Bethany in Beirut - A visit to the drop-in medical center of Saint Antoine

The Iraqi refugees forgotten victims of the Syrian civil war

Zena and Elias have six children – Dilor, Diana, Dali, Dany, Dalida and David. Three months ago they fled here from Baghdad. Zina's brother-in-law had just been murdered. He had found a job on the American base – that was reason enough for the islamists to lie in wait and kill him. Elias was also working on the US camp. When the threats began to multiply, they decided to flee, Zena explains. Now she is here with her three children in the drop-in clinic run by the Good Shepherd Sisters. She needs medicines, but has no money.

Her sister is here also. She has eight children – Merla, Mazen, Mark, Orita, Sarah, Fadi, Josef and Nora. They too were threatened. But she does not wish to give her real name. When you hear her story, you understand at once. She had just taken her eldest daughter to school. "We can no longer allow them onto the streets alone in Baghdad", she explains. But as she was driving home, "some men blocked the road and forced me to get out of the car. "You are Christians", they told her. "You have no right to live in this land." Then they beat and raped her, leaving her lying unconscious on the road. When she came to, she was in hospital. Her aunt had collected her daughter and found her. "You must leave; the next time you will be dead."

Two days later they left everything and fled to Erbil in the North, to her parents. They stayed there for a month. Every night she woke up screaming. She sold the last of her valuables; her sister in Australia send them some money. With it they were able to get as far as Beirut. She doesn't want to return. She wants to go to a country "where we can live as Christians". Asked her children's names, she immediately shows us their passports. She has them with her always, as though she is clinging to her identity, the only thing that is left to her.

So now they are refugees. They do not want to stay in Beirut. True, as Chaldean refugees from Iraq, they can live here safely. But life is very expensive and they have nothing. No home, no house; a great question mark hanging over their future, and even over what they will eat tomorrow. Here in the St Anthony's clinic they for the first time find a welcome – and a sense of dignity. "Most people come here after experiencing terrible things", says Petronille, one of the two social workers. "They are traumatized. Many have a sense of deep shame; they ask only for medicines, but one can see in their faces how greatly the need psychological support and guidance." Indeed, the case of the two sisters in Baghdad is by no means even the worst. One young mother, with two children and nine months pregnant, was ambushed in Baghdad by islamists and raped. Her unborn child did not survive. They fled. For a year and a half she was in a deep depression, listless and withdrawn. Petronille visited her almost every day.

Now she has come back to life. The same thing happened with the 14-year-old girl who was raped by five islamists and fled to Beirut together with her 16-year-old brother; for a year she spoke not a single word. She didn't want to see anybody. Petronille visited her two or three times every week, organised a visa for her for America, built bridges for her back into life. Now the girl is in the USA. "She is speaking again and has rediscovered her will to live."

Petronille visits many families, helping them to fill out forms, advising them on looking for jobs, helping to find the right schools for their children. Is she a Christian, someone asks her. "Certainly, and very grateful for the fact," she responds, beaming. She has by now acquired a specialist training for traumatised cases. The drop-in centre also has two psychologists and two psychiatrists, plus several doctors – in all a team of 11 people. Most of them work for nothing, "though we have to pay at least something to some of them – needless to say far too little – but they have families and have to live", says Sister Hanna, the director of the centre. "They come to us although our resources are meager and our medical equipment antiquated. They see something of the Good Shepherd in us."

The economic situation of the center is certainly precarious. Given the expected influx of refugees from Syria, the major aid agencies such as the UN and Caritas have cut their aid for the Iraqi refugees, "sometimes by as much as 50%. But we cannot simply send people away. They trust us." In the corridor sits Zaer, from Kirkuk, aged 24. Together with his wife, Sandrine, who is 22, he fled here three months ago from Kirkuk, bringing her elderly father with them. Soon afterwards Sandrine noticed a lump in her breast. The diagnosis was cancer. "She had to be operated on and is now on a course of chemotherapy, says Sister Hanna. "Up to now one of the major agencies has paid for the chemotherapy medication – $2,000 a session. Now they have cut off the aid. But we can't just leave the two of them to their fate." Zaer cares for his wife with self-sacrificing devotion. Today he has taken his lunch break to come and find out if her treatment can continue. "A 'No' would be tantamount to a death sentence. We can't do that."

Sister Hanna has experienced many miraculous moments of grace. "The Good Shepherd is here, but we can't simply sit idly by and wait." The sisters pray and work a great deal. Last year alone she and her team treated 15,113 patients. Of these 2,818 were children from Iraq and 2,415 children from other countries. Altogether 4,381 women and 3,718 men from Iraq found help here. With many of the children and the elderly the cause of their illness was quite simply a nutritional deficiency; though123 patients required psychotherapeutic treatment.

The tiny consultation rooms are simple but clean, the equipment sparse and makeshift; only a few of the "boxes" have air conditioning. Even though it is the weekend, around two dozen people are squeezed into the waiting-niches and corners. Medically speaking, first aid is all that can be supplied here; humanly speaking, however, there is much more to it than this. "For these people this center is Bethany" – which roughly translated means "house of misery", or also "house of dates". It refers of course to that insignificant village on the east slopes of the Mount of Olives, around a mile and a half from Jerusalem, that was home to Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary. According to the Scriptures this house was a place where Jesus was able to find rest among people who loved him and listened to him, a place where he was always welcomed and where they attended to him with devotion. In exactly this sense the center of Saint Antoine run by the Good Shepherd Sisters is a sort of "Bethany in Beirut".

The international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is supporting the Good Shepherd Sisters. Given the growing need, our help will have to grow as well. For the Iraqi refugees have now become the forgotten victims of the civil war in Syria. And then there are the Christians who have previously fled from Iraq to Syria and who are now having to flee once again. "There are 12,000 of them at present, and every day another 10 families from Syria arrive here", says the Bishop of the Chaldeans in Beirut. "And none of them want to go back there."  But Lebanon is more than merely a transit station. For in this "Bethany in Beirut" these Christians are able to rediscover their sense of dignity and self worth. This is a knowledge that is nourishment for their remaining journey in life.

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