From ONE Magazine

Syria, Shepherds and Sheep

Under a tranquil, cool blue sky, families trudge across Syria’s border with Lebanon, frightened and frantic, desperate to escape the fighting that has riven their country for three years. For many, the border crossing comes as a last resort after several attempts to find a peaceful refuge in their homeland.

A sea of makeshift dwellings covered with plastic — the only protection against the cold, wet winter — sits on a field in the Christian town of Bechouat in the Bekaa Valley. Sumaya Suleiman, a young mother in her 30’s, recently arrived from Talbiseh, Syria. She traveled with her four children and little else; her husband arrived later. “The Syrian army shelled our home,” says Mrs. Suleiman, dressed in the traditional hijab (headscarf) and djellaba (a robe-like overgarment) of Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority. “At first we moved to a cousin’s house in the same village, but his house was destroyed, too.”

Desperate, they moved from Talbiseh to Nabak, finding refuge in the home of a stranger. Finally, from nearby Ara, a man brought her to Arsal, Lebanon, for $300.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 2.2 million people — about half of them children — have been displaced by the war in Syria since it began in March 2011. Though many refugees do not register for fear of reprisal, the latest records suggest some 900,000 Syrians have fled to Lebanon, the smallest of the bordering nations hosting refugees with an estimated population of 4.5 million.

Large rocks anchor tarps to Mrs. Suleiman’s new dwelling, holding the elements at bay. Inside the tiny structure, a gaping hole in one wall exposes the rear room, dominated by a purple couch. Two single beds sit opposite, stacked high with blankets. Mold tints the walls and the floors are dirty and cold.

Just yards from the Suleimans’ temporary home looms a mass of garbage nearly two stories high. The stench from the charred remains of tires permeates the area. Screws, syringes and various scraps of rusted metal lie scattered nearby in the red dirt, some of which may call out to a child in search of a makeshift toy — such as one of her own: Ahmad, 9 years old; Esma, 7, missing her two front teeth; Mustafa, 4; and Adnam, 2.

Mrs. Suleiman has repeatedly pleaded with the municipality to clean up the dump. Rats enter their home after nightfall, and at times the stench becomes unbearable. Still, she says, they ignore her requests. Instead, the municipal authorities often treat the refugees as an embarrassment. Recently, they ordered several families to move because their dwellings were too close to the road — an eyesore for people entering the village, which has been a pilgrimage destination for Lebanon’s Christians for more than a century.

Such indignities, however, remain far preferable to the conditions in Syria. “Two cousins were killed in a bombing,” Mrs. Suleiman recounts. “And a niece and nephew died in an air raid.” Her brother, a university professor, has been in prison for two years.

Her husband, Abdel, is a farmer. Two years ago, the Syrian army burned the land they owned in Talbiseh. Since then, the family has had no reliable source of income. In the Bekaa Valley, he searches for employment as a day laborer, but work in this mainly agricultural region is scarce in the winter months.

Neighbors sometimes help by sharing food, despite limited means. But Mrs. Suleiman has found a consistent source of relief in the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. Even in this setting, she and her family have found love, compassion and basic necessities thanks to Sister Micheline Lattouff.

“There is an ancient saying, ‘The candle that is just smoking, not lighted, still has a life in it, still has hope in it,’” says Sister Micheline. “I have no right to turn it off. I believe that even if a person is in a very bad situation, my mission is to show him the spark and light it.”

She began this journey at the age of 17. While on a high school retreat, she met a Lebanese sister of the Good Shepherd who had lived in Sudan and worked with women prisoners.

“These women were in bad shape — no toilets, no sanitary napkins — losing their dignity with no one to help them,” she says. “I was inspired that these were not nuns who just prayed; they were nuns who helped the poor.

“That is when I decided to become a Good Shepherd sister,” she says. “The mission of the Good Shepherd Sisters is to defend the rights of women, children and families — to help them regain their dignity.”

Sister Micheline is passionate about that mission.

Following four years at the University of the Holy Spirit, near Beirut, Sister Micheline went to Senegal and worked for a year and a half at a community center teaching women to sew and cook. She came to discover another reality in Senegal.

“The Senegalese people opened my eyes to cultural differences.” More importantly, she says, they opened her eyes to the humanity that transcends those differences.

She arrived in the Bekaa Valley in 2004, seven years before the war in Syria began, and soon began teaching in nearby Deir el Ahmar.

“I felt this region needed support, like sheep without a shepherd,” says the 44-year-old sister, citing concerns such as high rates of illiteracy. According a 2009 study by the United Nations Development Program, some 16.8 percent of adults in the Bekaa region cannot read — the highest rate in Lebanon. Many students drop out, drifting away from school to focus on farm work. Worse still, many become embroiled in the drug trade, which thrives in the region due to the cultivation of cannabis crops.

“The children were watering the hashish,” she says. “So, I started thinking: ‘What can I do for the children in this area?’ ”

Wasting no time, the nun sought resources — faculty volunteers, a public space and basic materials — and in late 2005 started an after-school program. It opened for just two hours each afternoon, but those two hours allowed for healthy socializing, study and play. It gave students another choice in how to spend their time, and provided an incentive to stay in school.

