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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

‘Working From the Heart Creates Harmony’

Helping those in the margins in Lebanon

It all started with the determination to save the life of a drug addict.

A team of friends pitched a tent in the mountains near the monastery of Lebanon’s beloved St. Charbel to provide round-the-clock support and encouragement to the young man, never leaving his side.

That was in 1989. The impromptu rehabilitation camp was a success. Word spread and soon several people with substance abuse issues sought help from the team. To help them in their growing mission, they enlisted the support of the Maronite priest, the Rev. Guy Paul Noujaim, now retired bishop of Sarba.

So began Oum el Nour (“Mother of Light” in English) which has since accompanied nearly 9,000 young men and women out of the chains of drug addiction to sobriety and reintegration into society.

“The addict is someone in pain,” explains Elie Whaibe, president of Oum el Nour. “He has become a slave to the substance and is suffering every day. Logically, no one wants to be in pain. But he cannot save himself on his own. That’s why he needs Oum el Nour to walk beside him every step of the way.”

Oum el Nour has two rehabilitation centers located in pristine mountain settings, one for young men and another for young women.

A statue of the Virgin Mary with outstretched arms welcomes visitors to the men’s center, situated in a peaceful oasis on the edge of a hillside in Sehayleh, about 15 miles north of Beirut. The main building, painted a soft yellow, is like a perennial splash of sunlight. A framed print, depicting the scene in the parable of the prodigal son when the father embraces his son who had fallen away, graces the entryway.

Living together as a community, beneficiaries follow an intensive four-step program over a 15-month period with the help of a multi-disciplinary team that includes psychologists and social workers. Oum el Nour’s approach includes a parallel program for the beneficiaries’ parents.

“We always say, if you have an addict in the family, you have a ‘sick’ family,” Mr. Whaibe points out.

Often, parents blame themselves for their child’s addiction, and they experience feelings of anger and shame, he says. Oum el Nour brings the family together for discussion sessions, thus promoting healing in the family.

The program is free and open to all, regardless of race or religion. Typically, about 70 percent of participants are Muslim.

The Rev. Toni Abi Azar, a Maronite priest and Oum el Nour’s general manager, stresses that while the organization is secular, “our values are taken from the Gospel: love and acceptance of the other. It’s a way of preaching, by action.”

a man chats with two young men on a bench in the foreground at oum el nour.
Father Toni Abi Azar, general manager of Oum el Nour, holds a group meeting with beneficiaries. (photo: Raghida Skaff)

Joseph’s slide into addiction was rapid. At 18, college friends introduced him to marijuana. That very same day, he tried cocaine.

“The high was much better. I was hooked instantly,” recalls Joseph, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy.

He would binge for three days, then sleep for 36 hours.

“If not for Oum el Nour, I would be dead, for sure,” he says with conviction.

Now 25 years old and in his eighth month at Oum el Nour, Joseph explains, “It’s not just about quitting drugs. It’s the best thing that has happened in my life.”

“I realize that, before, I was cold-hearted, like a robot,” he says of his former self. “My heart has opened, because here they are helping me without expecting anything in return. Now I have a warm heart.”

“The addict is someone in pain. He has become a slave to the substance and is suffering every day.”

“This is a mission of love,” says Bishop Noujaim during a recent visit to the men’s center. “Working from the heart creates harmony.”

The soft-spoken, 86-year-old bishop considers himself a “companion” rather than the founder of Oum el Nour. He views similarly the other social service organizations under his patronage, such as the Community of Maryam and Martha, and Message de Paix.

“These are my people and I need to be beside them, to help them,” Bishop Noujaim says of his concern for the marginalized. What is most important, he adds, is to “join our hands and work together” and to trust in the Holy Spirit.

“He’s a saint,” Father Abi Azar says matter-of-factly about the bishop. “He’s very humble. He has compassion for others, he suffers with the others, and he wants everyone to feel the love of Christ. He shines in his simplicity.”

Three years ago, Bishop Noujaim was invited to a ceremony to launch a new drug rehabilitation center planned in a predominately Shiite Muslim area in southern Lebanon. Together, the bishop and the sheik laid the foundation stone for the building.

Oum el Nour has been asked to open a center in the Sunni Muslim-majority city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon as well.

“It’s very natural to work together in Lebanon,” Bishop Noujaim says of such collaboration, citing St. John Paul II’s declaration that “Lebanon is more than a country, it’s a message of freedom and an example of coexistence for East and West.”

Bishop Noujaim chats with a man outside at oum el nour, both seated on a rocky retaining wall.
Bishop Guy Noujaim engages in a spiritual reflection with a resident of Oum el Nour. The bishop accompanied the social service organization in its founding and growth. (photo: Raghida Skaff)

Just a few miles from Oum el Nour, nestled in the valley in Aljatoon, lies the Community of Maryam and Martha, also founded under the guidance of Bishop Noujaim. Established in 1999, Maryam and Martha is named for the Scripture passage of the two sisters who offered Jesus hospitality in their home.

