Pillars of Lebanon

Catholic Schools Buttress a Diverse Nation

by Spencer Osberg with photographs by Sarah Hunter

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“We give a Christian education to whomever attends our school,” said Antonine Sister Dominique Halaby of the school she runs in Ghazir, a small town nestled among the coastal hills just north of Beirut.

“We inculcate all our students with values. You are a good Christian or Muslim,” she continued, “when you tell the truth, when you are honest, when you serve humanity.”

A coeducational institution, the Antonine Sisters School offers classes from preschool through high school. Unlike other schools in the region, teachers instruct equally in Arabic, English and French. But once students enter high school, the medium shifts to Arabic and English.

Among the school’s 206 teachers, seven are religious sisters. The Catholic nature of the Catholic school, explained Sister Dominique, is not about religious identity, but has more to do with the approach to education. In short, the sisters develop the school’s vision and general teaching methods while working with the staff to implement them.

Lebanese public schools have a reputation for stressing the traditional rote method, which favors repetition and memorization. In contrast, the preferred teaching method in Catholic schools, said Sister Dominique, places the student at the center of the learning process.

“The student is an actor. He discovers instead of receives. He does research instead of learning by heart and memorizing.”

The Antonine Sisters opened their school in Ghazir in 1981 to a small group of preschoolers, who, trailblazing through the curriculum, matured into the first high school graduating class of 10 in 1994. The school has grown steadily ever since. By 2007, its high school graduating class numbered 134. With a current enrollment of 2,310 students, Sister Dominique says the school has reached its capacity and now has an extensive waiting list.

What makes the school’s success truly remarkable is that it was established during Lebanon’s bloody civil war, which ended in 1990 after 15 years of internecine strife and mass internal displacement.

“We were constructing the most beautiful school, under bombs,” Sister Dominique recalled.

The school fast became a beacon of hope and a reason to hold on for war-weary families fleeing violence or considering emigrating. Many displaced Christian families from throughout Lebanon found refuge in Ghazir and the then rural surrounding district of Kesrwan. But, she said, many of these families “stayed because of the school.”

The school also inspired families from the diaspora to return to their country.

“I know medical doctors, architects, lawyers who, when they visited the school’s construction site, said: ‘If we are coming back, then we are coming back because we are finding people believing in Lebanon as you.’

“This was a resistance of another kind,” she added, “a resistance to stay in your country.”

Throughout the civil war, Lebanon’s Catholic schools had been at the heart of this resistance, not only to remain in Lebanon, but to uphold the ideal of a diverse nation, to nurture Christian-Muslim relations and the shared values of education and tolerance.

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Tags: Lebanon Education Muslim Christian-Muslim relations Emigration