Khaled and Mariam pose during a Jan. 7 visit to the newly opened Catholic-run clinic in Beirut for a checkup for their two-month-old son, Mohammad. The family is homeless. The clinic serves the poor and needy in response to Lebanon’s severe economic crisis. Some 20 doctors have committed to serve on a rotating basis, giving their time for free. CNS photo/Doreen Abi Raad

Lebanese rely on Catholic health clinic amid economic crisis

By  Doreen Abi Raad, Catholic News Service
  • February 1, 2020

BEIRUT -- In a clinic adjoining a Catholic church, Samira Roncaglia cheerfully welcomed the young couple with their newborn, guiding them to the pediatrician.

“I’m here for everyone, with all my heart,” Roncaglia told Catholic News Service as she patiently answered a constantly ringing phone.

Staffers fielded hundreds of calls in the opening days of the Catholic-run health clinic, a testimony to the needs of Lebanese who are struggling amid the country’s severe economic crisis.

The World Bank has warned Lebanon’s poverty rate could hit 50 per cent if economic conditions worsen. Unemployment exceeds 30 per cent and, since the people’s massive uprising beginning in October against a corrupt government, more jobs have been cut, salaries slashed, the local currency has devalued and banks have imposed withdrawal limits of a maximum of $300 a week as the country descends further into collapse.

“People are getting poorer and poorer, even from the middle class,” said Jesuit Fr. Gabriel Khairallah.

“It’s the duty of the Church to serve poor people and people in need, to be in solidarity with them. These people are our masters.”

The pristine clinic adjoins St. Joseph Church in a building that dates to 1875, when Jesuit-run St. Joseph University was founded. An image of the Shroud of Turin and a depiction of the Good Samaritan hang on the wall near the reception desk.

While the Catholic Youth Center previously ran a clinic at the site with a single doctor, it suspended operation years ago. Khairallah and Roger Khairallah (not related), in their roles as director and co-director of the centre respectively, sought to revive the clinic in response to Lebanon’s worsening economic situation.

Roger Khairallah contacted a doctor friend at Hotel Dieu, the hospital affiliated with St. Joseph University.

“It so happened there was a group of doctors looking for a clinic to serve the needy as a way of helping our suffering country, and we were looking for doctors. They responded so quickly. It’s like a miracle,” said Roger Khairallah.

Within a month, the clinic was ready. Offering a range of specialties — including cardiology, pediatrics, endocrinology, orthopedics and gynecology — some 20 doctors have committed to serve for free on a rotating basis.

“The need is there, the doctors are here, and we are trying to provide the best possible care,” Roger Khairallah said.

The clinic serves all, regardless of religion.

Before examining two-month-old Mohammad for a checkup, Dr. Rania Bassil, a pediatrician and pediatric cardiologist, listened with concern to his young parents, identified only as Mariam and Khaled. The family is homeless. Due to a drop in business, Khaled was let go from his job as a hotel security guard just a few days after his son was born. With the loss of income, the couple could not pay the rent on their small apartment.

“We were so comfortable. We were happy,” Mariam told CNS.

For now, they are living in the home of a woman they know, but that arrangement cannot continue. All other possibilities of staying with friends have been exhausted.

The couple’s families were not willing to offer any help nor welcome them into their homes. While mixed marriages are common in Lebanon, their families have rejected their Sunni Muslim-Druze union.

“I want to be a good mother for my son,” Mariam said. “I hope he lives a life not like this life. I hope when he grows up he won’t hate me because of how he’s living,” she said of their uncertain future.

The parents were relieved that Mohammad, almost 14 pounds, was in good health. Still, they worry.

“He’s healthy now, but I’m afraid he’ll get sick in the cold,” Mariam said as she kissed her baby, wrapped in a fleecy blanket.

“They are so good to us,” Mariam said of the clinic. “You feel so peaceful here.”

In her consultations with patients at the clinic, Bassil puts a strong focus on listening.

“Sometimes people just need to cry. They must know that we are here for them and that we are trying to help them as much as possible.”

Bassil, who considers herself an activist and is well-connected among various nongovernmental organizations and social movements, sent an alert to her contacts, requesting assistance for the homeless family, particularly seeking a job for Khaled and a place to live.

“There are always solutions. It’s not acceptable for people to feel they are all alone,” she said.

Bearing the consequences of a corrupt government, and awaiting initiatives of the new government formed Jan. 21 after a three-month vacuum, the Lebanese people are mobilizing in solidarity.

“We are doing as much as we can, with a lot of networks to help each other,” Bassil said.

To address the mounting anguish, the clinic plans to have a psychologist and psychiatrist on board for mental health services.

“There is a deep need for this. People are depressed. We are hearing more and more about people committing suicide,” Bassil said.

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