been traced.

The program’s staff quickly identify areas of interest in their young charges. Some take a liking to cooking, others enjoy a little gardening. Sewing is introduced to the young women. All costumes for plays and folklore performances are made in-house and the boys who take the carpentry course do the scenic backgrounds for the events that are held throughout the year.

This year AFEL is reaching out to more than 500 children from 125 families. They range in age from four to 20. Keeping the lines of communication open – if not with parents then with a close relative – is foremost in the program’s philosophy.

mental illness – it is more than these youngsters could face alone, and thanks to AFEL they do not.

“The children must know that someone cares,” said a staff member. “And the family must know that they are responsible. Even if they can only pay 10 percent of the school fees we encourage them to do so.” The Lebanese Child Home Association and supporting organizations such as the Pontifical Mission pay the difference. This includes post-high-school vocational training, which includes computer science.

Postwar Lebanon arouses less sympathy than the Lebanon of shelling and internecine battles. Many aid organizations have drastically reduced aid to Lebanon; they have forgotten that damage to the human being is permanent. The Lebanese government’s office of Social Development is back at work, but funds are so limited it can only contribute 13 cents per child a day.

“Lebanon’s physically and mentally handicapped have a better chance of being assisted,” explained a counselor. “People can see their problems, they say ‘haram’ [pity]. But social cases are hidden, buried.”

Balance is important to the staff at AFEL. There are no dull boys or girls, for when studies are done, play activities begin. Puzzles appear. With scissors and paper, a few children begin to create a bulletin board with an environmental theme. Volunteers make sure each child has a partner; they have also worked hard to organize a soccer team.

The nightmare for many of Lebanon’s street children is ending. On bright sunny days, youngsters from the Lebanese Child Home Association head out for a quick walk around the neighborhood. Whether they know it or not, the outing serves as more than a breath of fresh air – it is a testimony to the efforts of AFEL; these formerly troubled youths need not look for love and support in Beirut’s streets.

Marilyn Raschka, a frequent contributor to Catholic Near East, writes from Beirut.

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