Lebanese parish prepares young Iraqi refugees for first Communion

By Doreen Abi Raad /Catholic News Service
BEIRUT, Lebanon (CNS) — Last September, Sondrine and Raymond Khamo lived with their parents in a two-floor house in Mosul, Iraq. Their uncle had been shot in the head when he was driving, and their mother, Haifa Khamo, was afraid to let her children go outside.

Today, the family of four lives in a one-room dwelling in Beirut. The children’s father, Basel, an accountant, recently found work as a stocker in a supermarket. There’s not much left from his $200 monthly salary after he pays the $100 rent.

Yet in Lebanon the family is able to practice their Chaldean Catholic faith. Sondrine, 12, and Raymond, 11, were to make their first Communion May 10 at St. Raphael the Archangel Chaldean Cathedral in a Beirut suburb.

Of the 38 children preparing for their first Communion at St. Raphael’s this year, 24 are Iraqi refugees, ranging in age from 11 to 13.

Immaculate Conception Sisters Rahma Talo and Veronica Daoud have been instructing the children every Saturday since October.

Most Iraqi refugee families in Lebanon live in remote parts of Beirut. With meager incomes — if they have work at all — families cannot afford transportation to St. Raphael’s, so the parish bus transports the children to and from their first Communion preparation classes each week.

Chaldean Bishop Michel Kassarji of Beirut will concelebrate the first Communion Mass with Father Joseph Malkoun, a Maronite Catholic priest who specifically asked to work with Iraqi refugees in Lebanon because there is a shortage of Chaldean priests.

“It is very painful for me to see all these people almost handicapped emotionally, spiritually, even intellectually,” Father Malkoun said of the Iraqi refugees. “They would not be like this if they had lived a normal life.”

Father Malkoun notices, for example, that many of the refugee children are aggressive.

“Look what the stress and all the violence they lived … look what has been done to them,” said Father Malkoun.

“The circumstances in which these children are living, it reflects on them. When you are violated, you are full of violence,” he said. “Their human rights were taken from them. They have the right to live as human beings.”

Aside from the atrocities experienced in their war-torn homeland and an impoverished existence as refugees, many Iraqi children in Lebanon, some as young as 10 years old, need to work to help support their families.

Three Iraqi children preparing for their first Communion at St. Raphael’s have full-time jobs and do not go to school.

One of them is 13-year-old Fadi, who works for a private water distribution company so that his younger brother can go to school. Fadi’s ride in the water truck between deliveries is the easy part of his day. When the truck stops, he must clamber up stairwells to apartment rooftops, dragging a heavy hose like a young firefighter, to fill up empty water cisterns. The job will become even more exhausting in the summer when Beirut temperatures reach 100 degrees.

“The role of parents is crucial” in preparing any child for their first Communion, said Father Malkoun. But with the Iraqi children, the priest noticed that their parents are not able to be as involved as they should because of the stress and anxiety they face.

“We see the children for a few hours on Saturday afternoon, but then we don’t see them for the rest of the week,” said Sister Rahma, who came to Lebanon from Iraq five years ago. “That’s why when I do meet their parents, I encourage them to show an interest in what their children are learning and ask them to look over the (instructional) material they receive from the church.

“The previous years I had more time and I used to visit the children and their families at least a couple times a week. I’d listen to their problems and talk to them, and I felt this brought the children closer to God through me,” Sister Rahma explained.

Meanwhile, Father Malkoun said he’s witnessed how “the Iraqi families have little opportunity to communicate and assimilate with the Lebanese community. They are very isolated.”

The priest, who also organized a Boy Scout troop — half Lebanese and half Iraqi — said the first Communion preparation at St. Raphael’s gives the Iraqi children an opportunity “to come out from this cocoon they’re living in, to develop their energy and to interact with other Lebanese children.”

“And it’s a rich experience for the Lebanese children to experience another culture, and especially for Lebanese children who come from wealthy families, to meet other children who do not have the same chance in life, to play with them, to live in common with them,” said Father Malkoun.

The outlook for Iraq’s Christians continues to be bleak.

“We even receive phone calls from families there who don’t want to stay and wish to come to Lebanon,” said retired Gen. Michel Kasdano, who volunteers full time at St. Raphael’s to help refugees.

St. Raphael’s is able to distribute food parcels to some 500 Iraqi refugee families each month, but more refugees are arriving in Lebanon, and the cost of food continues to rise.

None of the refugees see returning to Iraq as a possibility, said Kasdano. He added that the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees’ process for resettlement, expected to take one to two years, is becoming slower.

“Those who are rejected by the UNHCR are depressed and have no hope. It’s like the end of the world for them,” Kasdano said.

“It seems they are stuck here,” at least until another country decides to accept them, he said.