God • World • Human Family • Church
New Beginnings Leaving Africa, a New Start in Israel | Reviving Hopes in Lebanon Restoring Life: India’s Samaritans of the Pandemic
one COVER STORY
Crafting a New Life A program in Israel helps African women seeking asylum text by Judith Sudilovsky with photographs by Debbie Hill
Our Daily Bread A Caritas Armenia project becomes a lifeline amid pandemic text by Gohar Abrahamyan with photographs by Nazik Armenakyan
Running Out of Options After escaping ISIS, an Iraqi family’s hardship continues by Dale Gavlak
The Palakkad Samaritans The church in India helps families weather COVID-19 text by Anubha George with photographs by Sajeendran V.S.
‘Faith Is the Only Thing We Have Now’ Lebanon’s people confront disaster with some hope by Doreen Abi Raad
Connections to CNEWA’s world Perspectives by Msgr. Peter I. Vaccari
t Iraqi Christian refugees attend a liturgy at the Syriac Church of the Virgin Mary in Amman, Jordan.
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Volume 46 NUMBER 3
Your Generosity Can Be Your Legacy A bequest is a simple way to make a huge impact, helping us to:
24 Front: Hiyab Asmerom, 5, wears a protective mask and holds a doll made by the women of Kuchinate, an African refugee women’s collective in Tel Aviv, Israel. Back: Women trek through a field near Bincy Naiju’s temporary home on a rubber plantation.
30 ONE is published quarterly. ISSN: 1552-2016 CNEWA Founded by the Holy Father, CNEWA shares the love of Christ with the churches and peoples of the East, working for, through and with the Eastern Catholic churches.
Photo Credits Front cover, pages 3 (lower right), 30, 32-37, Debbie Hill; Pages 2, 12, 14-17, Nader Daoud; Page 3 (top): CNS photo/Paul Haring; Pages 3 (upper left), 18-23, Back cover, Sajeendran V.S.; Pages 3 (upper right), 6, 8-11, Nazik Armenakyan; Pages 3 (lower left), 27, Tamara Abdul Hadi; Pages 3 (far right), 4-5, 29, 39, CNEWA; Pages 24-5, CNS photo/Hannah McKay, Reuters; Page 26, CNS photo/Doreen Abi Raad; Page 28, CNS photo/Mohamed Azakir, Reuters.
CNEWA connects you to your brothers and sisters in need. Together, we build up the church, affirm human dignity, alleviate poverty, encourage dialogue — and inspire hope.
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Connections to CNEWA’s world COVID Relief in Eritrea One of the most isolated countries in the world, Eritrea was nonetheless hit hard by the coronavirus. Social services and transportation have ground to a halt, causing prices of even the most basic goods, such as bread, to skyrocket during the period of lockdown. CNEWA’s COVID-19 Emergency Fund was able to
Providing a Lifeline in India As the coronavirus lockdown began in the Syro-Malabar Catholic Eparchy of Sagar in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, CNEWA rushed much-needed funds that served as a lifeline for those at greatest risk. Funds provided dry ration kits; packets of prepared food; and masks and hygiene materials for thousands in need, including the elderly, the homeless, migrants, destitute women and others in mostly rural areas. Volunteers were also able to set up tailoring centers, creating about 1,500 masks a day — helping so many vulnerable members of some of India’s poorest communities.
provide much-needed relief to the most vulnerable, especially those with special needs, the elderly and pregnant and nursing mothers. CNEWA has joined local health care personnel, distributing leaflets on sanitation, as well as procured grain, lentils and other food supplies for nearly 400 families.
Funds from CNEWA’s generous donors have assisted many of the social service organizations of the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholic churches’ agencies in India, and the impact has been significant. Our regional director, M.L. Thomas, forwarded a letter he received from the Rev. Matthew Vadakkekuttu, who directs the Prachodana Social Service Society in Delhi: “Thank you for your timely support in feeding hundreds of hungry stomachs who had no one to support them. We thankfully received your generous support in feeding the underprivileged who are on the streets, and the poorest of the poor who are in the slums
and have lost their daily wages. May God continue to bless all your endeavors.” A Dose of Hope in Ethiopia In August, CNEWA’s COVID-19 Emergency Fund helped deliver a measure of hope to a clinic in Metahara, Ethiopia, run by the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Our Lady. Located about 125 miles from the capital city of Addis Ababa, the clinic serves those most in need, especially single parents; some are H.I.V.-positive. They live hand-tomouth, and during the pandemic lockdown, many could not work. With CNEWA’s support, the clinic staff was able to screen some 300
people and offer them basic supplies, including vegetable oil, wheat flour and soap, along with face masks and detergents. One elderly woman, who cannot walk because of an H.I.V.-related illness, said, “May the Almighty God reward those who remembered us and stretched their generous hands to fill our empty stomachs!” CNEWA also sent funds to the Urban Community Center in Addis Ababa, administered by the Consolata Sisters. The sisters serve those no one else will, including some suffering from leprosy. CNEWA funds enabled the sisters to distribute food and sanitary items to some 750 families who were unable to work because of the lockdown. CNEWA also helped provide PPE items to priests in the northern Eparchy of Adigrat and helped arrange for liturgies to be televised to an estimated one million Catholics in the country. Rushing Aid to Lebanon CNEWA launched an emergency appeal hours after massive explosions rocked the port of Beirut on 4 August. With hospitals severely damaged and hundreds of thousands of people suddenly homeless — this, in the middle of a severe socioeconomic and political crisis and the coronavirus pandemic — the country is facing what the mayor of Beirut called “a national catastrophe.” Thanks to the generosity of its donors, CNEWA has worked with local partners, including the St. Vincent de Paul Society and Caritas Lebanon, to distribute food and sanitary supply kits and offer spiritual and psychological support to many in need. Even as it continues to provide this emergency relief, CNEWA’s Beirut-
based team is assessing the longterm needs of Lebanon’s Christian communities, focusing on its schools and health care facilities. In early September, the Holy See’s Congregation for the Eastern Churches charged CNEWA and L’Oeuvre d’Orient, a Paris-based Catholic charity that has long partnered with CNEWA, to coordinate worldwide Catholic aid for Lebanon. The crisis clearly will impact Lebanon for years. “Lebanon is on the brink of economic, political and social collapse,” reported Michel Constantin, CNEWA’s regional director in Beirut. He added that the government’s emergency supply of grain was lost in the explosion.
Sister Bandiera distributes food packages provided through CNEWA’s COVID-19 Emergency Fund.
“This will not stop us from doing our work,” he said. “More than ever, the people of Lebanon need our help and, most especially, the help of the local and universal church.” Welcome, Msgr. Peter Vaccari CNEWA’s new president, Msgr. Peter I. Vaccari, took the helm in July. He has been busy, to put it mildly. Meet Msgr. Peter and get a firsthand account of what the last few months have entailed in his column, “Perspectives” on Page 38.
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During the pandemic, a Caritas Armenia project becomes a lifeline text by Gohar Abrahamyan with photographs by Nazik Armenakyan
Mickael Sahakyan, 22, works as a baker at the Aregak Cafe.
and delicate pastries. The cafe is a program of the Emili Aregak Support and Resource Center, a facility for people with special needs founded by Caritas Armenia — the charitable arm of the Armenian Catholic Church — with funds from the European Union, Caritas Austria, the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Collection for Eastern Europe and CNEWA. The cafe employs people with disabilities from the center and has quickly become a popular eatery in Gyumri. But to safeguard the health of both the community and its vulnerable employees, it has had to close its doors when coronavirus swept into Armenia in the middle of March. “We were depressed, we were crying, we were on edge and worried about what to tell people, when there was no money to pay salaries,” recalls the center’s director, Tigranuhi Hakobyan. “By the end of March, we were already in debt and in a desperate situation when Sara, one of our former volunteers from the United States employed at the center, began to buy the bread made at the cafe to distribute it to those in need.” Sara’s idea caught on; friends of the center jumped in and began to buy bread for people in need. Eventually, the idea became a program called “Our Daily Bread,” which launched on 7 April, coinciding with a fundraising campaign to sustain its activities. “At first, most of the donations came from our acquaintances,” says Ms. Hakobyan. “But beginning in May, others joined in. The price of each loaf of bread has been set at 300 drams [about 60 cents in U.S. dollars], which covers the costs of the bread production, its distribution to underprivileged families and salaries. “Thanks to the program, we have even paid all our debts,” she adds.
