I was hungry and you gave me food

Lebanese Nun Tells of Her Daily Life Trying to Help Refugees

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By Sister Hanan Youssef

Let me introduce myself and my ministry. My name is Hanan Youssef, I’m from Lebanon. I was born in a small village in the South of Lebanon. When I was 9 years old, my family had to leave the village because the Israelis occupied it till the year 2001. There was much suffering; my grandmother and another one of my aunts were also killed by the last missile that was shelled by the Israelis before the liberation. And then, it was the turn of my aunt and her son to be assassinated by the Syrian army.

We ran away to Beirut where more suffering awaited us, my father was taken ill, and was unable to provide for us, so we had to try and survive as best we could. I was 11 years old when I started working, my mornings were taken with work which left me with the nights for school and study, this was a tough task for the child I was, but something was pushing me to do it, in other words, God’s spirit was encouraging me to persevere.

I was also very interested and took part in all parish activities of the church, especially the ones devoted to helping the poor or people with difficulties.

I finished school and started studying sociology at university. I was still in my first year when I felt that I wanted more, that I was wasting my time and that nothing made sense unless I offered myself completely to Jesus. Where was my calling? I wasn’t interested by most congregations whose main concerns were with schools or hospitals. I was then introduced to the Good Shepherd Sisters who look after marginalized people and lost sheep. And this is where I felt my place was; I was attracted to their mission and their charisma; the hearts of Jesus and Mary embracing the world. The spirituality of compassionate love. I was inspired with their zeal for saving souls, which, in addition to the 3 vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, was a special 4thvow for this congregation. The founder, St Mary Euphresia says: “One person is more precious than the whole world.”

I joined the sisters and took my vows in May 1989.

In 1999, I was assigned to work in the Rueissat region located on the border of the Beirut suburb Jdeideh. This area is very poor and the population is diverse and I was attracted by the coexistence between Moslems and Christians. I founded a center there that focused on the promotion of children’s rights and education. The goal was for it to be a safe, peaceful, and joyful haven for these children that came from different backgrounds, so they could learn to live together and accept each other.

In 2005, the congregation was requested to take over the Dispensary Saint-Anthony which was located in that area, and continue to serve the poor. I was put in charge of this dispensary.

In Lebanon, health care is very expensive, and the poor most often find themselves without any. Our purpose as Good Shepherd sisters is to offer them as good a quality of healthcare as possible.

The dispensary which functions as a primary health care center had to take on additional responsibilities such as distributing clothes, food, milk, diapers for the elderly and for babies. Some wonderful achievements were accomplished in that region. I’ll give the example of Ali who had polio and mental disabilities, and couldn’t use both his legs. Coming from a destitute family, he needed a lot of help to have some kind of quality of life. And he got it! 12 operations later, Ali can now welcome us on his walker in his very humble house.

Who are the people who benefit from our services?

* Sick people with no Social Security or medical insurance;

* People with no qualifications or education, who were involved with militias during the war, and were not in touch with the working place in a country such as Lebanon where employment is mostly found in services;

* Lone or abandoned women;

* Unemployed youth gone astray;

* Abandoned elderly people;

* Iraqi and Syrian refugees, who have fled their country;

* Uneducated children of illiterate parents, having left school to work and provide some help for their parents;

One of our goals is to give a chance for these children to go to school and learn to live in peace with other children who come from different backgrounds, religions, countries… and realize that violence cannot be an answer to solve problems, but only peace can.

This dispensary has a history of supporting refugees; in the year 2006 during the war with Israel, we catered for more than 5000 refugees coming from the south of Lebanon. We worked round the clock for a whole month to be able to provide them with food, clothes, underwear, water, hygiene kits… 

Five years ago we began to receive Iraqis, mainly Chaldean Christians. They were persecuted in Iraq, with no choice given them except to either leave or be killed, some were kidnapped and returned against a ransom; women and girls were raped… They ran away to Lebanon as a safe Christian Arabic country and in the hope to get a visa and leave the Middle East. Sometimes, they waited 2 to 4 years before they got their visas…

We, at the dispensary, welcomed them, supported them with the help of UNHCR. We learned from them the awful suffering they went through.

Having lived and suffered much during the war, I can feel with others who are going through the same trial.

You can’t imagine how much suffering the refugees families are living.

I’ll try to relate a couple of their stories to you.

B.K. is a 33 years old Iraqi woman. She and her husband are from different religions. From the first day of their union, they were persecuted for this difference but never harmed, until an attempt of murder by the close family. That’s when they decided to come to Lebanon two years ago.

B.K came to us asking us to provide them with a safe place to stay. We referred her to a safe region and provided social and psychological support for her and her husband; they were very depressed after all the misery and persecution they went through. Now, they live in Australia and they have one boy.

