Lebanese Church pioneers integration amid mounting native/refugee divide

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Inés San Martín
Saint Rita School, which today has an estimated 280 students, all Christian. Some 180 are Lebanese children, while the rest are Syrian refugees. (Credit: Inés San Martín/Crux.)
Faced with a stunning influx of 1.5 million Syrian refugees in a country whose population was only a little over four million to begin with, Lebanon is struggling to avoid fracturing along native/refugee lines. In the campaign to promote integration between the two groups, few social forces are as active as the Catholic Church, as both a school and a free meal service in the city of Zahle illustrate.

ZAHLÉ, Lebanon – Faced with perhaps the world’s single most dramatic refugee crisis in terms of percentage of population, the towering issue in tiny Lebanon today is how to avoid becoming a society being fatally divided between an increasingly resentful native population and a rapidly swelling cohort of Syrian refugees, now believed to be a third or more of the country.

What the situation would seem to require is a creative and relentless effort to promote coexistence and integration. In that area, no force in the country has been a greater pioneer than the Catholic Church.

Two different projects in the central Lebanese city of Zahlé – neither of which, on the surface, has anything directly to do with the refugee crisis – illustrate how the Catholic Church here is missing no opportunity to bring Lebanese and Syrians together.

One of those projects is the Saint Rita School, which today has an estimated 280 students, all Christian. Some 180 are Lebanese children, while the rest are Syrian refugees, to whom the local Greek Melkite Archdiocese gives a full scholarship to guarantee that they can attend. The archdiocese pays an average of $2,000 a year per student.

(While other private Catholic schools in Lebanon are open to all students, Muslim and Christian alike, this is an archdiocesan school specifically for the Christian population.)

A special program for refugee students began last year, and according to Zeina Ammoury, director of the institution, it’s been challenging. The Syrian students, she told Crux on Tuesday, have not been “consistent in their education.”

However, she said, given that the students arrived in Lebanon fleeing war, and that the majority of the refugees see the country as a “safe zone” of sorts until they either migrate to a Western country or peace in Syria is achieved and they can return home, that inconsistency is understandable.

To try to address the unique needs of refugee students, the school created a new curriculum, aimed at helping them integrate with their classmates.

“The most important thing is to guarantee that they’ll be educated, so they don’t have to flee to Western countries,” Ammoury said. She was referring not only to national stability, but the importance of maintaining the Christian presence in the Middle East.

Ammoury explained that because foreign aid is primarily distributed through refugee camps, where Christians refuse to live for fear of being further exposed to Islamic extremism, Christian refugee children have no means of support beyond the Church. Many Christians, she said, harbor the same fear about sending their children to public schools.

The Syrian refugee children have social, psychological and financial hardships, which reflect on their academic results, Ammoury said.

“We’ve heard so many stories of how they got here … the hardships they went through,” she said. “Many today behave as though they’re still at war. The games they play are violent, aggressive. They sometimes hit each other, pretend to have guns. At the beginning, they’d refuse to take part in games such as dancing, because they wanted action, to play war.”

According to Ammoury, from last year to this, the change in the refugees who attend the school is visible, particularly among the older children, for whom the war is not a story their parents tell, but a memory forever ingrained in their psyches. To try to mitigate the impact, the school offers psychological support and each of the children is treated individually, she said, because each case is unique.

Ammoury has been a teacher for over 30 years, and has been headmistress of the Santa Rita School for the past six years. Opening the program for Syrian refugees in the school has been a challenge, but one she took in stride.

“I lived in very hard conditions myself, during the Lebanese civil war,” she said. “I’d leave my house and see people dying right next to me. I wanted to help these children so they wouldn’t have to experience what I went through.

“I understand their parents too, when they talk to me about their hardship, share their suffering. Back in 1975, that was my suffering,” Ammoury said.

It’s unclear where the Syrian students will be a year from now. She estimates that some 90 percent of their parents are currently waiting in Lebanon for the situation in their home country to stabilize, so they can go back.

“People see that those who left for Western countries are not in heaven, so most don’t want to travel anymore,” she said. Originally, Lebanon was a pass-through country for refugees, until they could go to the West. Today, however, the country is a waiting spot until they can return home.

The second project is the St. John the Merciful Table, a soup kitchen that gives out 1,000 hot meals a day to both Syrian refugees and Lebanese who can’t afford their own food.

The project, organizers explained, is a visible result of Pope Francis’s 2015 Holy Year of Mercy, since the eatery in downtown Zahlé opened in December of that year. Sana Samia, managing director of the Greek Melkite Catholic Archdiocese of Zahlé, told Crux that without this project, the people eating here “would be starving to death.”

Of those benefiting from the soup kitchen, which locals refer to as a restaurant, 70 percent are refugees. However, it provides an opportunity for Syrians and Lebanese to socialize and interact with each other, something the Greek Melkite Catholic Church focused on promoting when the first waves of refugees began to arrive, six years ago.

At the beginning, Samia said, the Lebanese rejected the newcomers, a leftover resentment from the Syrian invasion which went on until 2005. Back in 2011, she said, there were signs in the streets saying that Syrians weren’t welcome, and local shops offering jobs said the equivalent of “no Syrians need apply.”

Hence the initiative has a three-fold scope: providing a healthy, nutritious diet to those who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it, be a place of socialization, and also of spiritual attention, with a deacon always at hand.

The soup kitchen today has three-full time employees, all of them Syrians, and a rotation of volunteers that help feed not only those who arrive in the restaurant, but also the children at the Saint Rita School.

Both projects, Samia insists through her conversation with Crux, would not be possible without the financial assistance of the international papal foundation Aid to the Church in Need. The restaurant alone means a daily expense of $900, money the diocese doesn’t have.

Beyond providing a response to the most urgent needs the Syrian refugees in Lebanon have today and trying to hold an over-burdened and fraying society together, there’s a still deeper motive for both the school and the free meals: The survival of Christianity in the Middle East and convincing Syrians and Lebanese alike that someone cares, and a future here is still possible.

Lebanese Church pioneers integration amid mounting native/refugee divide