“The coronavirus has changed everything. It forced us to come up with new ideas, which, in fact, were successful.” In the midst of a worldwide crisis, this small church initiative has found new life by reimagining the ways it serves its community — and strengthening and nurturing that community in the process. “We have overcome our financial difficulties by doing what we do best: helping people.”
oday, in addition to producing its regular line of products, the cafe’s hardworking staff bakes more than 100 loaves of bread each day. In the course of these months of the pandemic, more than 8,000 loaves have been distributed to nearly 400 families. The cafe staff also receives bread to share with their own families, who number among the poorest in the region. Upon learning about the program, one of the restaurants in Gyumri, known for its delicious fish, decided to assist Our Daily Bread with contributions of fish to benefit hungry families, many of whom depend entirely on “Our Daily Bread” as their primary source of food. “We are provided with two to three loaves of bread on a daily basis and we spend what little money we have on other food items to keep our children healthy in these hard times. These two loaves of bread may mean nothing for many people, but not for us,” says Ms. Mnoyan, as she cuts the hearty loaves for the day. At first, the cafe undertook its work independently. Beneficiaries living close to the city center would come and pick up their own bread, whereas those living in the outskirts would have their bread delivered by social workers or drivers from the Aregak Center. However, an entire distribution network in the region has developed since.
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CARE FOR THE MARGINALIZED
ue to the COVID-19 pandemic, Termine Mnoyan, a single mother of two from Gyumri, was left on the brink of extreme poverty, struggling to put food on the table. For many residents of the Shirak province — the poorest region of Armenia, still reeling from the great earthquake of 1988 — the pandemic became yet another hardship impacting hundreds of families, including Ms. Mnoyan’s. Despite myriad governmental programs to mitigate the situation, hundreds of families continue to face food insecurity. “Just a few months ago, my mom had a job; she used to wash plates in a restaurant and we could more or less make ends meet,” Ms. Mnoyan says. “The children didn’t go to bed hungry. Then, due to coronavirus, the restaurant was shut down and my mom lost her job. There are days that we don’t have money to buy bread. “I understand that it has hit the whole world,” the 31-year-old says, “and I know dozens of families in our city alone who are on edge. We only have to rely on kind people and organizations, and thank God, I was included in one of those initiatives.” This year, COVID-19 has changed the lives of hundreds of millions of people throughout the world, forcing many to reassess their present and their future. This global virus brought to its knees the small and poor nation of Armenia — squeezed between Russia, Turkey and Iran — prompting one cafe in the city of Gyumri, the provincial capital, to change its priorities and provide daily bread to those families affected by the virus. Since September 2018, the Aregak Cafe has been enchanting neighbors, visitors and shoppers daily with the aroma of fresh bread
CNEWA Connection t Hovhannes Margaryan, 27, packages bread for delivery. y Volunteers Alephtina Dejanyan, 19, and Arman Alexanyan, 25, deliver bread to beneficiaries.
Tucked in the Caucasus Mountains, between Russia, Turkey and Iran, Armenia has struggled for decades to overcome disasters natural and societal. Since gaining independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia's small Catholic community has sought to address those challenges impacting the most vulnerable among the country’s 2.9 million people. Working closely with the Armenian Catholic Ordinariate and Caritas Armenia, CNEWA helps provide winter kits to the elderly living in isolated villages and vast apartment complexes; support to child care programs, including summer camps; access to health care, especially for those living In the remote north; and assistance for those with special needs, such as help in building the Emil Aregak Center in Gyumri. To learn how you can join CNEWA in helping the people of Armenia, call: 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or 1-866-322-4441 (Canada).
Forty-five-year-old Karen Manukyan, who heads the Armenian Missionary Association of America in Gyumri, says that as a result of a month of cooperation, 60 families received two to four loaves of bread daily, depending on the number of family members. “The cafe staff quickly organizes the distribution works: They give us the packed loaves of bread and we only had to get to the destination. We do our work with love, and we
are overjoyed when we see the beaming eyes of the children,” she adds, acknowledging that there had been some progress in breaking the cycle of poverty in the Shirak region, but that the pandemic had stopped everything. “The majority of men used to leave for seasonal work [mainly to Russia], however, they lost the chance this year due to coronavirus. Many others used to drive a cab, but the demand has decreased. In
short, poverty is again rising in the city so rapidly that a loaf of bread has become an essential staple for people.” Narine Mnatsakanyan, 47, a mother of five children, considers herself fortunate to have been accepted as a program beneficiary. She has health problems and cannot work; her husband, a seasonal worker, is likewise unemployed. “It’s very complicated. Days have passed when my children went to bed hungry,” she says, her voice fading. “We live in hard and harsh times. This loaf of bread means a lot for our family … since we receive four loaves. If we have nothing else to eat, at least my children will not go to bed with an empty stomach.” Hovhannnes Kocharyan, 31, brings the bread to Mrs. Mnatsakanyan’s family. He lost his job because of the pandemic, but keeps busy volunteering for Our Daily Bread, delivering loaves of bread from the cafe every day. “We supply bread to the villages of the Shirak region, too,” he says. “The number of families we visit on different days varies. Sometimes we visit as many as 30 homes a day. People are very dependent on this program. They are always looking forward to our visits and if we are late a bit, they call to check when we will be there. “It might seem a tiny support, but people are very pleased and grateful,” he says, adding with grief that the unemployment rate has reached alarming levels in the area and the number of families waiting for bread delivery is rapidly increasing.
“People have passed the word and many more people have begun to start applying for the program. The issue is more acute particularly in this period; you observe people and see that they used to live normally and make a living. However, they can’t afford even a piece of bread due to unemployment.” Without hesitation, Mr. Kocharyan notes what makes him put aside his own problems and live for other peoples’ concerns. “It’s certainly belief. Christianity preaches love and urges us to spread love. These days, people need love and kindness. If we all try to do something within our grasp, our country will win. One flower
doesn’t make it spring; we need each other.”
ickael Sahakyan, 22, carefully pulls freshly baked bread out of the oven, packs it for a yet another family and gives it to suppliers. The face of the young man with Down syndrome becomes brighter and brighter with every delivery. “People are in much need of this bread; they get happy when taking the bread and we get happy, too. I love my job very much; this place exudes love,” says Mr. Sahakyan as he continues his work, which he says he missed when he was quarantined during the height of the pandemic in Armenia. Due to
chronic heart issues, he had to remain home. The young baker is one of the key figures for whom — or thanks to whom — this unique cafe was first opened, and he has become an integral part of the Emilie Aregak Center family. “Having worked in Emili Aregak with children and adolescents with disabilities for about ten years,” says the director, Tigranuhi Hakobyan, “we realized we needed to create programs for the youth, since our beneficiaries didn’t know what to do or where to work once they became young adults. For example, we helped Mickael … who had been our beneficiary for eight years, to apply to the vocational college
“We have overcome our financial difficulties by doing what we do best: helping people.”
