Volunteer's testimony in Lebanon - Seven weeks of exceptional discoveries.

EN - Friday, 04 September 2020

SOS Chrétiens d'Orient sends volunteers in mission throughout the year. Like Matthew, come and live an unforgettable experience in Lebanon. Don't ask yourself any questions. The only limits are those in your mind.

Per day, the mission of a volunteer costs 33 € to the association. If you can't leave, support a volunteer on a mission, donate.

In mid-July, the Qaa Municipality shuttle is approaching the village. On both sides of the road, a plain stretches before being suddenly locked up between two mountains. The view of the Bekaa, a fertile valley in the middle of the dry mountains, is a painting that could be contemplated for hours; I would have brought it kindly in my luggage when returning to France if I could have.

sos chretiens orient liban volontaires a qaa

When the shuttle arrives in Qaa, just a few miles from the Syrian border, I already feel that leaving will be difficult. From the terrace of our house, I discover olive trees as far as the eye can see between the high grass yellowed by the sun, as far as man had the courage to irrigate the dry land. “Your breath is good; let him guide me in land of plains.” After crossing the mountains, the verse of Psalm 142 comes back to my mind and I believe I have discovered a promised land. It's between noon and fifteen. Around our home where the volunteers of SOS Chrétiens d'Orient discuss and already debate projects in a joyful brouhaha, white houses and ochres are slowly enjoying a ritual nap.

The roof terraces stack each other alongside the other like those of the ancient cities drawn in the history books, as if the construction standards had been set by Nebuchadnezzor without ever being questioned. Traditions are certainly of major importance in this region, here are two already: nap and roof terraces.

Suddenly when the village wakes up after digestive rest, it let the whole world know. Cars, quads and motorcycles are now added to the decor, and the sound of Arab music replaces the silence of noon.

sos chretiens orient liban volontaires avec libanais de qaa

As I walk through the streets, I start taking habits: everybody invites me and I blow up my ′′ratio of coffee per day” ; people chat out loud with great gestures, sitting on plastic chairs arranged in circle. It feels like being in Italy. We pick food between the discussions: figs, peaches, nuts and olives. Family mom gets up from her chair, rips cups and plates from guests to fill them once again with insistence, as if the French are starving in their country. Our guests make a point of honor to welcome us like princes in a kind of daily ceremony: ′′tfaddalo′′ (′′come′′), ′′ahla wa sahla′′ (′′welcome′′).

The days follow each other without me realizing it too much. The days are burning and the slightest light breeze becomes a blessing. In the evening, as soon as the wind rises and slides onto the still hot stone, volunteers get on the balcony to seize all the benefits: you only really enjoy one thing when you know it's ephemeral. The same has been true for my entire stay in the village of Qaa: sports and artistic activities with children, French classes, the organization of a great classical music recital, agricultural work in the neighboring village of Jdeideh, manual activities with the Lebanese, or school scholarship projects, the rehabilitation of a car-wash, the purchase of chickens for poor families... All this help was the fruit of the imagination of past or present volunteers.

Throughout the mission, there was always something beautiful that went beyond us, that is, the consciousness of not fully capturing the scope of our task.

I gradually realized that this work was a modest but noble contribution to the cause of Christians of the East. And these made us understand that it was not in vain: like brothers, we shared the same joys and sorrows. I'd like to tell all these joys and sorrows, but to keep from boring my reader, I will only share four memories:  ′′Jdeideh Farm", ′′Qaa children", ′′Sahar’s funeral′′ and finally ′′the recital".

From the first week, I discovered such a beautiful place that I don’t have the words to describe it. Near Jdeideh, in the hole of the valley, Father John, a priest from Qaa, built with the help of the former volunteers a sanctuary dedicated to Saint Antoine. There he dug a cave, built a church, a football and a basketball field, while irrigating the land and planting dozens of varieties of fruits and vegetables. A large part of its crops are distributed for free to poor families.

sos chretiens orient liban ferme dupere jean volontaires avec les poules

More recently, he added a herd of sheep, goats, geese, chickens, rabbits, dog and cat to this little masterpiece. Volunteers in Qaa used to spend two nights a week growing the land, collecting waste and grazing sheep and goats.

The sanctuary is both a work and a resting place; the heat of the day forces us to wake up early to work during cool hours. Volunteers go down to the vegetable garden to harvest cucumbers or zucchini in front of Mount Lebanon under the reddish sky of dawn.

After 11am, it is time to take a nap and a little walk until the end of the afternoon. During these empty hours, we can chat with the father, go pray in the cave, meditate in the shade of an olive tree, rest on a mattress or chat with the passing people.

This island of tranquility in an often busy valley has been a concrete evidence that the objective of the association can be achieved step by step: Christians around the area feel at peace to come and pray, talk, play and live a life away from the hustle of community tensions. After work, in the evening, many village residents come to watch their children play with the volunteers from their chairs, laying a water pipe to let the time pass. After work, young people our age would come by from time to time to visit us. The days spent in this farm-sanctuary have been most rewarding.

