“Lebanon cannot cope with this big tragedy alone…. without you we can’t continue” – Interview with Sr. Hanan Youssef
Sister Hanan Youssef, who is well known for her humanitarian work in Lebanon and has spoken about the refugee situation in her country at international conferences, visited Malta recently. Sr Hanan currently represents her order on SEDOS in Rome and since 2015 has been a member of the Congregational Leadership Team of the Good Shepherd Sisters. SEDOS is a forum open to Institutes of Consecrated Life which commit themselves to deepening their understanding of global mission. It encourages research and disseminates information through public conferences, working groups and annual seminar.
ACN Malta’s Director Stephen Axisa and Head of Communications Geraldine Griffiths had a meeting with Sr Hanan while she was staying at the Good Shepherd convent in Balzan.
Geraldine Griffiths interviewed Sr Hanan about her work in Lebanon and the effect the refugee crisis is having on the local population.
Interview with Sr. Hanan Youssef at the Good Shepherd Sisters convent – Balzan, Malta
- ACN (Malta): Sr. Hanan, welcome to Malta. I believe this is not your first visit.
Sr. Hanan: First of all Hello to everybody here in Malta. I am very happy to be back. I was here in 2014 invited by ACN, Aid to the Church in Need, to speak about my experience with refugees in Lebanon. At the International Religious Freedom Conference 2014 I gave testimony about what’s happening to Christians in the Middle East, what Islamic State is doing to this population. It’s beyond imagination, the suffering and the violence that is taking place in the Middle East.
- ACN (Malta): Can you tell me how the war in Syria has affected life for people in Lebanon, for the Lebanese themselves?
Sr. Hanan: Our country has been completely destroyed by the war in neighbouring countries and Islamic State is still persecuting more and more Christians. Last week there were 8 explosions in a Christian area in Lebanon, near the border between Lebanon and Syria. People in this area are really afraid – it’s a message to all the Christians there that IS would like them to leave also.
It’s really a bad situation. We are living in an unstable situation politically – we don’t have a president, we don’t have a proper government – and in term of security even, we are not secure at all.
Also Lebanon is the only country in the Middle East which is facing such a major problem with refugees – it’s really a big crisis. The population of Lebanon was only around 4 million and we have taken in 2 million refugees so the population is now 6 million. This is not normal, we cannot have a normal life.
Lebanon is small, very small, and that’s why life became a big burden for everybody, not just for the refugees but also for Lebanese.
Essential services such as electricity and drinkable water are not enough to cope with the increased population. There is a shortage of many basic things, even food. It is not only the refugees who are lacking for everything but even the local Lebanese because they are becoming poorer and poorer. We also don’t have enough places in schools now, not enough medical care for everyone, not enough jobs.
- ACN (Malta): So if there isn’t enough to go round, what needs to be done?
Sr. Hanan: Lebanon cannot afford, cannot sustain, this big tragedy alone. Everyone really needs to think about this country. It is a very, very big crisis and without the support of the international community, the UN and the European Union we can’t continue like this.
- ACN (Malta): Sr. Hanan, before you moved to Rome in your new role you used to work with these refugees and particularly attending to the sick. Can you tell us about your work in Lebanon?
Sr. Hanan: Yes I was working there from 2007 – 2015. I ran the St. Anthony Dispensary which offers primary health care and other services to the refugees. We help at all levels not only with medical needs but also with day to day life. We support them to run a household, to send their children to school, provide food and of course medical services.
St Anthony dispensary provides consultation, medication and also psychological help because most of these refugee women are really traumatised. Some were raped during this tragedy, so we offer them psychological support as well.
We also give the children some education by gathering many street children and teaching them in an informal way. We give them some English and Arabic courses and teach them catechism to help them to keep their faith, which is also important. Yes we are doing a lot of things but with very limited resources.
- ACN (Malta): So this clinic that you were running, is it a government clinic or is it a private clinic? How do you manage to provide medicines and healthcare for all these people that come to you who are too poor to pay for it themselves?
Sr. Hanan: In Lebanon we do not have state to support us, so it’s all private initiative now. The clinic is privately run. Our major donor is ACN, Aid to the Church in Need, who helps us annually to provide some basic things for refugees – clothes, food and medication. But we need a lot more because this dispensary welcomes 200 people per day. It’s a huge number so we need more support because ACN is helping us with maybe 20% of the budget, but we need to fund the other the 80% of the budget. And we still dealing with a huge number of new refugees coming everyday from Syria and Iraq. That’s why we need a lot of support.
- ACN (Malta): So the St Anthony Dispensary is funded entirely by charitable donations?
Sr. Hanan: Exactly, entirely by charitable donations.
- ACN (Malta): Now, to conclude this interview I was wondering if you had a message for the people of Malta and perhaps for the whole world on behalf of the people of Lebanon.
Sr. Hanan: I would like to tell everyone that we are one family, one humanity. We are connected with you, you are connected with us …. and this gives us a lot of strength. We know we are not alone. That’s why the people of Lebanon need all of you here in Malta – without you we can’t continue.
In this Year of Mercy Pope Francis calls on all of us to be merciful, to practice mercy. So each one of us can choose to do a small act which will be a very big help for the person who is practicing mercy and the person who is receiving this act of mercy.
So “be merciful as your Father is merciful,” that’s what I would like to say.