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where he majored in cooking. During that time, Mickael needed to do an internship as part of the course, for which he had applied to several companies. However, it was nearly impossible for a person with Down syndrome to find an internship in Gyumri, a place that has very few employment opportunities,” she says. “Mickael’s applications were rejected, so we decided to provide him with a chance to do his practice in our center’s kitchen.” Fate again smiled upon the young man when, during his internship in May 2016, a call for grants was
announced in Armenia for small organizations to encourage the development of an entrepreneurial civil society. “We had a number of discussions,” recalls the director. “Since at the time there were very few bakeries in Gyumri we decided to create a bakery and cafe where our center’s young people, and their mothers, could work and become more financially secure. Moreover, we had the opportunity to provide our mothers with opportunities to enhance their capacity, develop cooking skills and apply those practically.”
“One flower doesn’t make it spring; we need each other.”
Ms. Hakobyan notes that the program also contributes to the financial sustainability and diversity of resources of the Emili Aregak Center. She also adds that the center sponsors a therapeutic handicraft program, exhibiting those works in what is now the cafe. “We thought, ‘why not use the cafe and display these handicrafts there?’ “We also cultivate herbs in our garden and have begun selling teas from what we harvest. These initiatives increase the skill sets of our youth and contribute to their further integration into society.” In a culture that has historically hidden children with special needs from public view, these programs “promote public awareness of the working capacity of people with disabilities,” she says. The cafe has been highly successful, exceeding expectations. Although the team was concerned the initiative would not be accepted by society, and some suggested they try not to call too much attention to it, the center’s leaders decided to take a risk and vigorously promote the business created around Mr. Sahakyan. “The initial stage was very hard: We changed the location three times. For us, it was of utmost importance to have a cafe in the heart of Gyumri, so that people would pass it by, whether they wanted to or not, and see the bakery, the cafe. We found a forgotten place in the city center; a dilapidated, dirty area with no existing road that you couldn’t walk across. However, a few months after we looked at the location, road reconstruction kicked off and now the street has become one of the most beautiful and favorite parts of the city,” Ms. Hakobyan says. Arevik Engoyan, 30, bakes each day from early morning to early afternoon.
Major investments have been made to renovate the facility and to purchase modern equipment built to accommodate the employees’ special needs. “With appropriate and sensible design, we have demonstrated that even a very old historical building can be completely adapted for people with disabilities — and our concern for people with special needs has become contagious,” the director says with enthusiasm. “We coordinated a flash mob demonstrating how inconvenient the city streets are for people on crutches or in wheel chairs, which has prompted the municipality to make more of our streets accessible to all,” she adds. “Although we knew that it was a risky venture, we put all our love into this work. And Gyumri’s residents have responded. This is not a simple job; but it is an opportunity for all.”
rior to the pandemic, the 750-square foot cafe was open every day. The typical workday began at 5 a.m. and ended after its closure at 10:00 p.m. Much of the baking was accomplished by 8:30, just before opening; eight types of bread, and 15 types of pastries, sandwiches and cakes were meticulously arranged in glass showcases. And fresh straw baskets were stacked for customers, who began to file through the cafe doors at 9. The cafe — which serves a coffee so delicious the deputy prime minister declared he should travel daily to Gyumri for it — employed 16 people, six of whom have special needs: Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy. Other staff members include single mothers and others from the city’s marginalized populations. The staff of the cafe — conscious of the support of the Caritas and Emilie Aregak Center — understood
this was not just an ordinary business venture, but a family whose members treat one another with love. This family proved its strength and dedication during the harshest days of the pandemic, overcoming challenges with dignity even as they had to chart another course. “The pandemic made us step back from our mission and selfisolate,” says its director. “For so many years our goal has been to break out of isolation, to integrate people with special needs into society, but the pandemic forced us to reverse this course. In other words, we started moving in a completely different direction, deviating from our mission,” she confesses. However, she adds: “We have overcome our financial problems; we have not closed, nor did we reduce salaries or accept funds from the state. “We have independently navigated our ship through this storm, but enough is enough. We want to get back to our core mission of healing and helping our beneficiaries to get back to living life.” Yet in the meantime, the family of the Aregak Center and its cafe continue their outreach to the poorest of the poor in northwestern Armenia. Hovhannes Margaryan, a 27-yearold waiter at the cafe, looks forward to getting back to work. Due to chronic health issues, he, too, had to remain home during the worst days of the pandemic. But his thoughts remain with the cafe, and sometimes he joins in the distribution of bread for the poor. “We wear masks and help people,” says the man of few words. “We deliver bread and get excited with peoples’ joy. “People need that loaf of bread. And I need to help them,” he says. “We work with love.” n
We see dignity in all God’s children #WeAreCNEWA
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Read more about the efforts to help those with special needs in Armenia on our blog at: cnewa.org/blog
ABOUT THE AUTHOR A communications specialist, Gohar Abrahamyan manages issues of justice and peace in the Caucasus for local and international media.
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Running Out of Options An Iraqi family escaped ISIS, but their nightmare was only beginning by Dale Gavlak
e received a phone call one night from a kind man who was the agent in charge of rationing food for our district in Mosul; he informed us that ISIS instructed him to cut our food supply,” says Majda Habib Girguis, describing the predicament her family faced after ISIS invaded their northern Iraqi hometown in June 2014. “And then he gave a final warning: ‘If you can leave, go!’ ” So began their long nightmare, which to this day takes many twists and turns.
“In the morning, ISIS militants actually came to our door and told us: ‘If you stay, you either pay protection money, or convert to Islam. If not, we will kill you!’ ” she says with a shudder. “We knew if we stayed, we would 100 percent risk ISIS taking away our five daughters,” she says, her eyes widening. The militant movement had abducted thousands of women and girls — including a large number of Yazidis and some Christians — who then endured rape and forced marriage.
Mrs. Girguis’s Syriac Catholic family had already suffered the devastating trauma of having their eldest daughter, then-22-year-old Robila, kidnapped. The young woman and her brother were attacked in Mosul’s marketplace — one of many acts of sectarian violence that shattered the calm the city had struggled to reclaim in the
Majda Habib Girguis plays with her grandson, Bert.
takeover. The town, about nine miles from the edge of Mosul, with its imposing Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception — dubbed the “Clock Church” — was where the family’s historic roots lay. Their Kurdish Muslim neighbors in Mosul gave Mrs. Girguis and her daughters black Islamic cloaks, known as abayas, and headscarves to wear for the journey to shield themselves from onlookers. Nevertheless, on the way, they were stopped by ISIS militants at a checkpoint. “It was extremely frightening to encounter ISIS fighters right before our eyes. It was a nightmare to experience this. We felt a lot of fear because these people are very dangerous,” the mother says. Because of the family’s large size, they could not carry much for their escape and took only some money and their gold jewelry, used in the Middle East as a source of financial security against misfortune. “The militants searched us and asked, ‘Are you Christians?’ And they robbed us of our gold, our money. Afterwards, they said, ‘Ok, you go,’ ” Mr. Azza recounts. “Father Emmanuel, our priest who knew us previously, rented a home for us in Qaraqosh, where we stayed for almost one month, until ISIS attacked and took over Qaraqosh,” he said.
araqosh had been a thriving Christian commercial town of some 50,000 people in the Nineveh Plain. ISIS damaged the famed bell tower of the Syriac Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, decapitated its many statues, plundered it and finally set it ablaze. It was once Iraq’s largest church, gathering more than 3,000 people for its Sunday liturgies. ISIS destroyed and burned many homes and businesses in Qaraqosh. The town is now slowly rebuilding,
following coordinated efforts to de-mine the land, removing undetonated explosives laid by the sect. With the takeover of Qaraqosh in August 2014, the family once again fled to Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region. There, they sheltered at the Mar Elias Chaldean Catholic Church in the predominately Christian suburb of Ain Kawa. “At that time, there were no tents,” Mrs. Girguis explains. “We lived in the garden of the church.” But with hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians displaced in rapid succession, their numbers swelled to fill the church grounds that summer. An ebullient Iraqi Chaldean Catholic cleric, the Rev. Douglas Bazi, took these hurting people under his wing and helped set up a camp for the internally displaced, where the family first stayed in a tent, and later a trailer. “It was difficult. I got some clothes and I tried to make a small business selling them as a street vendor. One of my daughters, who speaks some English, worked as an employee in the health department,” says Mr. Azza, describing a few of the family’s attempts to make ends meet. Meanwhile, Mrs. Girguis worked in the church kitchen, where they set up a shop cooking chicken. She also helped to wash clothes. “What were we to do? We needed an income. We had to care especially for our daughters,” she explains. “Living in a tent and then a trailer was very difficult for the girls as the only facilities were public toilets and showers that everyone had to use. It was a miserable life.” Some months afterwards, an organization came to the church offering to take some displaced Christian families to Nitra, the fifth largest city in the Central European nation of Slovakia. They accepted.
