Jocelyne and her sisters’ daily challenge to combat the cold, hunger and disease
In the mountains of Lebanon, in the quiet village of Fatka, thirty kilometers north of Beirut, a community of nuns struggles to survive and to provide food and care for elderly women, sick children, and families in poverty. It is a daily challenge to combat the hunger, cold and disease, fought in a Country that is devastated by poverty, plundered by rapacious politics, weakened by emigration, and where young people dream of escaping and speculators get rich on the black market. The religious of the Congregation of the Maronite Sisters of the Holy Family challenge and combat it with the anxiety of not being able to make it. As the intrepid and restless Sister Jocelyne Chahwane pronounces, “We don’t know if we’ll make it to the end of winter.” The Notre-Dame du Mont Center is a large white building, surmounted by a cross, which looks down on the splendor of the Mediterranean. Sister Jocelyne directs the guesthouse, which was once the financial heart of the community and of the congregation itself. A mighty structure with 100 rooms, capable of accommodating 275 people. There is also a restaurant and a theater with hundreds of seats that hosts spiritual retreats, conventions, conferences, and seminars. The Centre was tasked with supporting the rest home for the elderly religious from the generated income.
Today, however, the Country of the Cedars, the Lebanon that - in the memory of the refined intellect of Lebanese Amin Malouf, who has lived for years in France – “has often been defined as the Switzerland of the Near East” is on the brink of the abyss. “Economic crisis and pandemic have kept tourists away. Foreigners, nobody comes anymore. We are in immense isolation”, explains Sister Jocelyne. In the meantime, the rest home has decided to take in elderly women from the surrounding area, and houses 70 religious and laywomen there, cared for by 30 employees, who are “women too: mothers, divorced spouses, with problems. We have to feed them all every day, which is a challenge”.
Sister Jocelyne is 49 years old; she was consecrated 21 years ago. A Lebanese, born in Beirut, who during a spiritual retreat when she was 28 years old and working as a manager in a large pharmaceutical company, SmithKline Beecham, found herself confronted with a great inner crisis. It was the year 2000, and her company was about to merge with another pharmaceutical giant, Glaxo. “I was reminded of the pages in the Bible, of Jesus’ encounter with the rich man, who wanted to follow him. When Jesus tells him, sell everything you have, give it to the poor and come with me, the rich man becomes sad. Then, he gives up. That sadness touched me. I felt that I was called to serve. After eight months I said my big YES to Christ”.
In Beirut, at the headquarters of the Holy Family congregation, Sister Jocelyne is in charge of information technology. For the past five years, she has added to that position the mission of managing the Notre-Dame du Mont guesthouse. At that time, she had a staff member to help her; today she is on her own. “Professionals are leaving the Country. They want a secure future for their children, they need money to live. Therefore, they flee. At the Center, there are just seven people left, amongst which there is the operation manager, the social media manager, the kitchen chef. Some left for Europe, and are today living in France, others headed to Egypt, and to Saudi Arabia”. The entire Notre-Dame du Mont Center relies on the strength of four nuns: the superior, Sister Jocelyne, and two other religious, who work as nurses. In a light voice, Sister Jocelyne recounts a tragedy, by lining up the dates: the uprising on October 17, 2019, when popular anger against political corruption was unleashed and the streets were filled with an angry mob. This was followed by the catastrophe that occurred August 4, 2020, when 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, which had been stored for years in a huge warehouse, exploded in the port of Beirut. The explosion caused 217 deaths, more than 7,000 people injured and 300,000 others were displaced. Then the breakout of covid-19.
The effect is an economic and social crisis that the World Bank has called the worst in the country's 150-year history. Two-thirds of the population live below the poverty line, inflation is at 90 percent, and the middle class has been wiped out. The exchange rate between the Lebanese lira and the dollar has skyrocketed: in 2019, a dollar was worth 1,500 lira; two years later, on the black market, it exploded to 25,000 lira. The purchasing power has disintegrated, so when once a salary of one million lira was worth about $660 in 2019, has fallen to $70/80 today. The German-Lebanese writer, Pierre Jarawan said at a recent Bookcity Milano event, “In the streets of downtown Beirut or Tripoli you see children begging, dressed in rags. On Facebook, people barter televisions to get diapers. Blackouts are the order of the day. Corruption is rampant. While ordinary citizens can only withdraw limited amounts of money from ATMs, the political elite have taken their millionaire assets abroad”.
In Fatka, at the Nostre-Dame du Mont Center, Sister Jocelyne faces tremendous hardships. “Our daily anxiety is how to secure what we need to live, starting with food. I need powdered milk, for example, and it can take me up to three days, phoning everywhere, asking where it can be found, trying to grab it at the lowest price. Everything is missing. Even oil for cooking or for seasoning, detergents, tissues, toilet paper too. It’s a struggle to get the most basic things”. Electricity is also missing. “It’s a huge problem: we have to pay in dollars to get the mazout (the fuel to run the generators), the diesel to ensure hot water, the heating”. In the rigors of winter, it is a vital necessity, especially for the elderly women in the home.
Medicines are also lacking. The Maronite nuns ask for them as gifts from volunteers who sometimes arrive at the Notre-Dame du Mont Center. “To associations from Paris, from Nice, to our relatives, to friends we ask them to bring medicines for the chronically ill, vitamins, medicines. We don’t only have the religious of the congregation to think about, we have to help so many families as well”.
Help has come from volunteers from Ulis, Unité Lègere d'Intervention et de Secours, from large organizations such as Œvre d'Orient, from Aide à l’Eglise en détresse, from France, which historically has strong ties with Lebanon. “But the problem is that we need to be able to build a daily budget, to be able to count on stable resources to find and buy food, to pay our employees”, says Sister Jocelyne, and confesses to feeling “isolated: alone with my responsibilities, with the people around me who need help, with the elderly who need care. The needs are great and help doesn’t come, there is no real coordination. We suffer for the children, we suffer so much for them”. At Christmas, to her friends in Paris, Nice Sister Jocelyne asked them to bring a special gift to give the little sick ones, chocolate. Nothing but chocolate.
There is a particular pain in this tragedy, an additional anguish: “It is not just a question of politics or economics, for the very identity of Christians in Lebanon is in danger”. Two million Christians live (or lived, before emigration emptied the cities) in the Country, which is a complex mosaic of religions. “This is the community that is most affected by the crisis”, Sister Jocelyne reflects. “All our neighbors are Muslim Countries; here, however, traditionally, there is a diversity of rites: the Maronites, the Orthodox. However, these Christians are those who suffer the most; the Shiite Muslims have help from Iran, the Sunnis from Saudi Arabia. What about the Christians? Yet Pope Francis, praying for us, said we are the last bastion of Christianity in the Middle East. Today, the big question is: will Lebanon remain a Christian Country or not?”
By Bianca Stancanelli