The community provides a welcoming refuge for women and their children who are victims of violence and other traumatic social situations. Recently, it has expanded its mission to serve girls under the age of 18 as well.

Operating under the motto, “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 Jn 4:18), Maryam and Martha, with its team of psychosocial professionals, works toward healing the women’s emotional wounds and helping them regain a sense of self-worth and dignity. At the same time, the women and girls learn personal and professional skills that will help them grow in independence and reintegrate into society.

The Rev. Abdo Abou Khalil, president and founder, explains the approach: “We serve like Martha, in simplicity. We listen to their problems and their suffering, like Maryam. And we work with them to help them discover joy and hope, so they may experience a resurrection in their life.”

Rania Maylaa, a social worker at Maryam and Martha, sees each woman at the center as a unique individual.

“I see in their eyes life, love, hope and everything beautiful. Even if their eyes are full of tears,” she explains. “I feel the responsibility to give them all the happiness and love I can. We can’t ask someone to love if they have not been loved. That’s why it’s so important at Maryam and Martha to love these girls and women.”

closeup of an adult hand holding a toddler's hand at maryam and martha.
A mother and child hold hands at the Community of Maryam and Martha. (photo: Raghida Skaff)

It’s the Islamic feast of Eid al Adha and the residents of Maryam and Martha, most of whom are Muslim, are preparing a special lunch for their household and Father Khalil.

With the calm assurance of an experienced chef, 17-year-old Rola, whose name was changed to protect her privacy, gives the pots on the stove a final once-over.

“I’m so happy to cook and share with my friends today,” she says, as she spoons out shredded chicken and rice tinted yellow with turmeric. “I love preparing this dish.”

The Syrian refugee, who came to Lebanon as a child, stopped attending school at grade seven and started working to help support her family.

“I had a wonderful father, who was very sweet,” she says with a faraway gaze.

But life was difficult for Rola’s family. Her father died of health complications and, soon after, also her adult brother. When a male relative came to live with her family, Rola’s life became nightmarish as the relative abused her.

“I lost too much of my childhood,” Rola quietly shares, her eyes lowered. “Here I feel like I have a family. There is so much love. And I have gained confidence.”

“I was cold-hearted [but] my heart has opened, because here they are helping me without expecting anything in return.”

As a beneficiary of Maryam and Martha, Rola is attending cooking school.

“I’m learning so many new things. My dream is to have a restaurant someday,” she says with determination.

For 20-year-old Souraya, whose name was also changed to protect her identity, marriage seemed to be a better alternative to her volatile family life. Instead, her situation went from bad to worse and she experienced many conflicts with her husband. The last straw was when he abused their infant daughter, Zeina.

“I couldn’t bear to see Zeina hurt, and I was so worried about her future. Now Zeina has love all around her. And for the first time in my life, I’m living without fear,” Souraya says of their life at Maryam and Martha.

Amid the bustle of preparing for the Eid al Adha luncheon, women and teens dote like aunties upon Zeina, taking turns holding the delighted baby and pushing her stroller.

Thanks to Maryam and Martha, Souraya is pursuing studies in childhood education to become a nursery school teacher.

“I love children, and I want to work, so I can give my daughter a better life than I had,” she says with poise and confidence.

Although the center has a total capacity of 45, Maryam and Martha had to scale back its services to ensure safety amid the coronavirus pandemic. Currently, there are 10 minors and 12 adult women beneficiaries, two babies and a toddler.

Since its founding, Maryam and Martha has helped more than 1,100 women. Among its success stories are nurses, a doctor and a journalist.

The organization aims to open a separate location for minor girls, so they may receive individual attention. A site has already been chosen, but funding remains a pressing need.

a man holds a child while her mother stands beside.
Father Abdo Abou Khalil, director of Maryam and Martha, with a mother and child who reside at the center. (photo: Raghida Skaff)

Situated in the picturesque village of Bikfaya in the Metn area of Lebanon, 16 miles from Beirut, Message de Paix (“Message of Peace” in English) offers a bright world of opportunities to adults who are often overlooked by society.

Helping people with intellectual challenges find purpose in life is the primary mission of the center, established in 1997, also under the guidance of Bishop Noujaim.

“Unfortunately, people with disabilities are not really accepted in our society. At Message de Paix, they make friends, have a sense of family, and really feel free to express themselves and be productive,” says Hector Hajjar, president of Message de Paix.

In line with the organization’s motto, “Together We Can Make a Difference,” decorative posters adorn the stairwell, with encouraging messages in French, English and Arabic: “Together We Can,” “Teamwork” and “Together Everyone Achieves More.”