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RESPONDING TO HUMAN NEEDS
aftermath of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Chaldean clerics were also murdered during those violent, turbulent years. Robila was with her brother, Ruad, to buy some things in the market when Islamic militants assaulted them and took Robila away, the mother recounts, her eyes filled with tears. “We tried in vain searching for her, posted information and her picture in the newspapers and throughout the governorate, but we have never found her. Until now, we didn’t know anything about her,” she says. Except some people said they saw the young woman with one of the ISIS men. “When ISIS occupied the area, there was no Iraqi government presence. Some Muslim neighbors had asked about Robila and where she could possibly be. But no one could find her,” says Mrs. Girguis’s husband, Tareq Boutros Azza, his face betraying his sadness. “Then, we received a letter in July 2014 with three bullets, threatening us to leave Mosul or ‘we will kill you all.’ And so, we left,” he says. “After that, someone saw a police circular of an Iraqi militant sporting a beard and headscarf — a wanted criminal. It is believed he was involved in their daughter’s kidnapping. There was a police report calling for his arrest. It said he is affiliated with ISIS,” Mrs. Girguis explains, but says there has been no further information about any arrest or Robila’s whereabouts. Robila’s abduction cast a pall over the family, causing great heartbreak for them all. So the couple and their remaining six children fled Mosul, initially for Qaraqosh, known as the “Christian capital” of Iraq prior to ISIS’ 2014
Although the family had hoped this could be the start of a new life for everyone, it was not to last. “The organization that brought us there told us that initially we would receive a stipend from the government and help from the church, including a food allowance. But this did not happen at all,” explains Mr. Azza, his greying hair betraying the concerns he has had to bear for many years now. “We attended language school, but there was nothing else,” he says of the family’s 11-month stay. “We met the president of Slovakia and told him about the situation,” Mrs. Girguis says. They told him their story and asked for the help that had been promised by the aid organization. But the president said that his own people are suffering from poverty and the kind of assistance they were hoping to receive could not be provided. “We realized that the organization had lied to us,” said Mrs. Girguis. “All of the 32 families, some 149 people, returned to northern Iraq, except for three families which stayed behind in Slovakia.”
Deflated from their experience in Europe, the family arrived again in Erbil in late 2016, where they would remain for two and a half years. “We started again from zero. We worked in Erbil to try to save some money to move to Jordan,” says Mrs. Girguis. Their longer-term hope was to obtain refugee status from the United Nations, with the view of applying for resettlement in Australia, where they have close relatives. In the meantime, their daughter who worked in a health facility in the northern Iraqi town of Gayyara received two threats against her. “There was fighting between the Iraqi military and ISIS. Someone tried to follow her home. Another person threatened her and told her to leave, otherwise she would be killed,” Mr. Azza says.
t was during this period — nearly a year, beginning in October 2016 — that the offensive was underway to liberate Mosul and the Nineveh Plain from ISIS control. The Iraqi army fought along with
largely Shiite Muslim paramilitary forces that also included some Sunni Muslims, Christians and other ethnic and religious groups. In addition, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters carried out coordinated operations to protect the northern territories. Left largely to fend for itself, northern Iraq’s Christian community undertook reconstruction and rehabilitation of the infrastructure, houses, businesses and schools of the towns of the Nineveh Plain destroyed by ISIS with financial assistance from Hungary and the United States. CNEWA and other church organizations and hierarchs, such as Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil and Archimandrite Emanuel Youkhana of the Church of the East, proved instrumental in rebuilding efforts. Still, “circumstances for traumatized religious and ethnic All seven members of Mrs. Girguis’s family live in a single, small apartment in the Al Hashemi al Shamali district of Amman.
Iraqi Christian refugees attend a liturgy at Syriac Church of the Virgin Mary in Amman.
minorities remain dire,” according to the Washington, D.C.-based United States Institute for Peace. “Thousands remain displaced, unable or unwilling to return to their homes in Nineveh province amid ongoing security challenges and other barriers to their safe return.” The organization points to the country’s financial crisis and renewed threats of an ISIS resurgence as obstacles to improved stability. Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Yousif Mirkis of Kirkuk and Sulaimaniyah estimates that between “40 and 45 percent of the Christians have returned to the some of their ancestral villages on the Nineveh Plains.” Some 102,000 Christians resided there before the ISIS invasion in 2014. But observers say their numbers have dwindled to around 36,000 and could further plummet. International lawyer Stephen Rasche, who has worked alongside Archbishop Bashar to shore up the Christian community in northern Iraq, said it has been difficult for Westerners to understand the deep trauma Christians in Iraq have experienced, in remarks made earlier this year to the Washington, D.C.-based Religious Freedom Institute. Mr. Rasche says the ISIS assault and occupation of their land was the latest terrible blow Christians have endured in Iraq, where “they have been systematically persecuted for decades and centuries. The cumulative effect of that is that they’ve been ground down to this remnant population that has just been brutalized.” Iraq’s Chaldean patriarch, Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, admits Christians are struggling after the ISIS destruction of their ancestral
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi families, many of them Christian, have fled to neighboring Jordan since the first U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 1991. Some have remained in the kingdom; others have returned to their homeland. Most Christian Iraqi refugees, however, have sought permanent refuge elsewhere. Once a bustling community of 1.3 million strong, Iraq’s Christians now number fewer than 100,000 people, most of them anxious about their future. Whether rushing emergency supplies to displaced communities in Iraqi Kurdistan in the immediate aftermath of the first Persian Gulf War or providing food assistance, shelter, bedding and counseling to families escaping ISIS in 2014, CNEWA has long collected resources and partnered with the local church to help families cope with the misery of war and displacement. To help CNEWA assist displaced Iraqi Christian families, call: 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or 1-866-322-4441 (Canada). lands and the encroachment of Iranian-backed Shiite militias on their towns. He has repeatedly called on Iraq’s government to stop inflaming sectarian tensions and institute rights and respect for all of Iraq’s religious communities based on citizenship, rather than ethnic or religious identity. Iraq’s new Prime Minister, Mustafa al Kazemi, met with the cardinal to discuss how the government could address challenges facing the country. “The church supports Al Kazemi’s steps toward achieving security and stability throughout Iraq,” Cardinal
Sako said after their talks in August. “Christians are proud of their Iraqi identity, and they feel more reassured, in light of the serious handling of the Al Kazemi government with the Christian file.” However, given their own personal experiences, not all Iraqi Christians feel there is a place for them in Iraq at this time. “We can’t go back to Iraq and we can’t even live in Mosul or Qaraqosh because the situation there is very bad, as the whole world knows,” Mrs. Girguis says. “We are tired and fed up with Iraq. Psychologically, we are destroyed, all of us.”
