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Turning the Tide in Southern Lebanon

The Sisters of the Sacred Hearts teach, provide health care and bring hope to a fearful and fractured community in southern Lebanon.

text and photographs by Marilyn Raschka

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“I try to give meaning to poor people so they can give meaning to their fellow neighbors, as the Lord gives meaning to life,” explains 34-year-old Father Jose Kizhakkedath.

Lebanon was, and is, a land of many villages – villages with many children and children with many needs. Put education and healthcare at the top of the list and enlist the aid of the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.

In the early 19th century, the Jesuit Fathers began their work in Lebanon. The Jesuits were dedicated to the education of these youngsters, but in this traditional society only the males of the family came forward to be taught. The Jesuits, however, saw an untapped natural resource in the faces of the young girls. But “getting rights” to develop that resource was not easy. Bucking tradition never is.

The Jesuit Fathers moved carefully. They gathered young women from larger urban areas, where girls were educated, to accompany them to the villages. They advertised cleverly: “Send us your daughters. We’ll teach them to sew.” Along with needles and thread came the ABC’s. And how could a father argue when the young, urban women – renamed “lady Jesuits” – were teaching catechism to their daughters?

Pride conquered prejudice. Today, a visit to a village school or a look at the statistics from the Jesuit St. Joseph University in Beirut reveals a healthy harvest. Classes at all levels are often more than 50 percent female. Lebanese fathers brag about their clever daughters – and rightly so. Lebanese women participate in virtually every field.

By 1853 the “lady Jesuits” had developed into a religious community, the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Never cloistered, never daunted, but quietly working behind the scenes, this community has met and conquered many a challenge. Today they number 250 in Lebanon alone, one of the largest and oldest orders in the country. Approximately 3,000 children, Christian and Muslim, study in their schools.

The sisters’ newest challenge came in late May when Israel withdrew its troops from south Lebanon after 22 years of occupation. Long prayed for by the Lebanese, the withdrawal came with little warning.

Each village and town has its own post-occupation story and problems. Jezzine, one of Lebanon’s prettiest mountain towns, has a large school run by the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts, whose presence there dates back more than 100 years. Today, Jezzine’s school has a population of 735 with children ranging in age from 3 to 15. The children hail not only from Jezzine but from 17 neighboring villages. The teaching staff of 40 includes four nuns.

During a classroom conversation, one sister asked what a liberated Lebanon meant to them. She reminded them of one very important change: No more haajiz – checkpoints – something that had become a part of the students’ lives over the years. “You are free to travel,” the sister said to the children, as if to encourage them.

The need to start classes at 8:30 A.M., late by Lebanese standards, has ended; land mines have been removed.

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Tags: Lebanon Sisters Christianity Health Care Village life