Now let me tell you about R.N. She’s a 30 years old Iraqi woman. For 3 months, she, her husband and their three kids were persecuted because they were Christians: intimidation, death threats, aggressiveness …. Still, they made the decision to stay in their home in Iraq until their son was kidnapped, and the kidnappers asked for a $20,000 ransom. She didn’t know anything about her son until she collected the sum and paid it to the kidnappers. This is when they left Iraq and travelled to Lebanon to escape persecution and to avoid having another child kidnapped.

3 months after arriving to Lebanon she came to us for help. We provided her with psychosocial support through social interviews, psychosocial support for the family through home visits and psychological care for the kidnapped son with the psychologist.

Now, the family lives in USA, after staying in Lebanon for almost two years.

When the war started in Syria, the Iraqis who had found shelter there had to flee again from another war; they came to Lebanon and we also welcomed them and helped where we could.

They were followed by a million and a half Syrians… to a Lebanon that was already unable to provide for its own… and the Iraqis. Schools are overloaded and so are hospitals, no electricity, water, work. Violence and robbery thrive now of course because all these people are looking for their basic human needs, food, drink, shelter… Lebanon was not supported by other nations and now the Lebanese people’s fundamental right in their own country has been taken away from them.

They come to the dispensary; they don’t hesitate to ask for food, clothes and other needs. We have in the clinic 2 social workers who receive people, listen to them and guide them, especially ladies. We noticed that many women are physically abused and aren’t allowed to talk about their situation.

Some are really damaged, physically and psychologically, like this young girl who was raped by four men and was unable to communicate with others.

Another lady was sent by her husband to prostitute herself to be able to provide for her family.

The situation of Syrians is worse than Iraqis.

The girls get married very early (11 years old) and get many children, and so at 30 years old a woman can be a mother to 6 or 9 kids. Some of the girls marry older people to get some money and give it to their families to survive.

These women don’t know how to raise their children and take care of their families.

Many families rent rooms in Lebanon and they would be about 15 people in the same room, you can imagine the problems…

Many Syrian refugees don’t respect where they live, they damage everything, steal, tell lies etc…all this doesn’t help them and creates problems with the local population, even the Muslim population.

I am telling you all this to let you know in what kind of atmosphere we are working and living nowadays.

Our ministry is to live the mercy of God, to help people to live reconciliation, to give them hope in spite of all… at the dispensary we try to provide them with the best service because we believe that people were created in God’s image. Which doesn’t mean that we’re not having many issues, one of them is that Lebanese people feel that our dispensary is no longer a place for them when they are in need. They see it as a place now for refugees, they don’t understand how or why that happened and that angers them. I have to say that even us who work there find the situation unbearable.

We are overwhelmed by the huge number of refugees. Lebanon is a very small country with a small infrastructure that is unable to welcome and serve these huge numbers. We are 4 million Lebanese living in Lebanon and the number of Syrian refugees is 1,300,000. We ran out of available seats at schools for any more children; no more beds in hospitals for sick people and especially for pregnant women and they are many (around 400,000 new babies were born in Lebanon by last year); sometimes they’re giving birth in their houses without any medical help or helped by whoever’s around! Of course you can imagine the consequences of such actions for the babies and the mothers when there are difficulties in childbirth.

In our clinic, we try every day, as much as is possible, to serve every one of them. It is a great challenge for us.

For the vaccination campaigns we gave the vaccine to 2000 children in 1 week and a half. It was a big challenge for the staff, for the doctors, for me, and for the humble structure in the clinic. The Syrian refugees are very poor; they are living in tents without water, electricity, or any kind of basic utilities… in very dire conditions. I’ll give you an example, a few days before coming, a woman came to the dispensary carrying her baby whose ear was partly eaten by some animal because of the dirty conditions they live in. Hygiene is very difficult to achieve...  It’s so easy for them to get scabies and many others illnesses. What’s more, some of the contagious illnesses such as polio, measles and others had been eradicated from Lebanon for a while now, but with the coming of the Syrians they are spreading again. We find ourselves now having to provide these vaccines for the Lebanese population also. The government will only provide the vaccine but without any staff, materials, such as gloves, needles, and others .It’s a very difficult situation not only for them, but also for the Lebanese population who welcomes them. They need the entire basic necessities to survive:  Food, milk for babies, diapers, blankets, clothes…etc.

May God provide us with people who can help, otherwise it would be impossible to continue in this sacred mission.

We can’t live only by the body but also by the soul. Only that way can we continue this journey. It’s as if in Lebanon we are destined at least in recent history to welcome refugees from as far as Armenians to our present day. Maybe because we, too, are refugees in this world and our only weapon is the word of Jesus. Our faith in God is our only support to help us through the trials we face

For He says: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

Sister of the Good Shepherd Hanan Youssef presented this paper at the International Religious Freedom Conference sponsored by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) on Malta May 12 & 13, 2014. The Conference also marked the opening of the organization’s new national office on the island nation.

Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries.www.churchinneed.org (USA); www.acnuk.org (UK); www.aidtochurch.org (AUS); www.acnireland.org (IRL); www.acn-aed-ca.org (CAN)