The Rev. Youssef Yaacoub is a Syriac Catholic monk and a refugee from Iraq who found shelter in Lebanon. Since 2016, he has been partnering with CNEWA to provide emergency support, non-formal education, spiritual activities and summer school to Iraqi refugee children in Lebanon.
I am almost 50 years of age now, and I have never experienced a time like this. I write as someone who was kidnapped by ISIS and spent 40 days in captivity during the war and witnessed fear of life and death simultaneously. I used to hear my grandparents tell stories of people dying from outbreaks of disease. They were strange and painful stories on how the cholera, typhoid, and malaria have taken lives. I never imagined living through a situation such as this. With all the cruelty of what they went through, this tiny virus has surpassed those sufferings.
The whole world is taking precautions to stop the spread of COVID-19, whether by social distancing or by taking other measures, such as using masks and stopping all social gatherings and work. Finding an end to this virus does not seem feasible in the near future. If developed countries are facing huge challenges to deal with this unprecedented virus, how about the situation of other fragile and poor countries?
Life at the time of COVID-19 is extremely difficult and unbearable where you have to voluntarily give up on your freedom, change your lifestyle, and isolate yourself from all your loved ones because you fear that you might cause them harm. This quarantine recalled my memory of the cruel isolation which I faced back in Iraq, although it was of different type.
Similar to all countries, the Lebanese government enforced a series of measures to prevent the possible outbreak of the new coronavirus in the country, such as the closure of schools, the prohibition of gatherings and the closure of all stores and companies, except for grocery stores and pharmacies. In March, we had to close our school, Angels of Peace, which has been supported by CNEWA through its donors since 2016 and was providing classes to Iraqi refugee children who fled war from Iraq and settled in Lebanon. Due to COVID-19, the long closure of stores and businesses is having a severe impact and catastrophic consequences on the economy; with each passing day, life is becoming more and more unbearable. Large numbers of Lebanese are without work and without income. If the situation of the Lebanese is so bad, imagine what it must be like for Iraqi refugees, who rely on daily wages to make a living.
We, as the Church of the Holy Family, had to seek support from humanitarian associations and organizations to help our refugee brothers and sisters. We conducted an online fundraising campaign and we were able to raise a fair amount. We distributed food, hygiene materials and disinfectants to most of our Iraqi population in Lebanon. One can only imagine how grateful they were, especially when they felt that they are not left alone at this difficult time but realized that there are good people thinking of them.
COVID-19 brought with it many fears, uncertainties, questions, and doubts. Everyone — whether a child, adult or an elderly person — was trying to understand God’s providence towards this overwhelming and unbridled epidemic. Can’t God stop this virus? Is this the wrath of God for the bad deeds of mankind? Is this the beginning of the end of the world? Questions, questions, questions. All what we want is a miracle. But miracles happen when there is faith. It is written in the Bible that when a man brought his possessed son to the disciples and asked them to help him, they could not. Then Jesus came and asked the man to have faith — and it was through faith that the son was healed and Satan was defeated. When the disciples later asked why they couldn’t expel Satan from the boy, Jesus replied that only by fasting and prayer can we overcome this kind. In other words, the Church has always had the power of healing as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but it should be accompanied by faith which is indispensable.
In Christianity, when our minds and capacities stand helpless in front of any hardship which faces us, this does not mean that we should drown into despair. Rather, it is at this point that we should stick to our faith. COVID-19 slowed us down from our unending daily life to reflect again on what our Lord wants us to do. It challenged us to listen to his voice and glorify him in our deeds. Perhaps this confinement is an opportunity to discover and see life from another perspective and another side. There is no difference anymore between rich and poor, large and small, beautiful and ugly. COVID-19 has equated everyone, and it threatens human well-being itself. Human hearts may have recently become cruel to each other. They probably need a balm to break the icy membrane that engulfs our hearts, so that our hearts can once again be merciful, compassionate and warm.
With this epidemic, people had the opportunity to contemplate more than ever and value the presence of others in their lives. Maybe it’s time for us to recall and practice some of the old small handcrafts which our ancestors used to do at homes. Maybe it’s time to appreciate all their creativity, beauty, and traditions.
But again, these are very hard times. We still do not know the real danger of this pandemic. I experience anxiety when I see all the sufferings and needs of my people and yet feel unable to relieve them of their miseries. Yet my faith gives me continuous energy to seek and help all those in need.
In the end, we ask God to lift up this experience. We shout from within our hearts: “I believe, Lord! Strengthen my faith!” To believe means fasting and praying. I offer my body and my mind to the Lord, who in turn is so generous that he will bless this act and find us the means to do acts of charity and goodness toward our brothers and sisters.
And for praying: whoever wants to pray can pray anywhere and anytime, just like the apostle Paul and Silas, who diligently prayed in prison in the middle of the night. In the middle of this nighttime of our lives, we hope that God will have mercy on us and put an end to this pandemic.