Worshippers gather at the monastery church of St. Charbel, Jiyyeh, Lebanon. (photo: Marilyn Raschka)
Ibrahim Qazzi working in his garden. (photo: Marilyn Raschka)
An older resident of Jiyyeh signs for his check. (photo: Marilyn Raschka)
Listen carefully. This is the story of Jack, who is rebuilding his house out of faith in Lebanons fragile peace, hope in its future and the helping hand of the Pontifical Mission and other organizations working in the war-weary country.
Jack and his family are not alone. Several hundred families have returned to their homes due to the aid offered them by the Pontifical Mission, Catholic Relief Services and Caritas.
More than 355,000 Lebanese fled their homes during the 15-and-a-half years of sectarian conflict. Peaceful towns became deadly war zones. Homes were bulldozed after being stripped of every frame, faucet and photo. Schools became militia barracks where reading, writing and arithmetic were replaced by M-16s and weapons of every caliber.
The houses of God fared no better. Village churches and mosques were ransacked and desecrated. When the battles ended, nature furthered the damage; religious paintings blistered in the summer heat and peeled in the winter rains.
For the returning Christian community of Jiyyeh, a coastal village south of Beirut, the only place of worship still standing was the chapel in the Maronite Monastery of St. Charbel, Lebanons patron saint.
We repaired the church ourselves, the parishioners say proudly.
Since the summer of 1991, the first peaceful summer in more than a decade, the chapel became a place for thanksgiving; prayers were offered to God for keeping the scattered villagers safe.
Out of Jiyyehs 3,000 pre-war inhabitants, 106 families have returned on a permanent basis. Many families fled to areas of Lebanon far from Jiyyeh, where work and shelter were found. Others were able to get education scholarships for their children at church-run schools located away from the violence of the village. For these folk, Sundays journey for liturgy is a pilgrimage.
Afterwards, over coffee at the home of a recent returnee, they assess the situation. The cautious Jiyyites worry about security, but they also want to know about the school the bottom line for many a potential returnee.
This village wont return to life until the school is open again, said a village elder. The handful of children at Sundays divine liturgy reflects the fact that the first Jiyyites to return have been elderly.
But there are other questions that need a positive response before the Jiyyeh of today will be the beehive of activity it was before the war. Can we make a living? How will we cope without electricity? Is there water to irrigate our vegetable gardens? they ask. May abel kil shi, they add water before everything else.
The Pontifical Mission planted the first seeds of hope in Jiyyeh when the Beirut office financed the repair of power lines, installed backup generators and replaced irrigation systems and water storage tanks for this agricultural community. Meanwhile the villagers cleared the land of war debris.
The Pontifical Mission spent $27,000 on water pumps, $18,000 on irrigation pipes and $3,000 on technical labor. Another $15,000 went for electrical installations and $11,500 bought basic farming tools for the villagers.
Today 1,700,000 square meters of land are planted with vegetables. Small greenhouses nurture out-of-season items. Roadside stands reflect the success of the agricultural project. Heads of lettuce are stacked into giant bouquets and boxes of plump strawberries coax many a passerby to stop.
No one is prouder of his produce than lbrahim Qazzi. At 73, he handles a pick as if he were 20. He says he should not have to work so hard at his age, but he labors out of love for his garden, making sure any visitor leaves laden with lettuce.
The pioneers who first returned to Jiyyeh lived in tents. Then in winter they moved to the damp ground floors of the few buildings that remained. Their determination is laced with frustration as building costs have escalated. Today $10,000 is needed to rebuild even basic structures.
We want to cover our heads, pleaded one villager. Is that too much to ask?
But in Jiyyeh even the simplest cement hovel feels more like home than the cramped beach chalets and empty municipal buildings that served as shelters for the displaced. Families tell of a terrifying cycle fleeing, finding shelter, being forced out and fleeing again.
The Pontifical Mission, Caritas and other aid groups did their best to make these refugee centers livable. Room partitions gave families privacy, water systems were installed and basic household supplies distributed.
Down the rutted street from Ibrahim live Shawki Qazzi, his wife Samira and their family. They consider themselves lucky. The ground floor of their home held up against the militias bulldozers and with the help of the Pontifical Mission they could fix it sufficiently to convert it from its traditional role as a storage area to a living space. But the kitchen is a tiny room that Samira abandons in the summers for the larger out-of-doors.
A statue of the Virgin Mary stands in one corner of their combination living room and bedroom. After three flights from the fighting, they found shelter in an abandoned school north of Beirut. Samira bought the statue as soon as they were sure they were staying, at least for a little while. A local priest blessed the statue which accompanied them on their return to Jiyyeh.
Homecoming in Wadi Baanquodaine, the Valley of the Two Bunches of Grapes, began less than a year ago. This village sits high in the foothills east of Sidon in south Lebanon. Although looted and vandalized as badly as Jiyyeh, it was not destroyed.
Returning villagers tell of bizarre shopping trips to scrap metal lots where they found and purchased back their door and window frames that had been ripped from their homes. Housewives proudly point out the long lost windows as their husbands guide visitors to the neatly pruned vineyards on nearby slopes.
The Pontifical Mission is helping to repair 39 houses in Wadi Baanquodaine and 160 others in nearby villages. In many ways these villages share the same portrait. The only decoration on the walls of homes is militia graffiti. Soon the graffiti will disappear under a coat of fresh whitewash. Shrapnel holes double as mini storage spots. Unfurnished corners are jammed with a pile of mattresses. Simple meals are served on simple tables.
Faith and hope come freely, but charity in todays needy world requires a caring, watchful hand. The Pontifical Missions system has proved efficient and fair. The Missions contribution to each family is delivered in three installments. Each check is allocated for certain repairs and purchases. A Pontifical Mission engineer examines the work before the subsequent check is issued.
A welcoming cup of Turkish coffee is the first order of the day when the engineer appears. A tour of the work follows as he checks the repairs against his list. By then the entire family, and a good number of neighbors, have gathered all have questions.
Can you help with this? Is there money for that? The engineer responds with Lebanese politeness mixed with frankness.
The only problem, and one that resolves itself quickly, is finding a place to sign the check. A table is hastily cleared of dishes and the remains of lunch. Children scramble to find a pen. One of the older recipients signs the check with her thumbprint, others with a great flourish of ink, but all glow with gratitude.
Only a year ago, the wind, the rain and the rats were the only things moving in Wadi Baanquodaine. Today the winds toss the laundry, the rains are channeled into storage tanks and the village cats keep the rats far from the house that Jack rebuilt.
Marilyn Raschka lives and writes from Beirut.