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Reaching the Margins

How the church serves Lebanon’s most vulnerable

by Don Duncan

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When Wadad Bou Dagher-Kharrat saw the flat line on the monitor, her heart dropped. In 2009, she had brought her 18-month-old twins, Angie and Karl, to have their hearing tested. The children had never seemed to turn their heads when she called them by name. And even if the sound was blaring, they would also sleep in front of the television.

Although Mrs. Dagher-Kharrat had searched for benign explanations for these irregularities, she could not argue with the tympanometer's results that day at the hospital — nor with the consultant who then told her that her children were deaf.

After receiving the news, she experienced a feeling she compares to mourning:

“We struggled to believe it, to admit that it was true.”

This difficult period included a faith struggle. Mrs. Dagher-Kharrat began to question God, to reproach him, asking: “Why us?”

For months she and her husband wrestled with this revelation, the internal strife often manifesting as arguments between them. Yet this hardship eventually gave way to an acceptance after which, she says, she has never looked back.

“I finally managed to say to God: ‘Thy will be done.’

“From that moment on, I was in an indescribable faith I had never experienced before. Since that moment, I have never faltered once. It was a radical change.”

Instead of resisting her children’s deafness, Mrs. Dagher-Kharrat embraced it. This led her, and the children, to the Father Roberts Institute for Deaf Children, a specialized school in the village of Sehaileh, some 40 minutes north of Beirut.

On a recent glorious June afternoon, Mrs. Dagher-Kharrat stood in the main lobby of the school, waiting for her twins to finish the day. It was the last day of the term, bringing the academic year to a close. Summer awaited.

Managed by the Basilian Chouerite Sisters of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, the Father Roberts Institute is one of many Christian institutions that form the mainstay of care in Lebanon for those with special needs, such as Angie and Karl; for the aged; and for those with mental illness. The weak Lebanese state has devolved to the point of leaving the provision of such care mostly to the religious sector.

The ethos of care that prevails at the Father Roberts Institute began with one Rev. Ronald Roberts, an English Catholic priest who first came to Lebanon in 1942 as a chaplain in the British army. While there, he noticed a gaping lacuna in the education of children with hearing impairments. He was moved by how society met their condition with stigma and ignorance; deaf children were often kept at home, hidden away and denied the opportunities given to other children.

Father Roberts saw education as the best way to counteract this. When he returned to the country in 1959, he established his school for the deaf, with a key focus on providing help and care for the poorest of the poor.

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