Beneath Dbayeh, tanks represent predominant concerns in Lebanon. (photo: Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)
Sister Georgette has established a nursery for the children of Dbayeh. (photo: Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)
Children play wherever they can in the camp. (photo: Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)
A volunteer uses storytelling to captivate the interest of youngsters attending the nursery in Dbayeh. Despite severe poverty, children always are clean and well-dressed. (photo: Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)
Sister Georgette and Sister Maureen Grady, director of the Pontifical Mission office in Beirut, regularly visit families throughout the camp. (photo: Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)
The tragedies of Lebanon are no longer news. The continuous indiscriminate violence, the political power struggles, the false hope of temporary cease-fires, the starvation of innocent mothers and children, the kidnapping and disappearances of scores of men and women, the murder done in the name of God these blasphemies have seemed to go on forever, though most have happened in the last twelve years.
Still, the unexpected is news though it is not new. Christianity lives on there. Amid the horror of its camps, there is a life-giving compassion. In the cruelest human savagery, there is a priceless loving done in the name of Christ. Here is the Christ of mercy, compassion, sacrifice, and redemption. Here is the still strong flame of hope.
The truest strength of Christianity here is found in those who serve.
Georgette is a member of the French Holy Family religious order. Her thin, youthful features almost suggest frailty, but her strength and determination show in her sharp eyes and strong voice. A native Lebanese, she has chosen to serve the embattled residents of one of Beiruts beleaguered, poor refugee camps.
The Dbayeh camp was set up twenty-five years ago for 2500 displaced Palestinians. In recent years, as the destruction of Lebanese towns, villages, and cities has left large numbers of the population homeless, displaced Lebanese have been moving into the camp, multiplying the collective misery.
Today it is difficult to estimate the number of people here or the percentage who are native Lebanese. Perhaps sixty-five percent are Christians, with the remainder Muslims. Destroyed and rebuilt many times, these shelters for families usually are no more than a few square feet. In the narrow alleyways which serve as streets through the camp, open sewage gives off its putrid scent as it courses its way through the camp.
With a population of a small city, Dbayeh suffers some of the worst poverty possible. Little food is available. Pay employment is even more scarce. Few men are seen in the camp, and the elders repair fishing nets which may never be used again. Boys shoot marbles on one of the few level places in the camp, outside one of the eight latrines in the camp. Women carry plastic buckets of water to their homes, which may have no more than two walls and a makeshift roof. They cook the scarce provisions they can find over open fires, made of ever scarcer kindling. Shelling and sniper-fire are to be expected. Tanks usually encircle the camp.
Sister Georgette first came to Dbayeh five years ago, when she was twenty-four and a novice of the Holy Family congregation. Chaos had descended on the camp well before that point. Without running water or electricity, residents were learning to improvise their lives looking for a way to survive the day.
Georgette looked for a way to create some hope among the residents. So, she looked to their future, the children.
Two basic needs of their children were left unattended because of the years of turmoil. Health care and education programs had disappeared from the camp. Even though women still became pregnant and the surviving children still grew toward adolescence, life was an exercise in futility. The United Nations support for the camp had been decreasing because of severe financial cutbacks in the relief agency.
The Lebanese and Palestinians share a great respect for education. The civil war, though, had done away with much of the educational systems there, especially in the camps. Around Dbayeh, the school buildings are now used as barracks for the military which surround the camp. The displacement of education by the military symbolizes what was happening to the lives of the camp residents indeed, for all people in the troubled country. Even the faintest optimism of the Palestinians and Lebanese was undermined by this point, and little hope or even thought was given to schooling.
For three years the young novice listened and learned from the camp residents. She would visit families with her encouragement and support. Gradually, she earned their respect and trust not an easy achievement for an outsider.
One of Georgettes major efforts was to establish a small nursery school in a tiny building lost amid the maze of the camp. Indistinct from the outside, it now has whitewashed walls and a curtain which separates the interior into two small rooms.
Expressing at least a faint hope for their future, some parents bring their youngsters to the school. These boys and girls, ages four and up, always are clean and well-dressed. Yet, a large percentage suffer mental illness because of poor nutrition and the constant stress of violence around them. The high incidence of mental illness also results from genetics. They marry when the blood is near, Sister Georgette says.
About forty children now come to the nursery. Here they receive basic health care and begin an education with group games and songs. Though their cultures are traditionally festive, little singing had been heard in the camp until the children learned to raise their voices. They and others in Dbayeh receive support from individuals in North America through CNEWAs Child Sponsorship Program.
After three years of solitary work in the camp, Georgette involved others who care. Young student teachers and social workers from Beirut all volunteers have helped her carry the weight of responsibilities she has taken on. With the financial assistance of the Pontifical Mission office in Beirut, Georgette has also been able to hire a qualified nurse to handle health problems of the children in the school and others in the camp. She was fortunate to find a Franciscan nun, a seasoned missioner, who now visits each home.
Georgette focuses her attention on problems concerning housing, schooling, and other social work. Fluent in Arabic, French, and English, she safely travels among the camp residents to build a sense of community. Unlike an outsider, who would immediately arouse suspicions, Georgette is welcome in the hovels the camp dwellers call homes. Women feel free to talk with her. She makes herself available to their needs. She encourages those who need to send their children to the nursery school. If they are pregnant, she makes sure they take advantage of the prenatal clinic.
Georgette has the respect of the people of the camp. She is one of them. After final profession of her religious vows last December 6, she asked her congregation for permission to remain working in Dbayeh, and her superiors agreed. Her lot is cast with these struggling people.
Georgette sees in these needy Lebanese and Palestinians her brothers and sisters. The deep psychological scars of the population may never heal. Still, with her commitment to caring for the children of the camp, Sister Georgette addresses the future with hope. She funnels anything good she can into the camp for the young.
Even as the battles rage around this camp, Georgette is a bringer of peace, touching the hearts and raising the spirits of Muslims and Christians in their common suffering. Although the Catholic church built in Dbayeh by the Pontifical Mission in 1974 was destroyed years ago, a living structure of the Church is being built here out of the bricks of suffering and the mortar of compassion. This is the Good News in Dbayeh.
Michael Healy is editor of Catholic Near East.