Food, blankets and hope – nuns risk lives to serve Syrian refugees
By KEVIN JONES
Beirut, Lebanon, Nov 12, 2014 / 04:27 am (CNA/EWTN News) - Near the Lebanon-Syria border, two religious sisters are among the staff members at a refugee service center working to give relief – and hope – to thousands who have fled the armed conflict in Syria.
“I keep my hope in prayer,” Sister Micheline Lattouff, a Good Shepherd Sister, told CNA at a Nov. 1 meeting with journalists in Beirut.
“I seek how to help the children, how to help the families,” she said, calling the refugees “victims in their own country.”
Sr. Micheline is director of the Social and Community Center of the Good Shepherd in Deir-al-Ahmar, a Christian village in Lebanon’s northern Bekaa Valley.
She and another Good Shepherd Sister are among the half dozen staff members who help both local Lebanese and 8,000 to 9,000 Syrian refugees who are among the millions displaced since the Syrian conflict began in 2011.
The refugee numbers keep growing. Sixty to 80 refugee families, ranging in size from five to 15 people, arrive in the area each month.
These refugees are predominantly Sunni Muslims fleeing a conflict in which rebel forces are themselves predominantly Sunni. They feel unsafe in surrounding Shiite Muslim areas and so have flocked to the Christian village not far from Baalbek, a major center for Lebanon’s Shiite party Hezbollah, a supporter of Syria’s ruling government.
“With the Christian people, they feel safer. Because for them, we are a people for peace. We want to live in peace and love,” Sr. Micheline said.
Such a pattern of Christian-Muslim interaction is common in Lebanon, where Christians provide an important buffer between different Muslim communities.
Many of the men among the Deir-al-Ahmar refugees have a history of working in the region as migrant laborers. Before the conflict, they would return to Syria after harvest season to live off their earnings in a country with a low cost of living.
But when the Syrian conflict started, they began to bring their families with them to stay in a country where basic needs are increasingly expensive.
The refugees now live in unorganized spontaneous settlements, sometimes grouped by clan or family. Some were separated from their loved ones during the flight from their homes. Those who could not come by car or bus walked for as many as seven days to arrive, often over mountainous terrain.
Living in tents and houses with walls of burlap sacks and plastic sheeting scavenged from used billboard signs, many of the refugees reside around the Good Shepherd Sisters’ community center.
“They feel very bad at their situation. They want to go back to Syria, and they are not able. It is not a life,” Sr. Micheline said.
The community center was originally established to run after-school programs and remedial classes for Lebanese children. The sisters have expanded their mission, helping educate refugee children and distribute food to Syrian families, while continuing to support a Christian tent settlement.
A school established by the sisters teaches 330 refugee children in the morning, then teaches local Lebanese children in the afternoon.
The sisters have found Syrian teachers among the refugees and pay them to teach the refugee children according to the Arabic-only system in their home country, rather than Lebanon’s multi-lingual system. The curriculum includes peacebuilding programs that encourage cultural coexistence and cross-cultural relationships.
The Catholic Near East Welfare Association, a papal humanitarian relief agency, supports the school. The U.S.-based Catholic Relief Services supports the families in the settlements.
Packages of supplies are given to the refugees, containing items such as olive oil, sugar, rice, pasta, humus, cheese, and milk.
While a $50 package can supply one family for a month, the demand is overwhelming, and packages have been split in half to serve more people.
“It’s not enough,” Sr. Micheline said, noting the danger of malnutrition.
The upcoming winter threatens a “very bad” situation, the sister said. Mud season collapses tents and creates unsanitary conditions in camps where the sewage system consists of open-air toilets.
The presence of humanitarian agencies can save lives.
Catholic Relief Services funds tents, heaters, wood, diesel fuel, clothes, and blankets for the refugees.
While visiting a refugee tent, a delegation from the Catholic agency Caritas Australia discovered a wounded 11-year-old boy named Melhem, whom a hunter had shot by accident. The boy had been laid down in the bed and his bandages had been left undressed for weeks after his initial medical treatment. His wound had become infected.
Catholic Relief Services and the Sisters of the Good Shepherd jointly sponsored surgery for the boy. He continues to recover from his injury and his lack of initial medical care.
“He is very good now,” Sr. Micheline said.
The community center also tries to help adults find agricultural work, she explained. “These people are workers and they want to work.”
Day labor is hard to find for adults. The economic situation has pressured many refugee children to become breadwinners for the family.
Another challenge is that the high number of refugees has caused unease and security fears among the local Christian population, whose numbers are as low as 3,000 in the winter months.
If even a miniscule percentage of area refugees sympathize with violent radicals like the Islamic State group, that could mean several dozen people, noted CRS Lebanon country representative Davide Bernocchi.
Sr. Micheline said she has some fears about possible Islamic State supporters within the camps.
“I am afraid sometimes. We have to be careful,” she said. “We take care of them, we receive them in our center, but with open eyes.”
Some people have suggested to Sr. Micheline that she could be killed by the Islamic State group because of her work.
“I tell them, ‘maybe’. But that’s not reason to stop my mission,” she said. “I have my mission, and I continue my mission.”
“If they kill me, it’s not a problem… maybe another sister will have courage to continue the mission.”
She cited the example of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who was assassinated in 1980 after criticizing the government’s human rights violations.
“I think if maybe I will be killed because I work with refugees, maybe the world today needs another Oscar Romero.”
The sister said she took inspiration from the 330 Syrian children at the school.
“We can see the transformation in their behavior and their hygiene and their relation between the Lebanese community and the refugees,” she said. “When I see the transformation in children, I see they are happy. They are happy to come to the center, to learn. They want to learn.”
“When I see them, 30 or 40 people in a small room, they are waiting just to learn. That gives me great hope for the future.”