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hey needed to pull up stakes once again — but this time with even less money — for the journey to Amman, the Jordanian capital. Under international law, individuals must cross a border into another country to be recognized as a refugee. “We left Erbil for Amman in September 2019 with little money,” Mrs. Girguis explains. For that reason, the family had to travel overland by vehicles for some 20 hours, unable to afford plane tickets. But in Jordan, they have encountered obstacles faced by all The Al Hashemi al Shamali district, while in many ways an improvement, remains but a stop along the way to a final home for Mrs. Girguis's family.
Iraqis who have taken refuge there; unlike their Syrian counterparts, Iraqi refugees are not permitted to work legally in Jordan. “If it were possible to work here, that would be good,” Mr.Azza said, as the family spoke from their apartment in the Al Hashemi al Shamali district, where tens of thousands of Iraqi and Syrian refugees shelter in this crowded, impoverished area of Amman. “But legal work is not permitted, and for that reason life is really difficult. “What can we do? We are in this situation and have to deal with everything.” “Paying rent is a tough problem for us,” Mrs. Girguis says. “In 2014, when large numbers of Iraqi refugees escaped to Jordan, there
were many organizations able to support them. But now, that’s not the case.” International funds have been depleted, suffering donor fatigue over the long years — and more recently, economies have been wracked by COVID-19. Still, severe needs exist in the Iraqi refugee community. “We are currently a family of seven persons, as one of our daughters got married here to an Iraqi man,” Mrs. Girguis says. But even with their needs diminished, it remains difficult to eke out a life. “Earning enough to pay the rent is a challenge. I go to work cleaning homes just to try to collect rent money for this apartment. I receive about $20 for ten hours of work.”
“Faith in Jesus Christ is ever present to give us patience. We must say, ‘Praise God, for every circumstance.’”
The only material support the family has received has been seven blankets and a kerosene heater last winter. “Even this is not sufficient for the bitter cold winters in Jordan,” says Iraqi Syriac Catholic seminarian Yousif Barmious Ishaq, who also sought refuge in Jordan three years ago. “The limestone and concrete buildings have no heating system in place.”
he members of the family, as with other Iraqi refugees, feel as if their lives are on hold, forgotten by the international community. “I’m engaged to an Iraqi refugee girl, but I cannot afford to get married,” says Ruad, now 29. And although the family has an Australian file number for a resettlement request, there has been no news from authorities due to the coronavirus pandemic. Even after this is resolved, a positive response is not assured. “Honestly, our children’s spirits are destroyed. They feel that they cannot think about anything. It’s impossible to plan for anything,” says Mrs. Girguis. “A few days ago, we had problems at home. My son said, ‘OK, we’ll go back to Iraq.’ ” An argument ensued. “They cannot dare to think about possibilities, let alone the future. Imagine something simple, such as the girls would like some clothes. But we cannot buy anything. We don’t have a real income,” the mother says. “I tell them, ‘Please be patient, girls; we will go to Australia and God will open some roads ahead for us.’ But how many times can I tell them the same thing? It’s so difficult.” In these times of struggle and stagnation, the family depends upon its faith to persist. “Faith in Jesus Christ is ever present to give us patience.
We must say, ‘Praise God, for every circumstance,’ ” Mrs. Girguis says. “When we pray or go to Mass, we feel more relaxed, peaceful and we receive more comfort. This is all we can do, no more than this. “We cannot just ask, ask, ask. We are lost here. Although we are in need and we are hungry, we feel ashamed to ask for help, to ask for some money,” she says. “In past, before ISIS, when we lived and worked in Iraq, we were very generous. Our home was always open for visitors from everywhere. We welcomed our relatives, our friends, and others by hosting meals. But here our circumstances are very different,” Mrs. Girguis says, her voice trailing off. “We thank God, that he has preserved our children, our girls, and our faith in him, despite ISIS. This is the best thing that happened for us,” she concludes. As for what the future holds, the mother cannot even bring herself to speculate. “To be honest, at this time, we have no hopes or dreams. If we cannot be stable in one country, and feel that it is our home, it’s really impossible to have dreams. We had dreams before, but now there are no dreams. “There is no future at this moment; and we don’t know what to do. Two of our daughters had their education stopped because of the upheaval. Ruad’s fiancée doesn’t know whether to stay in Jordan or return to Iraq. Our situation is unstable here,” she says. “If we can go to Australia, we can begin a new life and discuss our future because we will feel stable and know that, at last, this is our country. We all are looking for this hope and a home for our children. “We are looking for a home, and this is our big problem.” n
We help families fleeing war find a place to call home #WeAreCNEWA
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There’s much more about refugees seeking to start over in Jordan on our blog cnewa.org/blog
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Based in the Middle East, Dale Gavlak has reported for CNEWA from Iraq, Egypt and Jordan.
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Samaritans The church reaches out to help families in India hit hard by the pandemic text by Anuba George with photoghraphs by Sajeendran V.S.
families some comfort of knowing that there are people to help, if they need it.” And the need is growing, as the people of this region face a world suddenly changed. With few resources and fewer jobs during this time of pandemic, they are turning more than ever to each other and to the local church.
ocated in the high ranges in the middle of a forest, the village of Ramdampuzha lies along the banks of a river. While beautiful, the river is feisty in the rainy season. Jomol V.K., 19, lives along the river with her mother, grandparents and her younger brother. “During the day, if the water levels rise, we can run to safety,” she says. “The nights are scary. If you’re fast asleep, you don’t know when the water will flood your house.” Jomol’s mother Kochu Theresia is the only member of the family who works and earns wages. She takes on any job that comes her way, from tapping rubber trees to chopping wood in the forest. She earns about $4 for a 10-hour work day.
“My mother works every single day of the week, if she can,” Jomol says. “But there’s never enough money.” Work and money has been scarce since the pandemic arrived in India earlier this spring. Today, she is out working for the first time in about four months. Jomol’s grandfather, 80-year-old Peter Pathurose Pathiyan, receives a pension of $20 a month from the government, while his wife, 70-year-old Rosy, receives about $16 a month. “My father left us when I was 3. We’ve had absolutely no contact since,” the young woman says from her house, which the local parish helped build. “Even though it floods all the time, we have nowhere else to go.” She shares that she should be in school, but school is closed because of the pandemic. The village does not have access to the internet, so she watches television as a local channel broadcasts class work for homebound students. Further up from Jomol and her family, 50-year-old Lucy Jose lives with her daughter Siji, 25. Tall majestic teak trees surround their home. Siji worked as a supervisor in
z Bincy Naiju stands with her children near the temporary home made available to them after heavy rains collapsed their home. u The Rev. Justin Kolamkanny and his team from the People’s Service Society Palakkad drive supplies to families who have lost their livelihoods due to COVID-19.
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n a drizzly monsoon morning in August, the Rev. Justin Kolamkanny greets his guests in front of the parish church in the small town of Vadakkencherry. Opposite the imposing church at the center of the village sits the parish grade school. But what should be a busy, noisy morning is, in fact, eerily quiet. The skies are blue, and it is breezy and pleasant in this part of the Palakkad district in the southern Indian state of Kerala. There is not a soul in sight; these are COVID times. Father Kolamkanny and his team from the People’s Service Society Palakkad (P.S.S.P.) have driven to the village to deliver supplies to families who have lost their livelihoods due to the coronavirus. A social service initiative of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Eparchy of Palakkad, P.S.S.P. works to empower communities in central Kerala. The society provides knowhow and skills training in farming, animal husbandry and carpentry to help men and women secure financial independence. Today, however, Father Kolamkanny introduces P.S.S.P.’s new venture, which he calls “Palakkad Samaritans.” “It’s a group of people, priests, nuns and volunteers who come out to help if someone in the eparchy dies of the coronavirus,” he says. “Volunteers are given proper health and safety training, working with government health officials. We want to be able to provide
CNEWA Connection t Father Kolamkanny, right, stands with his assistant from the social service society, the Rev. Sebin Urukuzhiyil. u Lissy Joey Pakkathukunnel, a day laborer, has not been able to work in months. uu Father Kolamkanny delivers supplies to Lucy Jose, who lives with her daughter, Siji.
