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Pontifical Mission at 50: A Warm Touch in Dbayeh

A firsthand look at the hardship and reality of refugee family life.

by Marilyn Raschka

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Packing for a trip to Lebanon has become routine. “You can do it blindfolded by now, can you?” joked a friend last time round.

Packing may be easy, but shopping for gifts to take along for my friend children often proves challenging. They can be big or heavy, as I only carry one piece of luggage. This year my search ended easily, however, at the local K-Mart. In one of the aisles I spied some small, soft toy baby chicks. According to the package, the chicks would chirp when placed on a warm surface, such as the palm of the hand.

I took a dozen of the feathery toys and proceeded to the checkout counter. As the clerk scanned my items, she said, “All they need to chirp is a simple, warm touch. Just hold them in your hand.” She demonstrated. Customers in line behind me smiled.

The day before I left, I pulled the chicks from their box and stuffed them into my bag. As I flew through the night toward Lebanon, I amused myself with the thought of the chicks I was importing to the Middle East.

Ten chicks quickly found homes in the hands of my friend children. I kept two in reserve. For what, I was not yet sure. Then came the day I traveled to the Dbayeh camp.

Located eight miles north of Beirut, the camp took shape in 1948 as Palestinian families fled their homes in Galilee with the establishment of the State of Israel.

Christian and Muslim Palestinians sought refuge in their co-religionist sectors of Lebanon. Dbayeh, the last Christian camp, is also home to Lebanese families who lost their homes during the 1975-1990 civil war; some are Christian and some, Muslim. Here marriages occur across religious and political lines. Today, Dbayeh is a mixed bag of people and problems.

There are almost three generations of Palestinian refugees in Dbayeh, still poor and facing a bleak future. As for the displaced Lebanese there, they too have produced a new generation whose home will still be the refugee camp.

My assignment was to profile one Dbayeh camp family. Sister Annie, a Belgian nun from the Little Sisters of Nazareth, was waiting for me when I arrived. Since 1987, Annie and three other sisters of the same community have served the camp, doing what they could to alleviate a multitude of inhuman conditions.

Always ready to help those in need, they tackle everything thrown their way, whether it leading the Dbayeh church choir or bargaining with hospital billing departments for reduced fees for camp residents.

The Palestinian refugee problem has always been at crisis level. Education, housing and social services present ongoing problems. Lebanon 15 years of civil strife, plus chronic local and regional tensions, have wreaked havoc on attempts to improve refugee lives. On each of my visits, the Dbayeh camp appears more crowded and more permanent. And the lives of the refugees not only appear but are more desperate. After each solution there is a new problem. Each problem is shared by more and more of the camp population.

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Tags: Lebanon Refugees Poor/Poverty