The Community Center of the Good Shepherd Sisters in Deir al-Ahmar is an oasis of order.
(Reportage by Luca Geronico - Avvenire)
It snows at times in the Bekaa Valley, the Lebanon doorway to Syria and Israel. The tents of Syrian refugees, like huge poisonous mushrooms, dot the plain among the predominantly Shiite villages. Hezbollah flags and Imam Khomeini images mark each kilometer of the bumpy freeway haunted by terrible traffic. "An hour and a half driving and you arrive in Damascus." Beyond the chain of Jabal el-Cheikh, is the Syrian border, which no one can or wants to respect. For this reason the City of Zahle, in the heart of the Bekaa Valley, is a true "Christian stronghold." This is not only for Lebanon but for the entire Middle East. Some 200,000 Greek-Catholics defended the city with a strong resistance during the 30 years of Syrian occupation. "We are the Christian capital of the Middle East," they proudly say.
Remaining in the Bekaa Valley is a choice, whereas diaspora was the only option for many Lebanese and Arab-Christians in the Middle East. This resistance costed the City of Zahle 15,000 lives during the Civil War and the Syrian occupation. That’s why those tents and slums used by the Syrian refugees, thanks to the aid of international organizations, awaken nightmares of the past and reopen the scars of war.
"In my family I counted three dead. But working with the Red Cross I learned to be impartial, and as a Christian it is my duty to help those who suffer. To be impartial, even with my grief," says Ramzi Abou Zeid, coordinator of Caritas services for migrants in the city. But being impartial in Lebanon is almost impossible: 4 million inhabitants in a country who elected President Michel Aoun only a month ago and who will eventually will have a government. Meanwhile, since the Civil War began in Damascus, there are 1.5 millions Syrians in Lebanon."We must distinguish the Syrian regime from those who are suffering," every humanitarian aid worker tells you.
Suleiman al-Saharif is lying on a mattress on the bare cement floor of a room in the suburbs of Zahle, paid by the "Conseil pour les norvégien réfugiés." He is a tile setter who fleed from Daraa with his wife Fadia and 5 children ages 10 to 18. He is bedridden because of a herniated disc that no hospital wants to treat without being paid. "It is impossible to go back to Syria. Lebanon is a solution, but it would be better to leave Lebanon,” says his wife Fadia while raising the lid of a steaming pot of rice she is preparing for dinner. The children do not attend school, it is better to get something on the road.
About 50 km further north in the Bekaa Valley, in Deir al-Ahmar, is the Community Center of the Good Shepherd Sisters and Good Shepherd International Foundation, a FOCSIV member. The community center is an oasis of order and cleanness. It is a simple structure, in a rural environment where Muslims are the majority, and it has become the reference point in this part of the valley. Each day, morning and afternoon, a total of 405 Syrian children crowd the classrooms of the kindergarten and the primary school. Last year Sallum was very annoyed: “I do not want to repeat the same grade again," he said. We heard his plea and now we have added the seventh grade," says Sister Amira Tabel, director of the Center, with a satisfied smile.
A "small miracle," a pedagogical initiative, including a psychological dossier for each child and the consultancy of a speech therapist when needed. Those who attend the school, explains the director, are the children of refugees who do not have a place in the public school system.
"There are a lot of cases of domestic abuse. So the school becomes a place for peace and reconciliation for the children, "continues Sr. Amira. The Community Center is open to anyone in the afternoon and evening: vocational training courses are run for older children and every week a training meeting for mothers is held. "In this way you get into the families and, living beside them, you facilitate the dialogue between Lebanese and Syrians, and between Christians and Muslims."A "small miracle", supported by donations from abroad. A "miracle" that unfortunately ends on the doorstep of the Center.
At the checkpoint, on the road that goes back to Zahle, in late summer the soldiers seek hashish hidden in the pick-ups. "Everyone is growing a little of it here in the valley," he says Abdo sipping turkish coffee in front of the gas station on the road to Zahle. Meanwhile, it stopped snowing and from the balcony of the Church of Our Lady of Zahle a clear rainbow appears: a "small miracle" of Lebanese hope.
(© Luca Geronico - Avvenire / Photo: © Cristian Gennari/Siciliani)
Read the article on avvenire.it (italian version)
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The Good Shepherd International Foundation joins the FOCSIV campaign "Humanity. Being Human with Human Beings" to help people affected by the tragedy of war in the Middle-East, in particular refugees and host communities in neighboring countries.