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Little Orphan Ahmed

text and photographs by Marilyn Raschka

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Beirut to Jibsheet – a Shi’ite Muslim village in southern Lebanon where the Saydi (Lady) Zeinab school is located – is a three-hour drive. The day of our trip was gloriously warm and sunny, a special treat for this writer coming out of snow-laden Wisconsin in November. The invitation, extended to CNEWA’s Beirut staff, with me in tow, was to meet the 18 children enrolled in CNEWA’s Needy Child Program and to tour the facility. A good impression would mean the program would be expanded.

Our appointment was for noon and we were running late. Engine trouble had delayed one of our two cars, which had started out in tandem. The young man driving the troubled car, a representative of the institution, had a cell phone. So did the team from the Beirut office, some of whom were in the other car.

Contact was soon made. My companions smiled in relief, but the smile on my face came from another source. In Lebanon, cell phones offer options beyond a simple ring; they can announce an incoming call with a musical tune. Forgive us Beethoven, but this driver’s cell phone played “Für Elise” in a jaunty, jingly style.

One quick repair job later the engine was humming and the two cars continued on their way. With more Für Elise messages coming from other sources we tore down the coast, up the foothills of the Lebanese mountains and into Jibsheet.

We arrived, however, long after noon, as the buses were picking up the 200 day students. Book bags loaded with homework seemed like anchors, keeping the restless children from leaving their spots on the school’s steps. Snacks also helped entertain the younger set during their wait. One child, a four-year-old boy with an impish grin, shared his snack with a four-year-old classmate, a little girl who appreciated both the sweets and the friend who shared them.

Every child, no matter how young, carried a book bag. Every child was wearing a smart school uniform, a long top worn over blue jeans. Hair was cut and combed. By the looks of these children, studies, grooming and discipline were serious matters at Saydi Zeinab school.

The buses filled quickly. The children were anxious to go home to their sisters and brothers, their parents and, most likely, a grandmother or grandfather – or both – who lived with the family. The children would study and sleep in a bedroom they shared with a sibling or a grandparent. The family would eat the evening meal together. Homework would precede and follow supper. Watching television would be limited.

Such is home life in Lebanon for many, but not for all. There are 230 children at Saydi Zeinab who do not board buses – they have no place to go. Some of these children are orphans; others come from broken, troubled or impoverished families. For these youngsters school is also home.

Right from our welcoming cup of coffee, we had the feeling that everything possible was done at the school to make it homelike. No one could replace a mother, a father or a family, but the “dorm mothers” and “dorm fathers” gave it everything they had. They guided the children while they did their homework. They shared meals with the youngsters and they and their charges competed with other dorm mothers and fathers for the cleanest and best-decorated dorm room. Competition was stiff. Spirits were high.

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Tags: Lebanon Children Education Shiite