ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Sister Wardeh’s World

Syrians fleeing war find peace

Editors’ note: Several names have been changed to protect those involved.

The heat of an intense summer sun, combined with the noise and pollution from traffic on an elevated highway, creates a stifling atmosphere in Naba’a, a neighborhood located on the edge of the bustling capital of Beirut. Two Franciscan Missionaries of Mary — one middle aged, one a novice — wind their way through a narrow alley lined with convenience shops and small cinderblock homes. Local residents greet them. The sisters are here to visit a few of the hundreds of Syrians who have taken refuge in Naba’a after fleeing their nation’s three-year civil war.

But Naba’a is hardly a refuge. Since the government of Lebanon has decided not to build refugee camps, people find shelter wherever they can: in one-room homes, in crowded apartments, even in tents.

The Syrian refugee crisis has been described as the largest in a generation. Of the estimated 9 million Syrians who have fled their homes since the war began in 2011, the United Nations estimates that as many as 1.5 million will find a refuge in Lebanon — a tiny nation with a population of just 4.5 million — by the end of 2014. The large number has overwhelmed the Lebanese economy. The government, which, apart from opening its public schools to Syrian children, provides no social services to refugees. Lebanon has no national health care system, and limited public assistance programs. Violence has also followed Syrians into Lebanon, with fighting erupting between Shiites and Sunnis in the northern city of Tripoli and car bombs in Beirut.

In Naba’a, as in the rest of Lebanon, you are left to fend for yourself. But in a land riddled with clear and present dangers, the two sisters this day are bearing something often hard to find: hope.

Mariam, a young Syrian refugee who lives in a tiny room with her husband and three children, welcomes the two sisters. Short, cheerful and henna-haired, she laughs easily though her circumstances are very hard.

One year ago, a Kurdish militia forced her and her family to leave their home in the northern Syrian city of Hassake.

“In a way they did us a favor,” explains Mariam, a Syriac Orthodox Christian. “They warned us that ISIS was coming to the area and ISIS would have killed us.”

Mariam and her family fled to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, where she found work as a housekeeper. Her husband Gabriel got a job making sculptures from molds. But when their landlord gave their home to a family who could pay more rent, they were uprooted again, this time to Beirut, where they have had to deal with the stress of an expensive, turbulent city and the lingering trauma of what they endured in Syria.

“People ask me how I can be so cheerful,” Mariam says. “I tell them: ‘What am I going to do? Shall I make myself sick with being unhappy?’ ”

Mariam has not always had a hopeful outlook. When she first came to Beirut she was overwhelmed and despondent. Gabriel was out of work because of a back injury, and Sonique, her 13-year-old daughter, was still traumatized by what she had witnessed in Syria. The family lived in a tent on a roof, renting the space for $100 per month. But after she began attending a series of retreats sponsored by the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, Mariam found the courage to accept her circumstances and even to help others. She owes her outlook — and, in a sense, her survival — to the older of the two sisters now visiting her home, Sister Wardeh Kayrouz.

Sister Wardeh knows this corner of the world intimately. It was her own experience with war in Lebanon that led her to her vocation. Born and reared in the town of Bcharri, the legendary mountainous stronghold of Lebanon’s Maronite Catholics, she completed a degree in sociology and became a teacher and a principal in her village.

In 1976, just as Lebanon’s civil war set in, Bcharri became a flash point for fighting between Maronite and Palestinian militias. During the war she met a religious sister named Beatrice who transported the dead and wounded with her car.

“Sister Beatrice used to say, ‘It is not I who am doing this, but God is doing it through me,’ and I was greatly affected by this.” Sister Wardeh eventually took her vows at age 27.

“My family lost everything in the war,” she says.

“My father and mother used to pray and they came back to the church and were able to cope with their loss and move on with their lives.

“The disaster did not tear us apart, it united us,” she continues. “I want everyone to know that you can lose everything, but you can still have hope in life.”

The retreats she has designed are one way she imparts that message. Sister Wardeh designed them to help refugees psychologically and spiritually heal from the war and to take charge of their lives in Lebanon.

“People were handing out food and blankets, but no one was tending to their [the refugees’] emotional needs,” she says.

She has also helped Souad, a friend of Mariam’s whose circumstances are even harder. Souad, a Melkite Greek Catholic, fled her home in Aleppo when she heard opposition forces were kidnapping young girls. She feared for the safety of her 12-year-old daughter Hala. The family came to Lebanon three years ago.

As with many Syrian men in Lebanon, Souad’s husband is a day laborer, but he has had a hard time finding work in a country where there are not enough jobs even for the Lebanese. They can usually meet the $400 per month in rent and utilities, but they have difficulty paying for food. At times, that has led Souad’s husband to do the unthinkable: forcing his wife into prostitution. But that stark reality is not uncommon in a country where desperation is rampant and choices are few. Many Syrian women have turned to prostitution or have been sold into it by their families.

A young woman with a sorrowful look already etched on her face, Souad says she could not find help for Melkites when she first came to Naba’a. She went to churches of various traditions, but was told to go to her own church for assistance.

