Emily Redfern is a U.S. citizen who serves as a volunteer for the Fratelli Project in Lebanon.
“We haven’t been able to leave our home for a few weeks now, except to go to the grocery store and pharmacy. And now the money is just running out.”
“If we offer a choice between hygiene or food boxes the families will all choose food… every time.”
“He’s too proud to accept help, it’s a good thing his wife is not otherwise I don’t know how they would be eating.”
For the Lebanese, COVID-19 recalls the civil war that for many is still a strong memory. But now, life is not about toilet paper shortages or protesters comparing stay-at-home orders to Nazi Germany occupation. You won’t find that here. Instead, you will find silence. The military presence demands that people stay in their homes. License plates now regulate when people are allowed to leave, face masks are required, and cars can have no more than three people at a time. Perhaps the most startling change is how visiting the grocery store is like checking into a hospital, where your temperature is checked, face masks and gloves are required and you are sprayed with sanitizer as you walk in – yes: sprayed down.
For the Syrians, COVID-19 is yet another problem added to a long list of items that make their lives increasingly difficult. While the military has shut down Lebanon, it has also shut-in the Syrian refugee population. Confined to shelter, some even find they have military tanks in front of their homes, to make sure people are only leaving for the essentials. The UNHCR and other NGOs are fighting to gain access to provide aid to Syrian refugees while tackling the growing need taking hold of Lebanon.
For the Syrians, the fear is not of COVID-19; it is of starvation. Cash is king for refugee families who are not able to access the Lebanese banking system; many can’t even participate in menial forms of employment that offer pay as low as $1.40USD an hour in cash. The longer the impact of COVID-19, the more likely it is that families will run out of cash. On top of this, due to the economic crisis, the Lebanese government has issued many statements saying that hospitals and other medical services will be limited to Lebanese citizens only.
Lebanon is home to a plurality of religions, all of which have had to shift their worship, ministry, and focus during this time. NGOs that are religiously affiliated — such as the Fratelli Project, where I serve as a volunteer — have had to do the same. Established in 2015, Fratelli is a co-sponsored collaborative project launched by the Marist and De La Salle congregations. Seeking to serve those at the margins, the project primarily focuses on serving the refugee populations here in Lebanon — mainly Syrian and Iraqi, as well as impoverished Lebanese families. For both religious orders, education is at the heart of their missions as a tool to dismantle generational poverty and a path to creating positive and sustainable changes within poorer communities.
COVID-19 has challenged religious orders in Lebanon in offering aid outside of their traditional charisms. For religious orders that have a focus on working with the poor and providing humanitarian aid, the mission simply continues; but for orders such as the Marist and De La Salle Brothers that are rooted in education, the answer may not be as apparent. The brothers here are learning that sometimes the mission is not what it may first appear to be. To educate the hearts and minds of young people, bellies need to be full and hands need to be washed. One cannot teach an empty stomach and one cannot teach an empty classroom. The challenge becomes adjusting resources to the reality that our students are starving.
To serve and walk alongside the poor is to recognize the power that education can bring and the limitations that prevent its flourishing. How many teachers can remember a time when a student’s inability to learn was linked to hunger, cold, or an issue at home? COVID-19 is a barrier to education, but it has highlighted the poverty that was always present. Food, shelter, clothing and water are needs that must be met before education can even be discussed.
The Marist and De La Salle Brothers here at the Fratelli Project are doing just this: gracefully shifting from a focus on education to focusing on humanitarian need to continue walking and serving alongside their students and families. And it is difficult to find purpose, to find meaning, to find God when the work you were seemingly called to do has stopped. I have seen brothers who have spent their whole lives in the classroom now suddenly at a loss of what to do. It has also not gone amiss that COVID-19 arrived during Lent and Ramadan, two seasons of great importance for Christian and Muslim communities. We’ve had to learn new lessons of sacrifice and fasting.
For the brothers in Lebanon, the lesson has been about laying down a charism to pick up a need. This has meant closing classrooms so one can store food parcels, turning football programs into hygiene supply pick-ups, and asking donors to contribute to humanitarian aid projects rather than classroom supplies. Returning to basic needs not because we want to but because we have to puts the gift and privilege of education into perspective for us all. Education is the tool to dismantling generational poverty and forging paths of positive and sustainable changes within poorer communities. But our students can never attempt to wield that tool if they do not have the physical strength to hold it.
The challenge of COVID-19 in Lebanon will be felt in the institutions of faith across this country. At the intersection of mission and charism, sisters, brothers, priests, and leaders of religious NGOs will be led down new paths and some that might seem away from the mission. A popular tweet on social media has been “I didn’t expect to give up this much for Lent!” and indeed, isn’t that true? None of us ever expected to give up this much. But by giving up what we think our mission is, we open ourselves up to the present and to a reality where so much is needed. Each of us will be challenged to steer off our paths of comfort-giving and to look true need in the eye, because the mission during COVID-19 is most certainly not what it seems.
At Fratelli, Brother Andrés says that in this period we have done everything possible to continue helping our children, our families and our people. But not only that, we have also sought to help a significant number of Lebanese families who are also living a time of great need. This year’s Humanitarian Aid Project is easily the largest and most quickly formed project in Fratelli’s history, due to the immediate needs of our families. It is composed of four parts:
Hygiene Boxes. These are filled with cleaning supplies for personal hygiene and overall home health. Each box will last a family for a month, and comes with a pamphlet on how to practice good hygiene and health to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Food Parcels. These contain anywhere from two to four weeks’ worth of non-perishable essential foods depending on the size of the family. Essentials include salt, oil, lentils, flour, pasta, canned tuna, and more.
Confinement Bags. These come with educational and recreational activities for our students, since all are confined to their homes during this period. Coloring books, small toys, balloons, and stuffed animals are provided to give students activities to do and offer parents a sense of peace.
Educational Videos. Fratelli offers a variety of programs to its students and has transitioned all classes/programs to online platforms. Teaching teams are creating weekly videos filled with activities and educational material to keep students on track for academic success. In addition, English classes are being taught via WhatsApp. Fratelli’s youth programs are receiving online formation as well.
We personally do not know anyone here in Lebanon who has been infected with COVID, but we do have acquaintances or relatives in Spain, the United States or Mexico who have been infected, and it is difficult to accompany them from afar. We try to offer them our support, constant communication and, of course, our prayers.
The Fratelli Project is implemented at Note Dame of Fatima school located in Rmeileh, a coastal village in the casa of Chouf, providing education and care to underprivileged children. CNEWA, since 2017 has been supporting Fratelli through different activities — including providing a new school bus, rehabilitating the volleyball and mini-football courts, and covering part of educational program expenses, such as summer school and summer camp expenses.