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Look Homeward
by Dorothy Humanitzki

12 May 2004 – “You can take a man out of his village, but you cannot take the village out of the man” applies to James Alwan of Peoria. But we are not talking about Peoria. It is Aitou, in northern Lebanon. When Mr. Alwan left his native land more than 50 years ago, he vowed to never forget his homeland and to return whenever possible.

He made good on his promise and has visited there often. Along the way, he has become a generous supporter of its Catholic school, the Rif School. When he was a student there in the 1930’s and 40’s, there was one teacher for all the students. Today 16 teachers educate some 100 students. When he visited the school several years ago, Mr. Alwan was impressed with the polite and carefree children and the well-maintained building.

“There is nothing like a face-to-face meeting with the children,” he said. “You can tell a great deal about the school by observing the kids, whether they’re happy,” he added.

Fighting and internal strife have taken their toll in Lebanon, leaving the country economically depressed. Jobs are scarce and parents have difficulty providing their children with the necessities. There is little money left for tuition at a private school. The obvious answer for Mr. Alwan was to take on the task of spreading the news about the Rif. He has in fact unofficially adopted the school, enlisting the Lebanese community in Peoria to help fund it.

His friends are eager to help, pointing out that a dollar goes farther in Lebanon than it does in the United States. A small contribution easily pays a year’s tuition for a student. Mr. Alwan funnels his funds to the Rif through Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), a papal agency that supports the churches and peoples of the Middle East, Northeast Africa, India and Eastern Europe.

Mr. Alwan also fears for the minority Christian population in a predominantly Muslim country. He is dismayed that large numbers of Christians are immigrating to Europe, the Americas and Australia. More troublesome, he said, as the Christians leave, the Muslims are buying their property. The remaining Christians would like to hold on to the land.

Education is, of course, the answer, Mr. Alwan continued. He reported that some of the students who attended the Rif School came to the United States for their higher education. After receiving advanced degrees, he said, they accepted jobs at leading American companies, turning their backs on Lebanon, although they had families there. Mr. Alwan and his fellow émigrés in Peoria would like to see a reversal of this trend, with the young, educated Lebanese returning to their homeland and establishing a strong Christian presence.

Mr. Alwan is a Maronite Catholic but attends St. Jude Roman Catholic Church in Peoria. His wife, Lauric, died of cancer in late 2003. They have a grown daughter, Ramza, who is a graphics designer. He retired from the grocery business in 1988 and has since devoted his efforts to supporting Lebanese charities, notably the Rif School. Mr. Alwan mentioned that his mother also gave financial assistance to the school while she was alive.

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