“When Sister Wardeh came,” says Souad, “I felt like the doors of heaven had opened for me.”

In the mountain village of Achkout, Sister Wardeh lives in a convent with seven other sisters. The Franciscan Missionaries of Mary began their work in Achkout in 1938, founding an orphanage. They later expanded the property to include a social service center with outreach to poor families during Lebanon’s civil war of the 1970’s and 1980’s. Here, about 20 miles east of Beirut, Sister Wardeh hosts her program.

The retreats give refugees such as Souad and Mariam a break from urban life and a chance to deal with their problems in a tranquil setting.

Sister Wardeh created the all-day retreats for Christian refugees, using the Gospel to teach practical life lessons.

“I use Christianity not as theology but as a means for refugees to overcome their own difficulties,” says Sister Wardeh.

One session focused on how, despite being uprooted from her home, the Virgin Mary was able to triumph over adversity. Another tells the story of the Old Testament patriarch Abraham, who passed through Lebanon, but who was able to go home — reinforcing the idea that life as a refugee does not have to be permanent.

A team of psychologists and social workers counsels participants on the importance of positive thinking, how to live in community, how to care for others and how to preserve family unity in the midst of difficult circumstances. Children are taught the same lessons in separate sessions that include games and theater. The retreats always end with a party, with adults and children coming together for songs, skits and dancing.

Most of the retreat is conducted through group therapy; Sister Wardeh believes individuals benefit more from hearing the stories of others. While available for one-on-one counseling, she usually refers those with severe trauma to specialized organizations that can give them more individualized care.

Sister Wardeh’s program includes summer camps. Tents are set up in the outdoor area of the Achkout center and refugee families can stay up to seven days at a time. She also takes participants out on all-day field trips to holy sites throughout Lebanon. Over 1,000 refugees have participated in the retreats, summer camps and field trips.

It is a country Sister Wardeh knows well, though she is something of a newcomer herself. For the last 20 years, she has lived in Jordan, ministering to Iraqi refugees and poor Jordanians. While working in the camps in Jordan, she met Syrian refugees who told her of their families’ plight in Lebanon. She returned to her homeland in 2013, but it proved difficult after so many years away. Sister Wardeh had no car, no cell phone and did not even recognize the currency, which had changed in design and denomination. While she had organized successful retreats in Jordan, many of which were sponsored by the Amman staff of CNEWA, she was not certain they would work in Lebanon.

“I was depressed and crying,” says Sister Wardeh, who felt powerless to help in the face of the suffering around her. “But my sisters came to my rescue and gave me a car and a cell phone.” These resources, though meager, gave her the handhold she needed to start making a difference.

She hopes to secure funding so her programs can continue in 2015. She also wants to assist Iraqi refugees and provide more help to Lebanese host families. She also hopes to increase the number of field trips and summer camps.

“The toll on the Lebanese is very great,” Sister Wardeh says.

Back in Naba’a, the Franciscan makes her rounds through the neighborhood and checks in on Souad, who is sitting in her two-room apartment nursing her 19-month-old son, Yohanna. Photographs of Hala and her other daughter, Lina, in their First Communion dresses, hang next to a picture of Christ crowned with thorns.

The apartment has no windows. Air cannot circulate, which makes the child’s asthma worse. Souad takes him to Achkout and on the field trips, and this has improved his health. “I feel more at ease with myself and more relaxed when I have a chance to get out of the house,” says Souad. “For a little bit, I forget my troubles.”

Given all she has endured, she asks for little: to see her parents who are still in Syria, and “to live in peace with my family in the presence of Christ.” Her greatest anxiety is for Hala and Lina — that they will be able to continue their schooling and not be forced into prostitution by their father. Souad welcomes visits by Sister Wardeh and the other sisters, who have become role models for the girls.

“This family touched me very much because of Souad’s struggles,” says Sister Wardeh. “My hope is that they can travel abroad to another country that can provide them with more social services, because Lebanon is overwhelmed with refugees.” Indeed, many Syrians who know there is no future for them in countries such as Lebanon want to apply for immigration to Western nations, but those countries have remained largely closed.

Mariam has some relatives who were able to emigrate from Syria to Sweden, and she hopes to join them. However, her relatives would have to sponsor her, and the process costs money. Nevertheless, she is determined to make the best of her time in Lebanon. That means finding a way to raise the $800 per year in the fees required to send her children to parochial school, to find work — in housekeeping and other odd jobs, if necessary — and to stay upbeat. She welcomes the chance to go on field trips with Sister Wardeh and to visit Achkout as much as she can.

“Mariam has changed from the time we started the retreats,” says Sister Wardeh. “At first, she wouldn’t talk, but now she can express herself. She is able to accept her reality. She now has inner peace.”

Cheerful and positive, she goes from church to church looking for donations of food. “Whenever I am lucky, I get food and if I have extra I give some to Souad,” says Mariam.

“The Virgin Mary gives me strength to go from one place to another.”

Amal Morcos is a freelance writer who covers the Middle East for humanitarian aid organizations.

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