India’s dynamic Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholic churches are models of service that reach out to the most vulnerable and marginalized throughout the subcontinent. As witnesses of the Gospel, sisters, priests and lay people reach out to the forgotten, feed the hungry, heal the sick and lift the lowly from their poverty. CNEWA has long partnered with India’s pioneering communities of men and women religious and eparchial social service societies as they address abject poverty, alcoholism, H.I.V. and AIDS, leprosy, emotional and physical special needs, natural disasters and pandemics. To support the compelling apostolates of the Eastern churches in India, call: 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or 1-866-322-4441 (Canada).
a women’s hostel in the city of Trichur, but she has been home for the last five months, the hostel closed. “We live on forest land,” Lucy says. “There are no documents to prove this house is ours, even though my family has lived here for 40 years.” Father Kolamkanny explains that most of the people in this village and its neighboring areas have migrated from cities, such as Palai, Kottayam and Kanjirapally.
“The poverty there brought them to work and settle here in these villages,” he says. “Even though they live in these houses, there are no documents to prove their ownership. They can be asked to leave at any time.” Father Kolamkanny and his assistant from the social service society, the Rev. Sebin Urukuzhiyil, are no strangers to the village, as they work with its people regularly.
“The lockdown really affected the livelihood of people here,” Father Urukuzhiyil says. “Everybody who works, men and women, is paid daily wages. If there’s no work, they don’t earn. And if they don’t earn, there’s no food to put on the table.” Going house to house, the priests distribute emergency kits, thanks to the generosity of CNEWA and its donors, and will help feed all the villagers for about three weeks. “We have rice, lentils, flour, biscuits, onions, sugar, spices, oil, washing soap, washing powder, sanitizers and masks in this kit,” Father Kolamkanny says. “For Onam, a festival celebrated by everyone in Kerala irrespective of their religion, the state government will provide food kits, too. That should help sustain these families for a while,” he adds.
he government of Kerala reported the first case of COVID-19 in India on 30 January. And until the end of May, the state seemed to have contained the rate of infection; officials reported only three deaths. Since June, however, the number of infections has risen steadily, largely due to the return of infected expatriates leaving the Middle East and those working in other states of the country. This influx of returnees — whose high salaries contribute significantly to Kerala’s economy — is expected to continue until December.
“This is a small parish and we understand each other’s struggles.” Global health officials have praised Kerala’s efforts to contain the virus. While across India the recommended quarantine period is 14 days, Kerala’s health officials require a 28-day quarantine period. The state has also opened call centers to monitor the mental health of those who are homebound. As Kerala has the highest literacy rate in India, the state has had success communicating its protocols, which are more stringent than in many other parts of the country, and include social distancing and the regular use of masks and sanitizers. In addition to the pandemic, officials in Kerala have been preparing for what is expected to be an unusually wet monsoon season. In the last few years,
incessant rains have triggered catastrophic flooding and landslides — the worst in a century — that have killed hundreds of people, washed away or buried homes and livestock and destroyed livelihoods for thousands more. And then there is the economy. The lockdown to contain COVID-19, which extended in Kerala from 25 March to 3 May, resulted in billions of dollars lost, hitting hardest the self-employed and day laborers. Lissy Joey Pakkathukunnel is the only breadwinner in her family. The 49-year-old mother of five lives in the village with her two sons, 17-year-old Jobin and 11-year-old Joey. Her sister Thankamma also lives with her. A day laborer, Ms. Pakkathukunnel has not worked in months and there is no
social safety net to help her survive. “Since I haven’t been able to work, we have to rely on aid kits,” she says. Ms. Pakkathukunnel’s husband left her ten years ago. “He was an alcoholic and abusive,” she says. She reared her children on her own. Her oldest son is a driver in Trichur. One daughter is married and another is a seamstress in another town. The younger boys live at home and attend school, when it is open. “I lead my life according to the Gospel,” the mother says. “I live for the day. My faith in God gets me through. I believe God has the best plan for me and so I lead a peaceful life and don’t stress.” She also does not dwell on her suffering.
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“What’s the point in talking about my sorrows? We all have our cross to bear,” she says. “I believe in getting on with life; going to work and making sure my children are okay.” Father Kolamkanny explains that people in these villages — SyroMalabar Catholics — maintain a devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. “Prayer is their main strength. They recite the rosary every day, their belief in Mary as an intercessor, that she will get them through every obstacle, is very strong,” he adds. The parish and the community in this small village possess a strong bond. “The church is always there for them. And people also help each other a lot,” says Father Urukuzhiyil, who hails from the area. “When someone is sick and they need A small building on Joey Thomas’s rubber plantation now serves as Mrs. Naiju’s residence, until her home can be repaired.
help, the parish and the community are the ones they rely on for support and survival.”
hen Bincy Naiju, her husband and two children had nowhere to go after their house collapsed during the heavy rains last year, it was a fellow parishioner who came to their rescue. Joey Thomas, who owns 15 acres of a rubber plantation, gave them his annex. There, they set up home temporarily. “This is how we show up for each other,” Mrs. Naiju says. “We live here rent free and Joey has said we can stay until our own house is ready for us to move back,” she says. Mrs. Naiju is an economics graduate. She used to teach children before the pandemic. “But since there’s no Wi-Fi, I haven’t been able to teach online and no one’s allowed to come here,” she says. She has been supplementing her
income by stitching clothing for women. Mr. Thomas is also the headmaster of the parish’s Sunday catechetical program. When someone needs to go to the hospital, it is he who takes them in his van. “This is how we are as a community. This is a small parish and we understand each other’s struggles,” he says. Mr. Thomas has had his own problems running the estate. “This is forest land,” he says. “That means we have animals — elephants, deer, boar — coming down from the mountains pretty much any time of day or night to look for food.” It is latex tapping season on the estate. Tree trunks are cut with a scalpel, and coconut shells tied to the trunk capture the white liquid from which rubber is made. “Elephants and deer love the sweetness of the latex. So they come down and trample all over the plantation,” he says.
Elephants, deer and monkeys are protected by law in India. Any act that endangers these animals, kills or injures them is punishable under the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 and carries a jail term as well as a fine. “Some people in the nearby villages grow pineapple and jackfruit. Elephants can smell them a mile off. They come down from the hills to eat these and have trampled and destroyed entire plantations,” he says. Father Kolamkanny tells us of a parishioner who planted a thousand rubber trees. “A herd of elephants came down and destroyed 900 of them because they wanted the latex,” he says. “He had put everything into the estate. He was suicidal and we had to be there with him, listening and counseling."
tephan Thomson Thunduvila built his own home. “But I can’t work anymore
since I hurt my arm,” says the mason. “Now, it hurts all the time.” Mr. Thunduvila’s family is going through a financial crisis. The only earning member of the family is his son Sijo, who works in a factory in Cochin. His younger son, Justin, who lives at home with his parents, lost his job when the lockdown came into force in March. He has not been able to find work since. “My wife, Mariamma, and I both have health problems,” he says. “The nearest hospital is six miles away. There’s no public transport, so we can’t get to it. We’ve been suffering,” he says. But Mr. Thunduvila’s faith in God is what carries him through these difficult times. “Jesus and Mother Mary look out for me and my family. I have immense faith in him,” he says. “With his grace I have made it until now and I know I will in the future.” n
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FOR MORE ON THE CHALLENGES INDIA IS FACING DURING THE PANDEMIC, VISIT OUR BLOG AT cnewa.org/blog
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Anubha George is a former BBC editor and writes on Kerala culture. Based in Cochin, her work has been published in Scroll.in and The Good Men Project, among others. She also teaches journalism at India’s leading media schools.
