Angels on Wheels

by Regina J. Clarkin
photos: CNEWA files

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To many people a car is not a necessity, but to the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul in Lebanon and those they serve, often it is a matter of life and death. Sometimes traveling more than 100 miles a day in their 15-year-old automobile, the Sisters arrange medical care for the residents of Karm-Zeitoun quarter in Beriut.

The children of the families living in the crowded quarter suffer when the car does not work. The majority of these children are handicapped and need rides to technical schools and clinics for therapy.

Francoise who is 16 is suffering from polio and scoliosis. To treat these conditions doctors operated on her spine. When her spine became infected Francoise had to spend more time in hospitals. In spite of all this, she attends a technical school.

To Jocelyne’s family the Sisters and their car is vital. Jocelyne, who has “glass-man” disease (bones that break) is one of five children, three of whom are crippled. After several successful operations she is walking with crutches. Jocelyne’s mother had a nervous breakdown and her father has heart trouble. The Sisters provide transportation back and forth to the hospital for Jocelyne and her family.

After 15 years of wear and tear it was impossible to drive the car more than a few 100 kilometers before it needed repairs. Through the generosity of contributors to the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, the Sisters purchased a new car.

In addition to taking children back and forth to school and hospitals the Sisters travel through the country in search of documents. In Lebanon, civil status is required before a child can enroll in school. Civil status is also needed for admittance to a private hospital. The procedure for obtaining this status is long and complicated. It involves securing documents and attending hearings. If the documents are lost or destroyed, it is necessary to travel to the town where the family originated and have records verified. These are all time and fuel consuming tasks.

Most of the families who have migrated to the quarter are uneducated and very poor. They left their homes in the countryside because of the Israeli bombings, Palestinian vexation or the lure of a job in town. Living in attics and basements, usually with no ventilation or toilet facilities, many can’t cope with everyday life. The Sisters, when they aren’t on the road traveling, try to ease some of the daily tensions for the families. By explaining complicated regulations regarding admittance to schools and hospitals, they provide a calm presence among the chaos.

The story of six-year-old Pierre is one example of how the Sisters straightened out a trying situation. Pierre’s father was killed and his mother was overwhelmed with responsibility for raising a family. The Sisters intervened and after discussing it with Pierre’s mother, placed him in an orphanage. His mother now visits him regularly.

Since the majority of the families living in the quarter are unemployed or are daily workmen they are not eligible for health benefits. Government hospitals are available free of charge but they lack special equipment. A person such as Jean, 21, could not be helped in a government hospital because he has polio and scoliosis. Paralyzed in both legs, he needs special treatment.

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