Lebanon’s Own Shangri-la

text and photos by Marilyn Raschka

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Is it possible that Shangri-la has a twin in Lebanon? Can the sages that walk its paths be simple widows and widowers who were once poor and lonely?

Hidden from anxieties that continue to torment Lebanon even now in its postwar years, the Foyer des Têtes Blanches – the home of those with white hair – offers a haven for the elderly.

This Shangri-la was built by a woman whose ideal is simple, “If I think I deserve first class, then so do others.” Agnes Semaan says this with a smile underlined with determination.

In a country where homes for the elderly are few, often substandard or so expensive that only the rich can reside in them, this foyer, or home, is remarkable – it would be so in any western country.

The smell of lunch may be inviting, but long before you break bread the sight of fresh flowers catches your interest. Mrs. Semaan’s philosophy is capsulized in the foyer’s motto, “the flower before the bread.” Life, especially for the elderly, should be more than food and lodging. They should have dignity, respect and joie de vivre, the joy of living.

Involvement is another ingredient in the success of the foyer. The residents make the menu themselves. They poll one another for suggestions, their likes and dislikes. Some help tend the flower gardens. Many do their personal laundry. All enjoy being active and helpful.

The foyer strives to avoid that institutional look. The kitchen could be yours at home. Even the wash machines are house rather than industrial size.

No plastic is another guideline.

“True, cups get broken,” Mrs. Semaan says pointing to a pretty coffee mug on a resident’s bedside table. “But it’s better than using plastic.”

“If pots weren’t broken, who would give work to the potter?” says the Arabic proverb.

At the foyer there is work and fun for everyone who wants to join – old age has no frontiers. Even the breathtaking view of the valley, river and woods agree.

Listen carefully and you can hear the snow-fed river roar. The simple village church raises its belfry as if it were a hand asking that humanity’s work be added to the Creator’s.

Credit cards are not accepted – nor needed. The foyer’s guests live here free of charge. Only the poor and lonely should apply.

After more than 15 years of civil war, there were many poor and lonely in Lebanon. In 1976, just after the conflict began, Mrs. Semaan and her committee of supporters were among the first to see that as the Lebanese became refugees in their own land, international and local organizations rushed in to help the orphaned, the widowed and the handicapped. The elderly were ignored. Mrs. Semaan tells how she heard the same response time and time again when she sought assistance. “Oh, the aged. Life is over for them anyway.”

Many of Lebanon’s existing institutions for the elderly provide only basic care. Thus the elderly live out their days in numbness, solitude and moral distress.

Mrs. Semaan pledged she would create a warm and personal home for these people, a place where the elderly were heard, attended to and supported in their time of suffering, fear and in those moments of hope.

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Tags: Lebanon Caring for the Elderly Homes/housing