Hani Shandekh had experienced many explosions in Baghdad; so much so his hearing has been permanently affected.
But he had heard nothing like the explosion in Lebanon.
“It was bigger than any in Baghdad. And more dangerous,” says the Syriac Catholic refugee about the horrific catastrophe at the Beirut port on 4 August.
Mr. Shandekh had fled to Lebanon with his wife and three children to escape danger. That was in 2015.
“When we came here we thought we would stay just a little while, and then emigrate to a life of safety. We are asking to go any place outside the Middle East, for a safe place for our children,” he explains.
Their wait continues.
In all, 1,200 Syriac Catholic families arrived in Lebanon following the summer of 2014, when 120,000 Christian families from Iraq’s Nineveh Plain were driven out of their homeland overnight by the Islamic State. The Christian presence in Iraq dates to apostolic times.
As with the Shandekh family, Iraqi Christian refugee families considered their time in Lebanon as an interlude to a hoped-for new life in the West. Having had their lives uprooted and put on hold — for no other reason than their Christian identity — they wait in a miserable limbo that worsens each day.
The Holy Family Syriac Catholic Center, located in the Sad el Baouchrieh suburb of Beirut, has been a lifeline of support for Iraqi Christian refugees during their time in exile. Although many families have been resettled by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 214 families remain in Lebanon.
Life for refugees has become even harder since October 2019, as Lebanon struggles with one crisis after another, including currency depreciation, national debt default and hyperinflation; the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown; the dissolution of government; and a growing scarcity of both liquidity and employment. The cumulative strain has devastated Lebanese society and has placed severe strains on the limited means of the many social service efforts of Lebanon’s churches, including the Syriac Catholic Patriarchate that sponsors the center.
Lebanon’s difficulties reached a tipping point with the port explosion. Considered one of the most powerful non-nuclear explosions in history, the disaster killed 200 people, injured more than 6,500 and left 300,000 people homeless.
At the time of the explosion, Mr. Shandekh and his wife, Murooj, were in their living room, their three daughters on the balcony. While they live nearly five miles away from the port, the force was so intense it shattered the windows of their apartment.
“I didn’t think of anything, just that my children were okay,” Mrs. Shandekh recounts. She ran to the balcony, saw her three girls on the floor, and was shocked to find 13-year-old Mawj’s head covered in blood. “I thanked God they were alive.”
Immediately, the distraught parents called the Rev. Roni Momeka, the director of the Holy Family Syriac Center, who accompanied the family to a hospital.
Mawj needed nine stitches for the deep gash in her head. She also had cuts on her hand and leg. Mrs. Shandekh suffered an injury to her hand from the broken glass, requiring 15 stitches; the glass had entered near the nerve and she now experiences numbness.
Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III directed Father Momeka, his assistant secretary, to tend to the Iraqi refugee families, knowing the difficulties they would face in seeking treatment without insurance.
Though the patriarchate in Beirut also experienced damage from the explosion, including blasted out windows and doors, it covered all the hospital costs, as well as repairs for apartment damages, for 22 Iraqi Syriac Catholic refugee families affected by the blast.
“We are so thankful for how the church cares for us,” Mrs. Shandekh says. “Father Roni never left our side.”
“When the explosion happened, it revived all our memories of the violence in Baghdad,” Mr. Shandekh says. Three months after the blast, he points out, “we are still afraid. We are always thinking about our safety.”
Although refugees in Lebanon are not legally allowed to work, Mr. Shandekh had found a job doing laundry, which barely covered the family’s expenses for rent and food. But he was let go because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Holy Family Center provides the 214 Syriac Catholic families that remain in Lebanon with a supermarket voucher each month, enough to cover basic food items. For 90 individuals who have chronic health issues, the center provides a monthly pharmacy voucher for medication. The families also received a food distribution, on behalf of CNEWA and Aid to the Church in Need, in the aftermath of the explosion.
“If the church didn’t help us, we would have nothing. It means a lot to us,” Mrs. Shandekh humbly acknowledges.
Of the family’s life in Lebanon, Mrs. Shandekh says simply: “We are so tired. We just want to bring our daughters to a safe place, to have a better future.”
Their eldest, Alesar, 15, has a zest for learning and aspires to be a chemist or a physicist.
“I love science,” she says. Homebound due to the pandemic, she has taken the initiative to learn new languages on her own — French, Italian, English, Turkish and Japanese — via YouTube.
Mawj, who enjoys science and English, would like to be a pediatrician. Her parents praise her for having been so brave during her traumatic visit to the hospital for her head injury.
