ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Turning the Tide in Southern Lebanon

The Sisters of the Sacred Hearts provide hope to the people of southern Lebanon as they encounter a new, unfamiliar freedom.

“I try to give meaning to poor people so they can give meaning to their fellow neighbors, as the Lord gives meaning to life,” explains 34-year-old Father Jose Kizhakkedath.

Lebanon was, and is, a land of many villages – villages with many children and children with many needs. Put education and healthcare at the top of the list and enlist the aid of the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.

In the early 19th century, the Jesuit Fathers began their work in Lebanon. The Jesuits were dedicated to the education of these youngsters, but in this traditional society only the males of the family came forward to be taught. The Jesuits, however, saw an untapped natural resource in the faces of the young girls. But “getting rights” to develop that resource was not easy. Bucking tradition never is.

The Jesuit Fathers moved carefully. They gathered young women from larger urban areas, where girls were educated, to accompany them to the villages. They advertised cleverly: “Send us your daughters. We’ll teach them to sew.” Along with needles and thread came the ABC’s. And how could a father argue when the young, urban women – renamed “lady Jesuits” – were teaching catechism to their daughters?

Pride conquered prejudice. Today, a visit to a village school or a look at the statistics from the Jesuit St. Joseph University in Beirut reveals a healthy harvest. Classes at all levels are often more than 50 percent female. Lebanese fathers brag about their clever daughters – and rightly so. Lebanese women participate in virtually every field.

By 1853 the “lady Jesuits” had developed into a religious community, the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Never cloistered, never daunted, but quietly working behind the scenes, this community has met and conquered many a challenge. Today they number 250 in Lebanon alone, one of the largest and oldest orders in the country. Approximately 3,000 children, Christian and Muslim, study in their schools.

The sisters’ newest challenge came in late May when Israel withdrew its troops from south Lebanon after 22 years of occupation. Long prayed for by the Lebanese, the withdrawal came with little warning.

Each village and town has its own post-occupation story and problems. Jezzine, one of Lebanon’s prettiest mountain towns, has a large school run by the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts, whose presence there dates back more than 100 years. Today, Jezzine’s school has a population of 735 with children ranging in age from 3 to 15. The children hail not only from Jezzine but from 17 neighboring villages. The teaching staff of 40 includes four nuns.

During a classroom conversation, one sister asked what a liberated Lebanon meant to them. She reminded them of one very important change: No more haajiz – checkpoints – something that had become a part of the students’ lives over the years. “You are free to travel,” the sister said to the children, as if to encourage them.

The need to start classes at 8:30 A.M., late by Lebanese standards, has ended; land mines have been removed.

The subject that animated these young children far more than liberation, however, was Pope John Paul II. They sang songs in his honor and were taught the details of his visit to Lebanon in May 1997. They were quizzed on how long he stayed, whom he saw and where he slept. They all passed.

The sisters believe that the main purpose of the Pope’s visit was to encourage Christians to remain in Lebanon. And what the Pope said these sisters are putting into practice. Wherever you go, additions are being built onto their schools. “If there were no schools, there would be no Christians here,” one sister said.

Nursing is another skill found in this community. Two sisters are mainstays at the Lebanese government hospital in Jezzine. For more than two decades this facility has coped with regional instability and its consequences. The Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary have been there since 1985.

In today’s relative quiet, the hospital’s 20 beds may seem too many, but in times of need they were far too few. In spite of a limited staff, the hospital served a population that fluctuated between 7,000 and 50,000. Through it all the hospital was able to treat 70 percent of its incoming cases.

Not long ago, demarcation lines changed constantly. A road that was safe to travel one day became a death trap the next. Ambulance drivers and hospital staff developed a sixth sense that helped them to survive as they struggled to save lives. Doctors often went unpaid. The hospital’s director, Dr. Bechara Hajjar, knows the value of a good staff and uses the sisters as his unit of measure: “The doctors are like the sisters: devoted.”

Now that the occupation has ended, the hospital and the sisters face new problems. The elimination of demarcation lines means local residents will be free to seek medical treatment in larger, better-equipped medical facilities. Doctors, too, will have more choices as to where they will work.

In spite of these challenges, however, things are looking up. A new hospital with expanded facilities is planned for Jezzine. Everyone involved knows that a local hospital is worth its weight in gold.

Israeli withdrawal also left a portion of the population too terrified to do anything but run. They ran because they were once in the employment of the occupier. Occupation, although no one’s choice, provided good jobs and a regular income, but for some it also provided the label “collaborator.” Israeli withdrawal fueled fear; some 6,000 Lebanese fled across the border.

A portion fled for rather innocent reasons. Some had simply sought medical treatment in Israel. Others were coerced into serving in the South Lebanon Army (SLA), which was a militia funded, equipped and trained by Israel. But no one knew when or where the line would be drawn, or who would draw it. In post-Israeli southern Lebanon, to be called a collaborator was to be called a traitor; many feared that judgment and punishment would be swift and merciless.

Some Lebanese held positions in what the Israelis called the Civil Administration, a de facto local government. Some joined the SLA. Others crossed the border daily to work in Israeli factories. And although Muslims as well as Christians were involved in all of the above, it was the Christians who made up the majority, especially in positions of authority.

In towns all over southern Lebanon the loss is felt. In Marjeyoun, Qlai’aa and Dibl classrooms are missing their teachers, playgrounds their children, shops their customers, fields their tillers, bread their winners and churches their worshippers.

In most of the schools administered by the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts in southern Lebanon, the enrollment is more than 50 percent Muslim. Now these Muslim children ask the sisters where most of their Christian classmates have gone.

Liberation has also brought misery for those families who chose to remain. The sisters find themselves consoling the in-consolable. One morning a group of women teachers from the school in Jezzine met with the sisters to share their concerns; there was not a dry eye in the room. One teacher whispered that her husband was hiding at home. He did not want to leave the house; he was afraid he’d never see his family again.

Some Lebanese have returned from Israel, although cautiously. The Lebanese government has promised fair and prompt hearings and trials for SLA fighters and others who surrender. Daily news reports tell of dozens of ex-militiamen who were given limited sentences and fines.

In theory these men should return safely to their villages. But some will not.

The Maronite priest in Qlai’aa worries about the 1,500 residents who fled his village. He feels their absence during liturgy. The sisters feel it in their schools, in the hospital and on the streets in the towns.

Every day, busloads of Lebanese come to southern Lebanon to celebrate liberation, to have a picnic or to pray in the region’s ancient churches. Often they don’t realize what has happened to their fellow Christians. One frustrated villager put it well: “Instead of kissing the stones, take care of those who filled these churches.”

Sadly, many of them are gone.

Marilyn Raschka is a frequent contributor to Catholic Near East.

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