Since 2019, Lebanon has been sinking into an economic and financial crisis that has led to an explosion of poverty. This situation is further aggravated by the explosion in the port of Beirut a year ago, on 4 August 2020. As a result, most Lebanese people now survive only by scavenging and solidarity, many regularly resorting to humanitarian aid.
In September 2021, we are continuing to assess the needs of the poorest families in Tripoli. This is a way for us volunteers to see first-hand the lives and destinies of the people we help.
That morning, despite the lack of petrol, we find a taxi and head for the center of Tripoli. No choice, we live an hour's walk from the building to be visited. This time the visit is special. We were informed by the director of a food aid center that a fire had broken out at the home of one of the families she has been helping.
Their already critical situation had deteriorated further, and we went urgently to the home. After a few minutes in the car, we saw a young boy, about 13 years old, is waiting for us on the pavement, to accompany us to his home. I am was struck by his smile; he is was so happy to see us, a little embarrassed by the reason for our visit but happy to meet Europeans. I noticed immediately that, despite his smile, his clothes and shoes were too small and in poor condition.
He lead us to his house and, to my astonishment, took us down to the basement of a building, the ground floor, where I see an open door, a slight glow coming out of from it, like a halo, barely visible. At the same time, I feel nauseous; a rotten smell fills our nostrils.
At the front door, a woman in her fifties greets us and sits down on old uncomfortable sofas of a faded yellow probably the same age of the lady of the house. The feet are rotten and wobbly and I'm afraid to break the one I'm sitting on.
We gather in the living room with the translators, two young girls, the boy and the mother of the family: Marie*. The father died of cancer a few years ago. His eyes watch us from an old photo on the only small chest of drawers in the room.
As they don't speak French, our translators take over and help us unravel the Arabic conversation of our hosts.
In Lebanon, most children speak fluent French or English, languages they learn from a very young age at school, only history and literature are taught in Arabic. However, out of modesty and shyness, they speak very little. Behind the smiles, shame can be seen on their faces, marked by fatigue and a daily routine of misery and sacrifice.
The flat, which in reality looks more like a converted cellar, is very small, without windows, and has only one bedroom for five people, a living room, a kitchen and a bathroom. The state of the rooms is disturbing; the place is stripped of furniture, almost empty. A cockroach coming out of the chest of drawers surprises us.
The rules of hospitality are very formal in the East; we accept a glass of water as a preamble to the interview. The mother answers all our questions as best she can, sometimes with the help of her children. Through their answers we distinguish a call for help.
The more the interview goes on, the more I am overwhelmed: a family of four children, Maya, Lena, Zahra and Hady, so young and fatherless already, the mother is mourning. She has no job, so they have no income. The children are still in school; the eldest does odd jobs as a seamstress after university so that the family can buy a little bread. Their unity and solidarity force our is admirable, their daily fight against poverty is moving, what courage, what resilience.
At the end of the discussion, we visit the house. Following the fire in the kitchen, the electricity no longer works. So, they have no heating for the winter, no fridge for food, no oven, no gas cooker... Very few dishes, no storage space, nothing, no table or chairs; in the bedroom, the mattresses have rotted away following a flood, the linen too, all they have left is love, the dignity of a pious life, a few smiles that we manage to wring from them and a few tears that they cannot hold back. They are ashamed to show us their lives. We discover that the sanitary facilities are condemned; they no longer have running water. We are not allowed to enter the only one room because of the terrible smell, all the rotten linen is stored there.
One question haunts us: how do they live here? How do they survive?
They eat only one meal a day, given by the Church or the food bank. Friends or neighbours help them to pay the bills (electricity, gas, schooling, telephone), their clothes are provided by associations. They survive only thanks to charity. But this is not enough; for example, the young boy wears a size 44 shoes, but this size is not available in the dispensary that helps them, so he wears old trainers with broken soles. Their school bags have holes in them. They have no more pencil cases or things to take to school, which starts soon. The girls are worryingly thin. Some of the children suffer from health problems, particularly asthma, but medicines, already scarce in the country, are inaccessible to them.
Amid this disaster, a series of small paintings hanging on the wall reminds us that beauty can exist everywhere. Out of curiosity, I ask where they come from. One of the girls smiles awkwardly; she is the great artist of the family. This 19-year-old girl, with her incredible talent, can no longer practice her passion, as the family's finances do not allow the purchase of equipment.
In the midst of so much misery, we feel a special presence in our hearts, that of Our Lord. This family has entrusted its future to the Blessed Virgin, and only charity allows them to survive. Yet, an immense strength dwells in them, that of trust in Providence. Joy reigns in this home, their souls are beautiful, and neither cockroaches, mould, nor fire can alter this beauty. Prayer protects
this family; they will be fine, we do not doubt that, and we will help them because that is our mission.
Denis, volunteer in Lebanon.
*For reasons of dignity, the first names have been changed.