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Restoring Lebanon

Through thick and thin, the Pontifical Mission remains an active force in rebuilding Lebanon.

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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Lebanon is complex. For centuries, Christian, Muslim and Druze communities have found refuge in its spectacular snowcapped mountains and golden valleys. More than 80 percent of Lebanons population, however, now lives in its cities; a third lives in greater Beirut alone.

Although planted in the eastern Mediterranean world, Lebanons urban society reflects Europe. Conversations in Arabic are peppered with French idioms. Women in fashionable European clothes mingle with elderly men wrapped in Arabic dress. Unique to Lebanon, these alluring complexities deceive the eye: the Lebanese are recovering from a bitter and bloody civil war that nearly destroyed them.

Since its establishment in Beirut in 1949, the Pontifical Mission has cared for the nations Palestinian refugees and, since the beginning of the civil war in 1975, displaced Lebanese families as well. Except for a brief period in the spring of 1990, when intense intra-Christian fighting laid waste to much of Beirut, the Pontifical Mission remained in operation. The staff maintained emergency relief, provided medical care, shelter and home repair, rehabilitated social welfare institutions such as churches, schools and childcare centers, and ensured uninterrupted support for thousands of children enrolled in the Needy Child Sponsorship Program.

“Every morning, as we left our homes for work, we wished our families farewell,” recalls Marlene Chamieh, the Beirut offices Sponsorship Program Coordinator. “We did not know whether we would return safely.

“Working helped us deal with the reality of war,” she adds. “We tried to maintain normal lives. There were times, however, as shells fell all around, when our only concern was for shelter.”

In a nation that suffered the loss of its central government, infrastructure and basic social services, “our staffs desire to work was amazing and their accomplishments, astounding,” writes Sister Maureen Grady, C.S.C., Director of the Beirut office from 1986 until 1990.

None of the staff or their immediate families had been injured during the war, but they were exhausted, hungry and discouraged. The final blow was the fighting in eastern Beirut that involved various Christian factions.

“I think the circumstances of this last battle – that is, Christian versus Christian – have been a source of shame and sadness to them,” wrote Sister Maureen in a letter to Msgr. Robert Stern in the spring of 1990. Sensing their fatigue, Sister Maureen temporarily evacuated the staff and their families to Cyprus.

After visiting the staff in Cyprus, Msgr. Stern recalls that they were in great spirits:

“While they were happy to get out of Lebanon for a while, all seemed eager to return home to work as soon as possible.”

The Pontifical Missions determined Beirut staff returned to a city engulfed in violence. “This is more than a routine job,” said Issam Bishara in 1990, at the time serving as Associate Director. “We are taking our work home, even if during the whole night there is shelling…. We all feel more needed at this time.”

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