And little Maryam, 7, wants to be a lawyer. Her mother proudly points out that Maryam would like to change the world for the better.
Staying home because of the pandemic, “We are praying all the time. We believe that Jesus will do the best for us and we put all our life in his hands,” Mrs. Shandekh says.
Of the few possessions the Shandekhs took with them when fleeing their homeland, the Bible and their Holy Family book of prayers are among their most precious.
The Holy Family Center also helps the Iraqi refugees to sustain their Syriac Catholic faith amid the hardships of life in Lebanon. On Sundays, the Divine Liturgy is celebrated in the chapel that takes up nearly the entire space of the small center. The two Sunday liturgies have now become four to allow for social distancing amid the pandemic. While the center has continued its counseling programs, other efforts, such as catechism classes, have been suspended.
The refugees miss the frequent gatherings of extended family that punctuated their lives in Iraq, but the center helps them “feel they are living together as a family,” notes Father Momeka.
As the economic unraveling of Lebanon continues, more of the country’s citizens need assistance. Despite their limited means, the churches are doing what they can to help — caring for refugees, their own communities, as well as other migrants, many of them Christian, who have found economic opportunity in Lebanon.
“I don’t want to think of the future, because it looks dark for Christians in the Middle East,” Father Momeka admits. “But I am praying all the time and I trust our God will not leave us alone,” he says, adding, “I hope the international Christian community will remember the Christians in the Middle East.”
There are approximately 250,000 migrants from Africa and Asia living in Lebanon. Nearly 95 percent are women working as domestics.
Driven by poverty in their homelands, they find work in Lebanon and send their earnings back home to support their families, often leaving their children behind in the care of relatives.
But Lebanon’s dramatic economic crash has dealt a severe blow to the entire population — Lebanese, refugees and migrant workers alike. In less than a year, the Lebanese currency has devalued by 80 percent, severely affecting purchasing power. Annual inflation hit 120 percent in August.
More than half of the Lebanese people now live below the poverty line, and the unemployment rate exceeds 50 percent. The country’s once sizeable middle class is disappearing, and the poor are becoming poorer. Even the well-to-do are finding they cannot fully access their resources, as banks and other financial institutions under stress have had to limit withdrawals.
Middle-class families who once employed a live-in housekeeper no longer can. Migrant workers who remain employed — many of them in the service industry — have lost 80 percent of their income with the devaluation of the Lebanese currency, such that their monthly wages total only $50 to $60.
The coronavirus compounded the economic crisis, and the final straw was the Beirut port blast.
Tessie Andros lost more than two months’ pay when the engineering firm where she worked as an office cleaner closed during the coronavirus lockdown.
Mrs. Andros came to Lebanon from the Philippines 16 years ago, first working as a domestic for a family, sending her earnings back to the Philippines faithfully to support her four children.
On 4 August, Mrs. Andros was at work in the fashionable Beirut neighborhood of Mar Mikhail.
She had finished her tasks near the conference room when she heard the first explosion. She looked out the window and saw dark smoke rising from the nearby port. Filled with fear, she ran to the bathroom and hid. The wall by where she had stood moments earlier collapsed from the force of the second explosion, and the windows shattered, sending glass flying.
“If I had stayed where I was, maybe I would have died. I believe God saved me,” Mrs. Andros says with conviction. Her injuries were limited to some scratches on her arms.
Leaving the damaged office to walk to her apartment in nearby Gemmayze, she encountered panic in the streets.
“I’ll never forget all the people on the road, injured and bleeding. I was so scared.”
When Mrs. Andros arrived at her building, she was shocked to find it in shambles, and her tiny apartment destroyed. Distraught, she went to a friend’s apartment, and has since been homeless, drifting from one friend’s home to another.
As with so many businesses ruined by the explosion, the engineering firm has not reopened. Homeless and now unemployed, Mrs. Andros has not been able to send anything to her husband and children. She finds occasional part-time housecleaning work, earning the equivalent of $1 an hour, for a few hours a week. She is grateful for that paltry sum, but remains traumatized.
“Every time I hear a sound, I jump. I feel very stressed.
“It is very difficult,” she says wearily.
“I feel sad because I don’t have work. I hope to go back to the Philippines.” Yet she knows there are no jobs for her there.
Back home, her husband has no work either, except the little he earns from rice cultivation. Disaster struck him last November, when Typhoon Goni wiped out his rice paddies and flooding damaged the family’s home.
Despite hardships, Mrs. Andros finds strength on Sundays at St. Joseph Church in Beirut.
