There is plenty of life in Karm Al Zeitoun, one of the suburbs of Beirut in the district of Ashrafieh, a name which means “Mount of Olives”. The streets are narrow, and the movement of cars and pedestrians results in little bottlenecks on every corner – and especially around the small dispensary run by the Daughters of Charity, from which the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation ACN International is helping to support 350 families affected by the explosion.
The quarter was originally populated by Armenians fleeing the genocide of 1915. They were followed later by Syrians and Palestinians, likewise fleeing war and persecution. And in the last few years immigrants from many different countries, mostly Ethiopians and Bangladeshis, have found shelter in this humble quarter, home to the poorest people and still a place with Christian roots. Its ancient houses rub shoulders along its winding alleyways, while the results of the recent building boom, the modern tower blocks built all round Karm Al Zeitoun, have massively forced up prices in the area and compelled most of the young people to move away to more affordable areas. The only people now left in Karm Al Zeitoun are the old people and the immigrants.
There are many people milling around the small entrance door to the Mother and Child Protection Centre. Established originally in 1959, it is today one of the six centres from which the ACN emergency aid parcels are being distributed for the families most severely affected by the explosion on 4 August. Altogether they are helping over 5,800 families. The Daughters of Charity have undertaken to distribute this aid to 350 families; there are 70 of them here today. The two boxes of aid provide sufficient food for five people for a month. They are heavy, weighing 32 kg, and many of the families claiming them have come with little carts, or in the hope that some acquaintance or relative will help them with their car. This is one reason why there is more traffic than normal today, making it difficult to make one’s way through the narrow alleyways of Karm Al Zeitoun.
One of those coming to the dispensary is Mona, a Lebanese woman aged 52. She lives with her mother Juliette, who is 91 and who has witnessed at least five wars – or is it six? She can no longer remember exactly… “Ever since the explosion on 4 August she has been traumatised, she starts at every single noise”, Mona explains to ACN.
In a country where there is no retirement pension or social security or other pensions, it has been the children who have supported their parents, or the weakest members of the family, but now, with the economic crisis, Covid-19 and lastly the terrible explosion, this has simply become impossible. Mona has been without work for five years now. Before the crisis, one of her brothers used to help her with 300 Lebanese pounds a month (roughly 200 US dollars), but now with inflation this only amounts to around forty dollars, and besides her brother has “enough problems of his own taking care of his family”.
“In 1990 a missile struck my house, killing my sister. I went into a depression, but my faith helped me out. Without faith we could not continue, it is the one thing that helps us to endure the present situation; is the only thing left to us”, Mona tells us, adding, “Sister Rita comes whenever we need her, even though it may be very late, because she is always very busy, but she always manages to find a space for us. For me, this is the living witness of Christ on earth.”
Sister Rita, whom Mona and Juliette refer to in almost every other sentence, belongs to the congregation of Saint Vincent DePaul, and works in the front of the dispensary. Despite the frenetic activity around her on this particular day, she still finds time to talk to ACN. “The situation here is a tragic one, because they don’t have anything.” The number of families being helped in the dispensary of the Daughters of Charity has increased more than fourfold. Before there were 120 families, now there are 500 families per month, Lebanese Sister Rita goes on to explain. In addition to the volunteers who are preparing for today’s food distribution there are workmen working on the dispensary, since the building itself was also damaged by the explosion. All the windows and parts of the roof were blown off. “But we have to continue working, since we have now found someone to do the repairs, and even though we can’t pay him for now.”
Among the boxes, piled up in the entrance with the ACN logo on them, there is a crucifix nailed to the wall with a legend in French: “You are the sign of God’s mercy”. This is the perfect summary of the work done by these religious, which Sister Rita describes in these words: “Our charism is to alleviate the sufferings of Christ, who still suffers on this earth. We simply want to serve God and bear witness to Him, especially during this so very difficult time we are going through.”
Later, Sister Rita herself goes with representatives of ACN to visit Nabil, another of those benefiting from the emergency aid programme sponsored by ACN since the explosion. Nabil is 56, born an only child with a physical handicap. His mother, who normally cares for him, has been admitted to hospital, and it is her neighbour Maral who is now looking after him in her absence. The sisters are also paying for an assistant to look in on him every day. Sister Rita greets Nabil and talks and prays with him. When the explosion happened, she tells us, “all the windowpanes fell in on top of him; it’s a miracle he wasn’t badly hurt”.
Seeing the situation of Nabil, Sister Josephine, another of the sisters working in the centre, says, just at this time when so many people are talking of leaving and emigrating: “This is the very moment to remain here. This is the time to support and accompany our people, since here each and every one of them has their problems.” And Sister Rita recalls, with a look of firm decision despite her tiredness: “John Paul II told us that Lebanon is a message. We Christians here have an important role to play in this country, and the day we forget this message, Lebanon will no longer be Lebanon.”