A volunteer gathers supplies in Beirut Aug. 5 to be distributed to people affected by the previous day’s explosions. CNS photo/Aziz Taher, Reuters

Caritas youth leap into action

  • August 12, 2020

Long before the shock of the huge, Aug. 4 explosion in Beirut’s port had worn off, Caritas Lebanon had unleashed a powerful force for good onto the streets of the shattered city — kids. This was the moment for the Catholic organization’s 750 youth volunteers to shine.

The blast killed at least 163 people and made over 300,000 homeless. Some Caritas Lebanon offices had suffered major, structural damage. A few of the staff had suffered minor injuries and had to deal with damage to their own homes. The Caritas mission — “to serve the poor and promote charity and justice” — was now in the hands of high school and university students.

In the immediate aftermath, teenagers and young adults were dispatched to hospitals to help with first aid in and outside the overwhelmed emergency wards. As hours passed the volunteers’ focus shifted to the city around the port.

“The youth are cleaning. Yesterday they cleaned up the roads. So today they are cleaning the houses,” Caritas Lebanon general director Rita Rhayem told The Catholic Register by phone from Beirut on Aug. 7.

Within days of the blast, Caritas’ young Beirut volunteers were being supplemented by young people from other parts of the country.

Whether officially registered with Caritas Lebanon or not, the volunteers just kept appearing, “asking how they can help, joining our youth, volunteering with us, cleaning houses and places without asking what is this village or what is his name,” Rhayem said.

Rhayem is proud that for her young volunteers, need and not confessional, tribal or ethnic loyalties motivated their work.

“This is the true face of Lebanon,” she said. “A face of resilience, a face of strength and a face where everyone is there to support everyone.”

Caritas has also set up two tents near the port to distribute food, water, first aid and trauma counselling. It also deployed its two mobile medical units to back up efforts at area hospitals.

The professional social workers and others on Caritas Lebanon’s staff of 630 are checking up on the Catholic aid agency’s 80,000 direct beneficiaries.

“Now we’re having home-to-home visits,” Rhayem said.

While the streets of the city re-ignite with protest and revolution — a movement that had been frozen by COVID-19 and months of lockdown — Rhayem and her agency are focused on the people who won’t be seen on international news broadcasts protesting.

“The people we’re serving are the wounded, are the hurt, are those who are mourning their friends and neighbours,” said Rhayem.

Even as Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab “steps back” from his role in government so he can stand with the people “and fight the battle for change alongside them,” Lebanon’s huge, impoverished and excluded refugee population has other things on its mind, said Jesuit Refugee Service regional director Fr. Dan Corrou.

Three of the thousands of refugees who access JRS services in education, psycho-social counselling, food aid and more died in the blast.

“These were Syrian men who just were getting whatever work they could,” Corrou said from Beirut.

“The neighbourhood where they lived and where we as the Jesuit Refugee Service are based, Bourj Hammoud, is not far from and an easy walk to the port area. And so the number of deaths in that community is also very high — traditionally a very poor neighbourhood in Beirut.”

Most Syrian and Iraqi refugees in Lebanon have no official status in a country that never signed any of the international conventions on refugees. Waves of refugees, from Palstinians who came in 1948 to Kurds and Syrians fleeing the latest Turkish and Russian-backed military campaigns, constitute a fifth of the population inside Lebanon. But they can’t officially work or access public services. That leaves them dependent on international aid and day labour to survive. The port is one of a diminishing number of places where a Syrian with a strong back could earn a day’s wage. 

Talk of overthrowing a corrupt system in Lebanon has a different resonance among Syrian refugees, who lived through their own attempted revolution in 2013.

“A lot of the reason they left and came to Lebanon is because there was social, political and economic instability. So there is fear of what could happen here,” Corrou said. “It didn’t end up going well for them (in Syria). It led to more war. It led to more conflict.”

The JRS lost its school and social centre in Bourj Hammoud. Even though for months teachers in the Jesuit school for refugees have been delivering lessons over WhatsApp, just as social workers have been convening discussion groups and performing individual counselling by way of the popular phone app, Corrou believes it’s absolutely essential to rebuild the school as quickly as possible.

“The work of the Church, the work of God, it has to happen in reality. Reality has space and time,” he said. “If we don’t have a place for that, then it’s all good wishes and all the prayers alone.”

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