Zouk-Mikael’s Sorrow Turned to Joy

by Rev. Elie Daou
photos: CNEWA files

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The sun dawned brilliantly on Pentecost last year in Zouk-Mikael, a town northeast of Beirut. It was a clear, cool day that would long remain in the memory of many children.

For the community’s 30 handicapped children, it was the first time many left their homes. They were transported by volunteers from Our Lady of Help parish to Liturgy. For many parishioners this was their first time seeing handicapped children and some of them even protested when the handicapped children were assisted to the communion rail.

Following Mass the children were taken to the mountains for an outing. Each handicapped child was assigned a “sister or brother” of the same age for the day. When they returned to Zouk Mikael, each child’s “brother or sister” accompanied them home.

The Pentecost outing was the initial activity sponsored by a group of concerned parishioners of Our Lady of Help parish.

In Zouk-Mikael, handicapped children were never seen in school, churches, theaters or even in the streets. Public places emptied when children with deformities arrived.

To save their children public humiliation, parents kept them hidden away at home.

It was at a funeral for one of these handicapped children that a neighbor remarked “the poor thing, happily he is dead now, it is better for all.”

The neighbor’s remark prompted a parishioner of Our Lady of Help parish to question her own responsibility as a Christian towards the handicapped brothers who were so ostracized. This parishioner organized a group of other parishioners and they decided to form a center, in the pastor’s home, that disabled children could attend daily. In a secure, accepting, loving environment, handicapped youngsters could have friends, play games, learn songs and practice physio-therapy exercises.

While the children were in the center, mothers would shop and even visit friends, activities they never did with a handicapped child home all day.

To spread the word about the center the volunteers paid personal calls on the families of Zouk-Mikael and surrounding communities. Sometimes volunteers returned to homes four or five times before parents admitted they had handicapped children. One mother insisted that her daughter Fady was with her grandmother, when Fady was actually hidden in the kitchen. More doors were opened when the parish priest went along, his presence giving the security of confidence.

Naturally, parents were skeptical of the volunteers. They wanted promises of cures before the children were allowed out of the home. Finally some parents gave permission for their children to attend the Pentecost outing and the center.

The Pontifical Mission, sister organization of The Catholic Near East Welfare Association became interested in the program. With funds generated by its workers, the Pontifical Mission has begun to help support the centers.

The center at the priest’s home has been in existence a year.The program has expanded to other areas that have their own centers. Parents as well as handicapped children now have hope for the future. A woman who has three handicapped youngsters recalled how a neighbor shouted out to her one day knowing that she was going shoe-shopping for her disabled children, “What’s the use of spending money on them?” The same neighbor now sends her children to play with the handicapped youngsters.

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Tags: Lebanon Children Christianity Disabilities