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A Recipe for Christian Sharing

by Marilyn Raschka

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Over 3,000 of Lebanon’s displaced elderly are regular lunch guests at the Restaurant du Coeur, or Restaurant of the Heart. Today’s dish, at the “Welcome” branch, is called makhlouta, meaning “all mixed together.”

That’s a big order. But for Helene, Zakia, Josephine and Jamila it’s just one of many tasks they need to get done before their 300 guests come for lunch. The guests too have been picked carefully. Their advancing years makes them eligible for the free meal that Hanayneh, Nabbiha and Jallina help the other women prepare.

Most of the elderly are in their 60s and 70s, but a good number have reached their 80s and 90s. A special few have passed the century mark.

But the years they speak of most are the recent ones – the 15 years of civil war from 1975 to 1990. This decade and a half of conflict left them homeless and without a livelihood. Fighting and fear removed them bit by bit from the “earth and stem” of their villages, making them refugees in their own country.

They number in the tens of thousands. Some live with sons and daughters, others with nephews and nieces. The real down-and-out live alone in walk-up apartments with no telephone, irregular electricity and endless water cuts.

As poor as they are the elderly come to the restaurant scrubbed and neatly dressed. Village men wear woolen caps or Arab headdress. Townsmen prefer the now rarely-seen fez. The occasional safari or Western hat suggests a period of time spent abroad. The women wear black dresses, a sign of mourning for a son or daughter, a husband or a brother. Each has lost someone near or dear. But now they are all mixed together, and as they sit together at lunch time the bad times are set aside.

The women volunteers, many of whom have been helping since the program began in 1983, spend four days a week at the restaurant preparing lunch for the displaced elderly. But some of the work, like soaking the chick peas and beans, needs to be done the night before a meal, so they do it at home. Dedication and cooperation are major ingredients in the success of this meal program.

The volunteers themselves are displaced from villages and towns around Beirut. In their bright blue, orange and green checkered aprons and scarves the women lift the lids of the giant pots and stir the contents. No need to announce the menu; the aroma of the home-cooked meal does the trick.

But charity begins long before it becomes home-cooking at the Restaurants du Coeur. The program’s best friend is former president Charles Helou, who has been an active supporter since it began in 1983. His personal contributions have been many, including his commitment to dining regularly with the less fortunate. His sense of humor has worked with his well-off friends.

“I tell them to eat a little less and contribute a little more,” Helou jokes. He compares the spirit of the meal program with ancient Christian tradition: sitting at the same table, sharing the same food, enjoying the fellowship of friends.

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Tags: Lebanon Poor/Poverty Village life Caring for the Elderly