Message de Paix offers its services free of charge to all, regardless of religion.

With the coronavirus pandemic, the organization modified its services by developing an online program and home-based activities for the 55 beneficiaries enrolled in the day program, along with a hotline for parents.

The 24 live-in residents have continued with the organization’s on-site vocational training.

In the candle-making workshop, 27-year-old Pascal carefully pours hot wax from a tea kettle into taper candle molds with a steady hand and deep concentration.

“I make all kinds of candles,” Pascal says, as he inspects a row of red candles still drying. “I have friends here and I enjoy my time.”

Two young men wearing masks make candles while spaced far apart the the same table at message de paix.
Residents of Message de Paix work in the candle-making workshop. The program helps build their motor skills and self-esteem. (photo: Maroun Bassil)

Pascal’s colleague and fellow resident 21-year-old Michael, who prepares molds for the pouring process, chimes in: “We work as a team.” Both Pascal and Michael are orphans and reside full time at Message de Paix.

Tony, 41, another colleague and resident assists with candle-making and with cooking in the on-site commercial kitchen.

“I like to make molokhia,” he says, naming an Egyptian dish made with jute mallow leaves.

When Lebanon was hit hard by a surge in COVID-19 cases early in 2021, Tony tragically lost both his parents to the virus within three months of each other. “I cried a lot,” he shares.

“We talked to Tony and expressed our love for him,” says Manale Nehmé, a social worker. “We told him that we will be his new family and we will take care of him, and he will be safe here. This really helped him.

“We go to the [Message de Paix] chapel on a daily basis to pray for his mother and father,” Ms. Nehmé adds. “This is a great comfort to him.”

Tony has adjusted well to his new life from day participant to resident at Message de Paix.

“I feel at home here,” he says. “Jesus is with us, all the time.”

“I feel the responsibility to give them all the happiness and love I can. We can’t ask someone to love if they have not been loved.”

As the Lebanese population ages and more intellectually challenged adults lose their parents, the need for full-time residential living increases, Mr. Hajjar points out. In addition to Tony losing both parents, nine other Message de Paix beneficiaries have experienced the death of a parent in the past year.

To meet this growing need, Message de Paix is opening another center for live-in residents, as it has reached capacity for boarders in Bikfaya. The new center will be located in the coastal town of Jbeil, north of Beirut, at a site provided by the Maronite Catholic Diocese of Jbeil. Additional funding is still needed for the center, which will accommodate up to 60 people.

Bishop Noujaim says he hopes an agricultural project for residents would be organized near the site.

The bishop points out that Oum el Nour, Maryam and Martha, and Message de Paix have all benefited from the support of CNEWA. The three organizations “are in evolution and we are developing because of CNEWA’s help,” he notes.

As Lebanon teeters on the edge of an abyss amid a deep economic, political and social crisis, the bishop warns, “Lebanon is now in a very dangerous phase.”

The national currency has lost more than 90 percent of its value since late 2019, pushing more than half the population into poverty. A recent UNICEF report said more than 30 percent of children in Lebanon are going hungry, while 77 percent of households do not have enough money to buy sufficient food. The World Bank has termed Lebanon’s devastated economy as one of the three worst crises worldwide since the mid-19th century.

Bishop Noujaim says support is needed for the three organizations if they are to “maintain sustainability and operate in the future.”

Despite what seems to be a bleak future for Lebanon, Bishop Noujaim maintains, “God will help us. God will provide.”

Doreen Abi Raad is a freelance journalist in Beirut. She also writes for Catholic News Service and the National Catholic Register.

a young woman in gloves, a mask and a hair net chops vegetables at message de paix.
A resident of Message de Paix participates in the cooking program. (photo: Maroun Bassil)

The CNEWA Connection

CNEWA has been on the ground in Lebanon for more than 70 years. Nothing could prepare our team there for the convergence of so much tragedy in one year: sociopolitical implosion, the coronavirus pandemic, the port explosion, financial collapse. Around the clock, the CNEWA team has worked to meet the urgent needs of tens of thousands traumatized by these events.

Meanwhile, the many missions of mercy of the local churches, such as Oum el Nour, Maryam and Martha, and Message de Paix, continue, with ever greater relevance and importance.

“Despite the economic and social crises hitting the country,” wrote CNEWA’s Michel Constantin from Beirut, “the beneficiaries at Message de Paix, despite their own challenges, became helpers and providers to reduce the burden of care on their stressed families. They saved money from their work and were able to purchase medication for themselves and their parents. Thanks to the partnership between Message de Paix and CNEWA, they secured food packages for their families as well, sustaining them for at least another month or two.”

To help this work continue, call 1-866-322-4441 (Canada) or 1-800-442-6392 (United States).

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