But she did not stop there.

In 2006, Sister Micheline asked a charitable organization in Monaco that specializes in education and aid for children in need to help with rent for three years. This paved the way to an important partnership. In 2008, she received $20,000 from the group to buy three-quarters of an acre. A year later, she received more than $200,000 to build a community center. Other charities provided assistance to paint, furnish and equip the center. Before long, a desire to serve the children of the region had grown into a full-fledged institution.

“Every year I felt the hand of God in the program. When I asked for something, I got it,” says Sister Micheline.

These efforts not only made a difference in the community, but also laid important groundwork. In 2012, refugees from Syria began to arrive in the Bekaa Valley en masse, and Sister Micheline and her fellow sisters rushed to lend assistance. Drawing upon every resource at their disposal, they provided food and water, winter clothing and fuel.

More than just material assistance, however, the sisters offered emotional support — visiting with refugee families, spending time with mothers and children, listening with genuine interest and above all sharing something often taken for granted: human presence and compassion. Last but not least, they began using their community center to host classes for Syrian refugee children, some of whom had not attended school since the war began.

Two vans now make five trips a day, picking up and dropping off a total of 240 students ranging from kindergarten to the sixth grade. Sisters and lay teachers from among the Syrian refugees lead classes in Arabic, English, French, geography, history, math, science and social studies, following the Syrian curriculum.

The school has the hallmarks of a Catholic parochial school: order and cleanliness reign. Students sit erect in their seats, eager to participate, and an environment of mutual respect pervades the school.

“They used to come all muddy and dirty,” says Good Shepherd Sister Rita Hadchity, the youngest member of their community at 36 years old. The sisters subsequently began a health and cleanliness campaign to which the students took very well.

“It is a project of God,” says Sister Micheline. “God loves his children and he would not want them to suffer.”

Sister Rita says the United Nations supplies food to their program, hoping it will encourage parents to send children to class instead of to work.

“And that is working,” Sister Rita says.

Moreover, subsequent partnership with CNEWA has even enabled them to expand their program.

Still, from grades four through six, the classes grow noticeably smaller. Some boys at this age must become breadwinners for their families, working in the fields to harvest potatoes, onions and wheat on a full-time basis for a pittance. Girls also take on work, cleaning houses and babysitting.

In Lebanon, some 80 percent of Syrian children are not enrolled in school. According to UNHCR, the number of Syrian school-age children will soon exceed that of Lebanese students.

Sumaya Suleiman says her two eldest children attended school in Syria only three days in September 2013. Then, the school was shelled. Mrs. Suleiman has asked the sisters to enroll them, but for now, the school is overflowing.

Turning people away is heartbreaking, Sister Micheline says. “That is the most difficult part — when I have a lot of refugee people and I have nothing to give them.” Her dream is to build another school to accommodate those she presently cannot.

Mrs. Suleiman remains grateful for the assistance she has received from the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, including a variety of jackets, shoes for the children and many other household essentials. Sister Micheline’s ongoing work shows that even one person can make a difference in the lives of families torn apart by war.

“I feel that day after day all our activities are being guided by God for the success of children. God is always supporting us,” she says.

In the second-grade class, 31 students range in age from 7 to 10. From an earlier lesson, the whiteboard still carries verb conjugations in English: “I am,” “you are,” “he is.” The sisters hand out books and red, yellow or pink plastic backpacks emblazoned with cartoon characters — such as a smiling Dora the Explorer — to every student.

The students are asked to draw pictures of the life they remember in Syria. The drawings are filled with images of blood and guns and bombs — a sad insight into the minds of children scarred by the horrors they have witnessed. A little boy with cropped, jet-black hair and a steel-gray sweater draws three red figures on the left smiling and holding big orange assault rifles. He says these are the rebel soldiers. Across from them stand two red figures firing back. They are Syrian army soldiers, he says. Neither of them is smiling. Above, three blue planes drop bombs on an orange tank. A figure covered in red falls from one of the planes. The wall of a nearby yellow house has been erased and redrawn with jagged edges.

This illustrtion is drawn from Alaa al Lemat’s memory of life in Syria. But life in the Bekaa valley could not be more different; electricity, running water and paved roads are scarce, but violence is rare.

Sister Micheline has few of the resources she needs to meet the overwhelming needs of the growing flood of refugees coming across the border. However, she does not allow herself to be deterred. She has made it her mission to ease their suffering and bring hope.

“The best moment for me is when I see the children happy, successful in their studies and their lives,” Sister Micheline says, “when I see them able to overcome the difficulties and continue to achieve.”

As for the future, Sister Micheline Lattouff does not look too far ahead, believing instead that God wants her to be here.

“I feel like God is holding my hand and leading me. God is talking to me through the events, and telling me how to help solve this.”

Watch an interview with author Diane Handal at this link.

Journalist Diane Handal has worked with the Associated Press and covers events in the Middle East for ONE.