A Sister Act Hard to Follow

text and photos by Marilyn Raschka

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It is only a five-minute walk from home to church for the Dbayeh. But for some reason it always takes longer.

“Sister, Sister,” someone calls out in French. The greeting may be just a word of welcome, accompanied by a bunch of onions, a head of lettuce or a piece of fish. Or it may be more serious.

Seventy-eight-year-old Bassema cannot see very well, but she always catches sight of Sister Annie. She doubles over to roll down her stockings and show the nun her bumps and bruises. The sister’s sympathy and understanding are as welcomed as the medication she carries in her bag.

A widow, Bassema is one of the older residents of Dbayeh, a refugee camp that lies in the hills eight miles north of Beirut. This collection of crammed homes once housed a population of more than 7,000 Christian Palestinians – refugees who fled their homes in Palestine after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

Now the Palestinians number about 1,300, a minority among the 4,000 Lebanese Christians who sought refuge there when war broke out in Lebanon in 1975.

Since 1987, four Little Sisters of Nazareth have made their home in Dbayeh. Sisters Annie, Christine and Magda are from Belgium. Sister Laure is a native of Lebanon.

Their flower-filled garden and inviting home welcome the visitor; they are a healthy contrast to the bleakness of the camp. Why such care for the greenery?

“Because poverty is black,” the sisters say.

Their day often begins before the previous day ends. The little bell on a string hung by the front door jingles day and night. A woman, worried about her old ailing mother, pulls the string. The camp doctor did not show up today. Could one of the nuns take the mother’s blood pressure?

“This is how it goes here,” Sister Christine says as she hurriedly stuffs a blood pressure instrument into her bag.

Neither the sisters nor most of the camp residents are afraid of opening their doors after dark. Memories of 15 years of armed men sneaking through the camp have all but faded. But for the Palestinians in the camp, fears that began long before Lebanon’s civil war continue.

“How long are we going to stay like this?” asks a frustrated young shopkeeper whose book and toy shop is deceptively well stocked. The merchandise is coated with dust; evidently sales are slow. Suffice to say, he is a third generation refugee.

Despair is as much a resident of the camp as people. It vents itself in ugly ways. Men drink, gamble and squander money that should be used to feed their hungry families.

“Notice how many children are in the camp today instead of in school,” one of the sisters points out on a weekday afternoon.

Since the destruction of the camp’s school early in the war, the children are bused to other areas. But the cost and trouble of sending the children has led to parent-supported truancy. Children lucky enough to attend school return home to mothers who are too busy to help with homework, or who cannot help because they are illiterate.

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Tags: Lebanon Sisters Poor/Poverty Refugee Camps Funding