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A Light of Hope for Lebanon’s Addicts

Born in the shadow of a healing saint one center rehabilitates body and soul

by Marilyn Raschka with photographs by Sarah Hunter

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Life without drugs is hard. But it is satisfying,” said Amal, a young woman recovering from a serious addiction to illegal drugs. In large part, she owes her new lease on life to the Oum el Nour (“Mother of Light”) Rehabilitation and Drug Prevention Center in Beirut.

Amal’s story contains all the telltale signs of a youngster disposed to substance abuse. She began drinking alcohol at the early age of 13. Since her parents drank heavily, they ignored her behavior. Her schooling was interrupted for a long period as well. The family moved overseas, where her parents enrolled her in a local school. Amal struggled to fit in, adapt and learn the language.

But it was when the family returned to Lebanon that Amal found relief in narcotics. At school, she felt misunderstood and excluded, describing herself as “fat” and “nerdy.” She soon fell in with a group of teenagers, peers whom she described as “outcasts like her,” and together they drank. By her junior year, Amal and her friends were smoking hashish. When she got to college, she started taking pills and using heroin.

Ignoring warnings from close friends, Amal continued using heroin and developed an addiction. Her drug habit quickly took over her life. She borrowed money from friends and never repaid them. She convinced her mother to give her money to see a psychiatrist, but purchased heroin instead. She stole from her parents and even her grandmother. Eventually, she experienced a narcotic-related nervous breakdown. One friend stood by her and contacted her parents, who were overseas at the time.

Amal’s mother finally convinced her to enter the Oum el Nour center. But she refused to participate in its treatment activities, leaving after only a month. Within a few months, she returned to using heroin. This time, her parents committed her to Deir el Saliib (Convent of the Cross), a respected psychiatric facility of the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross in Beirut that operates a drug detoxification program.

Amal’s four-month stay served as a wake-up call.

“I realized I had to get out of my problems. I had to do something with my life or I’d be spending the rest of it in Deir el Saliib,” said Amal.

She returned to Oum el Nour and began rebuilding her life. A year and eight months later, Amal graduated from Oum el Nour clean, confident and excited about life.

Regarded as one of Lebanon’s most successful rehabilitation centers for substance abusers, Oum el Nour began in a tent 20 years ago.

In 1989, a group of five friends, including Father Guy-Paul Noujaim, then a young priest, rallied around another friend with a serious drug problem. To prevent him from succumbing to his need for a fix, they pitched a tent near St. Maron’s monastery, which houses the tomb of St. Sharbel, Lebanon’s healing saint. For two months the five friends took turns around the clock caring for and watching over their friend until he finally overcame the withdrawal symptoms.

Word of mouth spread quickly about the group’s success in breaking their friend’s addiction. They began to receive requests from people for the same treatment either for themselves or on behalf of loved ones. First, the requests came from friends, then friends of friends and soon enough, people they did not know at all.

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Tags: Lebanon Employment Socioreligious programs Alcoholism Substance Abuse