Back to Qaa! Volunteers organize activities with children at the Centre of Literature and cultural activities (CLAC) in the village. Small building next to a public garden and a football field, this place has been at the heart of the local children's summer entertainment. Week after week, we meet many from all social backgrounds, Christians and Muslims. The time spent with them obviously builds strong ties that we don't forget.

Before another volunteer’s departure, on a day when no activity at the CLAC is planned, we are invited for a surprise. Mystery... We get there with curiosity. Once at the public garden, children, who stationed at the entrance, blindfold us and guide us through the park. In no time, we discover confetti with our names, drawings and balloons glued to benches and lamps, fruit juice and a cake in the middle.

sos chretiens orient liban volontaire avec enfants de qaa

Only then did I measure children's attachment and I consider that we did a good job. I keep a remorse: the continuous turnover of volunteers on mission always hurts the children who love them. Torn by two feelings, the joy of past moments and the guilt of leaving, I can now only hope to see them again during a future visit in their country.

This stay is not just a long quiet river: on August 4, while we were at Father Jean's farm, we learn with the whole world the explosion in Beirut. Three volunteers are chosen to leave to strengthen the team on site, clean debris and distribute food packages to families in distress. We also quickly learn the martyr of a village girl, fireman, Sahar Georges Farress, who died in the line of duty on a last call with her fiancé.

The event is a shock to the village of Qaa where everyone knows each other. The municipality calls me to ask volunteers to help organize funeral in accordance with health rules.

We come back urgently, and we distribute masks and hydro alcoholic gel at the entrance of Saint George Church. We see the coffin coming between drum noises, deafening music and gunshots. The fiancé in tears is carried on the shoulders of his loved ones who parade one after another, crying out in pain. This way of paying tribute to the dead leaves us silent. Moved, we attend the funeral mass from the square.

Gigantic footage of Sahar is displayed through the streets. Her death becomes a symbol of heroism for the whole village, pain and pride. I felt that our place was really close to the inhabitants and that as Christian brothers we were there to share all their sorrows. Far from being cloistered in New York offices to send pure financial aid, our presence on site creates a true friendship between our two nation, which  is united by Faith.

In the last week of July, we start preparing a recital of classical music and religious songs for the day before the Assumption. Everything is gradually organized, with work and luck, between Beirut headquarters and our team in Qaa. After the martyr of Sahar, this event is now organized in honor of all the victims of the Beirut disaster. The recital is scheduled to take place at Our Lady of the Bekaa Sanctuary, built a few years ago up the city, on the foothills of Mount Lebanon. Very symbolic, it is built on the track that Daesh jihadists had taken when they attacked the village.

One of the volunteers, who practice opera singing, is chosen to sing alongside the famous Lebanese tenor Eliya Francis, contacted by a pianist and friend of the association.

Meetings with the municipality follow one another. As the “Lebanese tradition” demands it, things are hard to move forward and many meetings are used to plan the next one (and drink some coffee by the way). Despite these complications that I quickly got used to, maybe because my southern mind prefers mess over order, the project is gradually emerging.

sos chretiens orient liban recital musique classique victime explosion beyrouth

Volunteer reviews her tracks, pianist and cellist train, the mayor and president of SOS Chrétiens d'Orient prepare their speeches. On D-Day, after mass, hundreds of people gather in the audience. During the recital, music and songs move all spectators from Qaa and elsewhere. A Lebanese flag is projected on the majestic statue of the Virgin, below which is an image of the late Sahar. This evening will remain an extraordinary memory, in a beautiful mix of classical music, Franco-Lebanese friendship unity between Christians from East and West.

Finally, I would simply say that this mission taught me one essential thing: by taking simple initiatives to realize its ideals, anything is possible. It is through daily work that we achieve a beautiful result and serve as a testimony. Father Jacques Sevin wrote in his ′′Knights Prayer". ′′Prepare us for great things through faithfulness to the little ones".

With this mission, the simplicity of daily work, in the effort of free agricultural work, in organizing activities and classes for children or cleaning up a poor woman's house (to name only these examples), I understood the whole truth of this sentence.

Now, on the eve of my departure, I wish to continue my mission by being a testimony of the lives of Christians of Qaa, the beauty of this country and our universal Faith: this Faith that proclaims that the example of Jesus, that is self-abandonment to serve others, is the most beautiful goal a man can have in his earthly life.

Matthew, volunteer in Lebanon.

SOS Chrétiens d'Orient sends volunteers in mission throughout the year. Like Matthew, come and live an unforgettable experience in Lebanon. Don't ask yourself any questions. The only limits are those in your mind.

Per day, the mission of a volunteer costs 33 € to the association. If you can't leave, support a volunteer on a mission, donate.