Is the Only Thing We Have
Lebanon’s deadly explosion in August was the latest crisis to hit the country’s people by Doreen Abi Raad
assia Fahed will never forget the day. It was just after 6 p.m. on 4 August. She and her nearly 2-yearold daughter Heaven were alone in their apartment, about five miles from the port of Beirut. Her husband, Issac, was not at home. Mrs. Fahed heard the explosion and went to the balcony to see what was happening. “I saw this huge mushroom cloud in the sky,” she recalls. While rushing inside to get her phone to call her husband, the second explosion erupted. Glass from the windows shattered all around, falling on her daughter, who was sitting on the couch. “Jesus protected her, truly. There was not even one scratch on her,” Mrs. Fahed exclaims, her eyes still wide with amazement. It was a moment now etched in her memory — and in Lebanon’s history. The explosion was one of the largest non-nuclear blasts ever
recorded, with buildings damaged more than 12 miles away. The blast is blamed on 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate stored for years in a warehouse. As of 30 August, the disaster had killed 190 people, injured more than 6,500 people and left more than 300,000 people homeless. In addition to thousands of damaged homes, 159 schools were damaged, several churches, six hospitals and 20 health clinics. More than 70,000 workers are estimated to have lost their jobs as a result of the catastrophe. For Lebanon, it is one more painful wound in the country’s long history. But for Mrs. Fahed, and many others in the country, the explosion was another reminder of the fragility of life. Religious sisters attend a vigil outside the Sisters of the Rosary Hospital in Beirut, praying for victims of the massive explosions at the Beirut port.
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CNEWA Connection At the Socio-Medical Intercommunity Dispensary in the Naba neighborhood of Beirut, people receive a hot meal to take back back to their homes.
The explosion that rocked Beirut on 4 August decimated neighborhoods and altered the lives of thousands of families forever. It also brought into sharp relief a number of other deepseated issues, ranging from governmental corruption and negligence to socioeconomic and political crisis. “Do not let Lebanon fall into despair,” pleaded Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Bechara Peter Rai in a CNEWA-sponsored webinar on 10 September. To that end, CNEWA has launched a campaign to assist the vibrant churches of the country as they seek to address Lebanon’s fragile Catholic health care and school systems, the most important network of social services for all Lebanese in the country. The Holy See’s Congregation for the Eastern Churches has charged CNEWA with coordinating worldwide Catholic assistance to help Lebanon’s churches take the lead. To join us, call: 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or 1-866-322-4441 (Canada). It is a life that has become progressively harder for Lebanon’s struggling lower and middle classes, with many families, including Mrs. Fahed’s, now in need of help. Her family’s story offers one glimpse into the problems so many in the country have been facing, problems that began long before the disaster in early August. As with so many in Lebanon today, hers is a story of unexpected
setbacks and hardships — but also of tenacity and faith.
arly in their relationship, before they were married, Issac and Gassia Fahed began a tradition: choosing not to exchange gifts at Christmas. “Instead, we decided that we will make others happy — needy people,” Mrs. Fahed explains.
They approached the Howard Karagheusian Commemorative Corporation, a non-profit community and health center in Beirut’s predominantly Armenian neighborhood of Bourj Hammoud, asking to be provided with the names of two or three families with children, as well as those families’ specific needs. The reason they selected Karagheusian, Mrs. Fahed says, is because it is “one of the most trusted organizations in Lebanon. The management and staff, the group of people that work with Karagheusian are dedicated and committed. And I know that whatever they receive — every drop of water — they give to the needy.” Issac dresses as Santa Claus, and the couple visit the families. “We went and spent time with them and gave them gifts. Our target was to not only help them financially, but to bring them love and joy. We told them about Jesus, and that Christmas is the season for giving and how God sent his one and only son to the world,” Mrs. Fahed explains. “We enjoyed it so much, we did it at Easter as well,” she adds. “Now, instead of helping the needy, we are the needy,” she says, her eyes welling with tears. “I couldn’t have imagined that the roles would reverse like this.” The economy has been faltering in Lebanon for the last several years, and the lack of job opportunities has caused many Lebanese, particularly university graduates, to leave the country. The situation spiraled further downward by October 2019; that is when hundreds of thousands of Lebanese began to protest —
Gassia Fahed and her daughter, Heaven, now live in Zalka, a suburb on the eastern end of Beirut.
Christian and Muslim alike — against the corruption, the economic mismanagement and the sectarian politics that have beleaguered this eastern Mediterranean country for decades. The protests paralyzed Lebanon, with banks closed for two weeks, triggering an accelerated economic and financial crisis. Banks then imposed capital control measures, such as curbing transfers of money abroad and setting limits on withdrawals. Even the wealthy are unable to access their funds from the bank. In a country accustomed to using two currencies — the U.S. dollar and the Lebanese pound — the Lebanese were shocked to find there was limited access to dollars, even from their own accounts. The Lebanese currency, which had remained pegged to the dollar at an unchanged rate since 1997, was losing value. Unemployment skyrocketed. Many of those who still had jobs saw their salaries slashed by 40 to 50 percent in order to remain employed. As the economy continued its downward slide, the coronavirus and its accompanying lockdown measures plunged still more people into poverty. The Faheds both worked in the entertainment sector — Issac as a distribution and marketing manager for a chain of movie theaters and Gassia as a marketing manager for a company that distributes Hollywood movies to cinemas in Lebanon and the Middle East. With theaters closed during the pandemic lockdown, they both lost their respective jobs. Mrs. Fahed’s father, a taxi driver in his 60’s, also saw his livelihood affected, first with the economic
“How could we survive if not for the help of the church?” downturn following the mass protests. He stopped working during the lockdown, as he has chronic diseases that put him at high risk for health complications. In Lebanon, there is no government-provided assistance or social services. There are no unemployment benefits, no food stamp programs and no stimulus payments. When adversity hits, there is no safety net on which to rely except assistance from the church, nongovernmental agencies and charities that step in to fill the void. With the compounded financial difficulties, the couple and their daughter moved in with Mrs. Fahed’s
parents, in her childhood home in Zalka, a suburb of Beirut, in order to share expenses. Living together gives little Heaven the opportunity to form a special bond with her grandparents, but space is cramped in the small twobedroom apartment. Mrs. Fahed (née Keloukian), who has a graduate degree in business administration, is vibrant and outgoing, with a positive attitude. “I like being committed to something,” she says. While attending university, the young woman discovered she loved swimming. That commitment led to her becoming a swimming champion; in October 2019, at 37,
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People flee the site of the explosion in the Lebanese capital’s port.
classes online, at a reduced hourly rate, in order to have some income.