“Here I feel relaxed. I pray God helps me to take care of my kids,” she shares after a recent English-language liturgy.
The parish, run by the Jesuits, offers the migrant community a haven, a place where men and women are nourished spiritually and pastorally, where they experience friendship and fellowship.
“This is really a holy day for them,” said Jesuit Father Fady El Chidiac, director of the Afro-Asian Migrant Center (AAMC), which the Jesuits established at St. Joseph’s in 2000.
“It’s more than Mass. It’s really where they celebrate their freedom and celebrate life.”
After Mass, the community gathers for a potluck lunch of Filipino favorite dishes in the upstairs multipurpose room, now a bright and welcoming space since its renovation early in 2020.
“We want our churches to be beautiful,” says Jesuit Father Daniel Corrou, the center’s associate director, “but we also want the spaces where communities gather to be beautiful, to recognize the way that God sees them, so we can say, ‘You have dignity and you are worth a nice place to come to on your one day off.’ ”
Fortunately, despite the center’s proximity to the port, the meeting rooms sustained little damage, other than some broken windows. But the historic church was another story. Heaps of twisted metal, broken doors and window frames now surround the church, competing for space with stacks of new plywood for the repairs still in progress.
Inside the cavernous structure, scaffolding stretches to the vaults, which had partially collapsed. Approximately 100 windows have been replaced.
As part of the center’s efforts to assist migrant workers, especially the displaced and those who have lost their jobs, the Jesuits and their volunteers distribute groceries. Mrs. Andros is among some 250 recipients who benefit from the CNEWA-supported initiative.
“The distribution is essential right now,” Father Corrou stresses. “Hopefully, Lebanon can become a more stable place where these immediate emergency needs aren’t as dire.”
At a recent liturgy, Father El Chidiac in his homily encouraged the faithful to thank the Lord “for always being with us, giving us the strength to go through one hurdle and struggle to another, with our hearts always connected tightly to God’s heart through Mary, our Mother.” Vigil lights illuminating images of the Virgin Mary and the saints testify to the fervent devotion of the congregation.
What lies ahead for Lebanon’s people as the country passes through this dark period?
The nation is hemorrhaging educated youth, who are leaving in search of better opportunities elsewhere.
Refugees have no possibility of naturalization in Lebanon, which has the largest number of refugees per capita in the world. Home to some 4.5 million people, Lebanon has absorbed an additional 1.5 million Syrian refugees, thousands of Iraqi refugees, and more than 500,000 Palestinian refugees who have lived in camps for some 70 years.
If Iraqi Christian refugees returned to their homeland, they would lose their refugee status and thus forfeit any prospect of being resettled by UNHCR. So, they see no other option but to linger in Lebanon, sustained by the hopes of emigration.
For migrant workers, whose prospects for earning money in Lebanon are quickly evaporating, returning home may be their only option. Some employers have even taken their former employees to their respective embassies to begin their journey home. Since February, the Philippine embassy has repatriated four flights of Filipino migrant workers at its own expense. The Ethiopian embassy has chartered one flight. Otherwise, migrants who wish to travel must pay their own ticket and paperwork, which for most is simply impossible.
Mohamed Jalloh, 47, a migrant worker from the African nation of Sierra Leone, lost his job in a clothing manufacturing company when it closed in November 2019. Beginning as a clothes presser, Mr. Jalloh had worked his way up to a designer position. He has since found work as a cleaner three days a week.
“I have been in Lebanon 27 years, and I never expected Lebanon would reach this stage: people suffering, no food, no jobs. It’s so sad. It needs a lot of prayers,” says the Muslim man who comes to St. Joseph almost every Sunday.
Mr. Jalloh is pitching in, volunteering his time to organize and deliver the center’s food relief efforts to his fellow African migrants.
“I am so proud to be serving the African migrants in Lebanon, through St. Joseph Church. God bless the fathers for never forgetting the hungry.”
Doreen Abi Raad is a freelance writer in Beirut. She has written for Catholic News Service and the National Catholic Register.
The CNEWA Connection
Since the explosion that rocked Beirut on 4 August, the Holy See has commissioned CNEWA to partner with a French Catholic charity to coordinate worldwide Catholic aid for Lebanon’s fragile Catholic health care and school systems, the most important network of social services for all Lebanese.
To that end, CNEWA has launched a campaign focused on the renovations of the Rosary Sisters and Jeitawi hospitals, the rehabilitation of several clinics and dispensaries, the renovation of religious houses, counseling for traumatized children, modest home repairs and the distribution of food supplies.
To join us, call: 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or 1-866-322-4441 (Canada).