Sister Jeannette El Achkar gestures as she shows a part of Lebanese Hospital Geitaoui still under construction in Beirut Oct. 12, 2021. The health care sector in Lebanon is being crushed under the weight of multiple crises that are only getting worse, say the co-administrators of one of Lebanon's most important hospitals. CNS photo/Raghida Skaff, courtesy CNEWA

CNEWA remains a beacon of hope

  • February 16, 2022

Eighteen years ago this month, I officially began my journey as a national director for CNEWA, specifically to help establish a Canadian office. 

Many at the time thought the journey would be short-lived — that CNEWA would be hard-pressed to succeed in Canada especially given our relatively robust charitable sector and, alas, the state of Church attendance and affiliation in our country.

However, it was clear to me that no other charitable organization had the expertise and knowledge on the richness and diversity of our Eastern Catholic Churches which, at the time, were embroiled in many of the violent confrontations we still see today.

Middle East Christians have been among the worst affected. The horrible statistics speak for themselves: since 2003, for example, more than 2.5 million Christians have been forced to leave not only their homeland but the entire Middle East.

Looking back, I understand better why CNEWA was able to establish itself quickly in Canada. The agency was already on the ground in the countries it serves, working closely with local Churches and their many institutions. CNEWA and its partners were there in times of peace and growth; and responded in times of war and conflict, helping entire communities heal and rebuild. 

This is why we responded quickly and efficiently to the many crises that plague the regions we serve: the 2003 Iraqi invasion followed by civil war and the 2014 rise of the Islamic State’s aggressions;  Israel/Hezbollah conflict of 2006; the Israel/Hamas wars in Gaza in 2008-09, 2014 and 2021; the Syrian civil war since 2011; the Egyptian Arab Spring turbulences of 2011-13; Russia’s military support to pro-Russian militias waging war in eastern Ukraine since 2014; and the Aug. 4 explosion in Beirut, throwing instantaneously more than half of Lebanon’s families into gut-wrenching poverty.

It was in these times of conflict CNEWA engaged and educated the Canadian public on the dynamic cultural, historical and complex relations of faith groups present in these ancient lands.

Last fall, I entered into serious reflections which led me to realize that the time had come for me to move on to new challenges.  It was a difficult decision to say the least as I have been working side by side with a great team in the Ottawa office so committed to the mission to serve brother and sister Christians.  I will miss them greatly!

I will also miss dedicated co-workers from our New York CNEWA office along with regional staff abroad and the many tireless and courageous religious, priests, bishops and lay people that are leading the many Christian institutions that serve populations of all faiths and nationalities.

However, I keep a special place in my heart for the many women, men and children I have met through my travels; people that don’t make the headlines, who live in the shadows, often too afraid to talk, who have lost their dignity and everything they ever had; people who should never have gone through such tragic and unnecessary suffering due to human folly. It is because of them that I made the initial decision to join and support CNEWA.

What I am proud of isn’t only the fact that our Canadian office raised over $50 million in the last 17 years but how, thanks to the generosity of Canadians, we were able to bring the light of Christ into darker places, sharing hope, affirming dignity and helping people start their lives again in peace. Local Christians have served and continue to serve tirelessly, at great risk, to embody the teachings of the Lord and they deserve to be recognized, honoured and assisted.

I am leaving now after 18 years of service and I am humbled and stand in amazement at the accomplishments and charitable zeal of our community of supporters. We have served the poor, marginalized, persecuted and downtrodden. In them, we have seen the captivating effects of courage, resilience, sacrifice, commitment and strong faith. 

These very people have taught me how to be a better Christian and for that I am eternally grateful.

(Hetu is outgoing national director of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.)

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