Seven months in the Land of Cedars, honey and the rising sun

Dear future volunteers,

I have understood through my mission that life is only given its true value by putting it at the service of others, by working in all humility but also in all generosity for our brothers in the East, in order to maintain hope and to support them on a daily basis.

During my mission, I had the great joy of being responsible for projects in Qaa, a small Christian village in the northern Bekaa, close to the Syrian border. Over the past forty years, the village has been affected by many dramatic events, such as the execution of twenty-six young people from the village during the Lebanese civil war, the occupation of the mountains from 2016 to 2017 by the Islamic State organisation and, finally, the attacks of 27 June 2016, in which eight suicide bombers caused the death of five men from the village and wounded about thirty others.

But unfortunately, misfortune always strikes Qaa. Lebanon is facing a political crisis coupled with an economic and health crisis … accentuated by the terrible explosion of 4 August in Beirut. During my mission, I was able to witness a rapid and violent decline in the living conditions of the Lebanese. 60% of the Lebanese live below the poverty line, if not more today.

When I arrived, the Lebanese still had electricity all day, petrol and food. But today, many families no longer have enough to eat, to care for themselves, no electricity or even petrol. A large family from Qaa told me that they can no longer buy bread, a basic food in the Middle East. So they feed their six children mainly on fruit and vegetables, which the father brings from the fields where he works.

In Lebanon, I met a people who are strong but exhausted from being alone, thirsting for the friendship and hope of their brothers in the West. They all remind us of the deep attachment they had with France. “France was the mother of Lebanon”, Michel, one of our neighbours, told us over coffee. “I am moved to see young people like you coming to help us in a selfless way”, said another. “I hope to see many other volunteers helping us in Lebanon,” confided this inhabitant of Beirut with whom we had just prayed the Hail Mary.

But before thinking of doing great things, we must be committed to constant obedience to God, who must be the first to be served. It is also about obeying others with humility and necessarily with great kindness and gentleness, patience, helpfulness, courtesy and joy. The mission is not something easy and requires a great deal of self-giving, in everything and for everyone, whether it be during activities or in daily life with other volunteers. There will be ups and downs but I promise you that the encounters you will have during the activities will be transcendent.

In Qaa, I really felt like I was adopted by a whole village. Each inhabitant considers us as his own family. We have coffee in each other’s homes and dinner with elderly villagers who don’t speak a word of French, but who consider us their grandchildren. They invite us into the warm and touching intimacy of their home.

In the streets, the children know us and follow us; the grandmothers at the windows invite us to come in for coffee; the baker offers us a round, warm loaf of bread as we walk past her shop. Neighbours knock on the door when they see the light on, offering us cheese, tabbouleh and other home-made dishes, when they themselves probably don’t have enough food for every meal.

You will also share your life and your mission with volunteers, you will meet young people who, just like you, have decided to serve and to give themselves. Courageous and with a taste for effort, they will be colleagues for you, and certainly friends.

I am writing this letter to you because it is time for me to leave and I honestly think that I have gained a second family here in Lebanon, as well as some very nice French friendships.

But for this, you must be ready to never refuse to help: neither to the one who comes to disturb you nor to those you meet, as Christ said: “If someone asks you to walk a thousand steps with him, walk two thousand.” Be an actor in your mission, even if you don’t necessarily have responsibilities on the spot, don’t hesitate to propose new ideas and projects. SOS Chrétiens d’Orient is like a beautiful house, the first ones built the foundations and each volunteer before you has laid a stone. You too, lay your stone to make this beautiful building grow!

Qaa is overlooked by two crosses: a large one at the bottom and a smaller one. A fortnight ago, we climbed to the cross with Elise, a young teenager from the village. If we had not been there, she would have stopped at the smaller of the two crosses. Hand in hand, step by step we guided Elise to the top. What a joy it was for her to reach this second majestic cross! It is up to us, volunteers, to be the driving force.

You have to forget yourself to create an atmosphere of security and joy and to practice Christian hospitality with a wide heart.

Relieve all distress, bring help in all loyalty, without looking away from our wounded Christian brothers of the East, abandoned along the way. Whatever their wound: physical, moral, intellectual or even religious, you will help them with the grace of God. During your mission, you will visit families in distress, with Marie, an employee of SOS Chrétiens d’Orient, who does a remarkable job. You will meet families wounded by life. Last night we visited a family who live opposite the port of Beirut. They showed us videos of their flat being blown up in three minutes. “Several of our neighbours died, others were seriously injured and some are still in a coma,” one of their friends told us.

The mission will make you grow in compassion and heart. Every day I had the chance, in my own way, to hear poignant testimonies from the many Lebanese people that life has not spared.

You will understand through the activities and discussions that a volunteer must have a selfless love for the truth, that you cannot be satisfied with a little bit of information or a quiet way, with ready-made truths. You must in all things humbly and freely seek the truth.

Throughout your mission, you must strive to give without counting the cost, to fight without worrying about injuries, to work without seeking rest, to expend yourself without expecting further rewards.

Never forget that in community life, if you falter, everyone else falters and the mission suffers.

To love every person you meet, “to give everything and yourself”, while constantly asking for God’s blessing because He said “without me you can do nothing”.

So if all this does not frighten you, if you feel this call growing in you, if you want to volunteer and put yourself at the service of the Christians of the East, join us! It’s worth the effort! I will end with this prayer by Antoine de Saint Exupéry (1900-1944)

Lord, I’m not praying for miracles and visions, I’m only asking for strength for my days. Teach me the art of small steps.

Make me clever and resourceful, so that I can find important discoveries and experiences among the diversity of days.

Help me use my time better. Present me with the sense to be able to judge whether something is important or not.

I pray for the power of discipline and moderation, not only to run throughout my life, but also to live my days reasonably, and observe unexpected pleasures and heights.

Save me from the naive belief that everything in life has to go smoothly. Give me the sober recognition that difficulties, failures, fiascos, and setbacks are given to us by life itself to make us grow and mature.

Send me the right person at the right moment, who will have enough courage and love to utter the truth!

I know that many problems solve themselves, so please teach me patience.

You know how much we need friendship. Make me worthy of this nicest, hardest, riskiest and most fragile gift of life.

Give me enough imagination to be able to share with someone a little bit of warmth, in the right place, at the right time, with words or with silence.

Spare me the fear of missing out on life.

Do not give me the things I desire, but the things I need.

Teach me the art of small steps!”

So be it

Clémence, volunteer in Lebanon.

Your department manager

Iseult Béchaux

head of volunteers