she represented Lebanon in an international competition in Cyprus and was awarded one medal for second place and two medals for third place. Mrs. Fahed even shared her love of swimming as an “aqua babies” instructor on weekends. And with her accomplished English skills, she also worked part time at a language center. “I am not a lazy person. I am a hard worker. All my hobbies I have turned into a business so that I can help to provide,” she says. But her opportunities to work as a swimming instructor were wiped out when the hotel where she offered classes closed its pool — an effect of declining tourism following Lebanon’s massive protests. And with the pandemic, the language center, as with all educational institutions, had to shutter. Still, Mrs. Fahed persisted and proposed to the center’s management that she teach English
s Lebanon teeters toward economic collapse, the value of the Lebanese currency has lost more than 80 percent of its value, dramatically impacting the country's ability to import basic goods. Prices have soared. According to data released by the Central Administration of Statistics, consumer goods’ prices have risen on average by 112 percent from July 2019 to July 2020 — with food and non-alcoholic beverage prices rising by an alarming 336 percent. Now, a monthly salary of 1.5 million Lebanese pounds is worth $200, compared with $1,000 last year. As with so many Lebanese who defined themselves as middle class, the Faheds are finding themselves on the edge of poverty, struggling to afford essentials. To compensate, they have made adjustments to their diet, relying on
vegetables, lentils and other grains. “We just eat the basics,” Mrs. Fahed says. Meat is now considered a luxury. Even the Lebanese army announced in June its decision to remove meat from its soldiers’ diets as part of austerity measures. An August report by the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia warned that more than 55 percent of Lebanon’s population is now trapped in poverty and struggling to meet their basic needs for bare necessities. This figure is almost double the poverty rate recorded for the previous year, which stood at 28 percent. Statistics on extreme poverty have tripled between 2019 and 2020, from 8 percent to 23 percent. For now, the income Mrs. Fahed earns from her language courses is able to provide food for the family, as the couple has tried to think of ways to reduce their expenses. “I even insisted to do potty training early for my daughter so we don’t pay for diapers. It was very hard.” With a second child on the way and without access to insurance for her pregnancy, Mrs. Fahed now is a beneficiary of the Karagheusian Socio-Medical Center, which is funded in part by Catholic Near East Welfare Association. Karagheusian has operated in Lebanon, Syria and Armenia for more than 95 years. A team of 55 rotating physicians plus a staff of 50 serves 4,500-4,800 patients a month at the Bourj Hammoud clinic. Mrs. Fahed’s monthly doctor visits, all the blood and diagnostic tests as well as the daily dose of four vitamins she needs for her pregnancy are offered at Karagheusian at no charge. “They are amazing people. They have good hearts,” she says of the Karagheusian team. “They smile,
they are so positive. I feel at home there. No one makes me feel that I’m needy. On the contrary, they welcome me; they welcome my husband and daughter. They are super friendly, and they follow up.” “I have the peace of mind that, when it comes to my baby’s delivery, Karagheusian will take care of it.” Little Heaven also benefits from regular visits with a pediatrician and routine vaccinations at Karagheusian, as will her future sibling.
oday, Mrs. Fahed notes the irony of their brush with danger. Amid the risks of COVID-19, she stresses, “We were super cautious” — all her family adhered to confinement measures, wearing masks and social distancing. The blast rattled in her a realization: “Even in my house, I am not safe. The hardest thing as a mother is that I can’t give safety to my daughter.” The explosions of that early August evening are still causing aftershocks. The government is in turmoil. Neighborhoods were left in ruin. Hospitals were overwhelmed. Indeed, many of the institutions people have come to rely on have been severely damaged — including the clinic operated by the Karagheusian center. “Some people, when they go through challenges or bad situations, they blame it on someone or a bigger power,” she says. “But because of my strong faith in the Lord, I never questioned what God was in doing all this. On the contrary, I’m grateful that I’m alive, my husband is alive, my daughter is alive and I’m having another baby.” With each new crisis, Mrs. Fahed says, the Lebanese people repeat the same reassurances. “ ‘Things will get better. We have hope.’ But
unfortunately, things get worse and worse. Where is the government to take up its responsibility for the people? We are at the end of our rope. We need a miracle in this country. “Faith is the only thing we have now. Literally, the only thing,” she stresses. “That’s the reason I can still smile. How would we survive if not for the help of the church?” As part of its continuing efforts amid Lebanon’s economic crisis, CNEWA — in coordination with its partners, including Caritas Lebanon — distributed food parcels, each totaling over 75 pounds, to nearly 6,000 families in areas affected by the disaster. The contents of the food parcels follow international standards in order to provide basic nutritional requirements for a month. “The number of those slipping into poverty is increasing, day after day,” says Michel Constantin, CNEWA’s regional director for Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. “This is all driving the Christians into a state of despair, and fuels their desire to leave Lebanon,” he says, noting that an exodus of Christians from Lebanon has happened before — particularly during and after Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war. “We might have parishes without parishioners and churches empty,” he warns, noting that Lebanon’s churches administer a significant share of the social service institutions that teach, heal and care for all Lebanese — not just its Christians. Gassia and Issac Fahed look forward to the birth of their second child, a girl. They are thinking of naming her Hope. Despite all the difficulties in their lives, Gassia says, “Hope will give us hope. She is a God-given gift to tell us that in every bad situation there is hope — hope to survive, hope to continue, hope to smile and hope to praise the Lord.” n
As Lebanon’s people heal, we are there #WeAreCNEWA
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FOR THE LATEST ON THE CRISIS IN LEBANON, VISIT OUR BLOG AT cnewa.org/blog
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Doreen Abi Raad is a freelance writer in Beirut. She has written for Catholic News Service and the National Catholic Register.
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An innovative program in Israel offers prospects to women seeking asylum from Africa text by Judith Sudilovsky with photographs by Debbie Hill
ix months after the COVID-19 pandemic hit Israel, closing businesses, shops and schools, Tagra Bahata, 27, has fallen into an easy routine. Ms. Bahata, an Eritrean refugee who has lived in Israel since 2009, has set up her sewing machine in the small courtyard of her south Tel Aviv apartment and spends her mornings sewing face masks using bright African prints. Her daughter, Salem, 5, plays underfoot as her son, Samat, 10, busies himself inside doing the usual pre-teen, lazy-summer day things: watching television or just lying around on the bed. Once a week, Ms. Bahata takes all her cloth masks to Kuchinate, the African refugee women’s collective of which she is a member, to turn in her work. Before COVID-19, Ms. Bahata made Kuchinate’s signature crocheted baskets that were sold at their store, and with the money she earned from the sales combined with the salary she made as a cleaner in a busy Tel Aviv hotel, she was even able to splurge on an occasional luxury for her children, such as the television. But with no international tourists coming in, the hotels cut Tagra Bahata stands outside her apartment in Tel Aviv while wearing a mask of her own design.
down on workers and now her only income is from the masks sold by Kuchinate. Ms. Bahata was just 17 when she made the perilous journey from her homeland across Sudan, the Sinai desert, and into Israel seeking a better life. It took her a few months to make the journey. She only describes it as “very difficult.” Born into war, she barely finished second grade; now, she says, she is studying along with her children. There is a big white board on her kitchen wall with English letters, and tacked up on another wall she has a chart with the letters of her native Tigrinya tongue. Despite the difficulties, she is thankful for what she has and feels fortunate to be working. “I have children, but it is only me. I am alone. I have to pay for everything. With the coronavirus everything grew harder,” she says in Hebrew. “It became harder to pay everything. My children are little; if they see me crying, that is not good. All the time I pray to God. I thank God for the work I have making masks.”
ofounded in 2011 by Comboni Missionary Sister Azezet Kidane — known to everyone as simply “Sister Azeeza” — and South African-born Dr. Diddy Mymin Kahn, a veteran
clinical psychologist and trauma specialist in humanitarian aid and intervention, the Kuchinate collective provides a source of income and psychosocial support for Israel’s most vulnerable population of African women asylum seekers. Mainly from Eritrea, but also from other African countries, including Sudan and Nigeria, 40 percent of the women in the collective are single mothers. Some were forced to leave children behind, and some 60 percent are survivors of human trafficking, torture and rape in the Sinai Desert torture camps, where they were held captive for ransom by traffickers. Dr. Kahn and Sister Azeeza, who is from Eritrea but served with the Comboni community in Sudan, soon realized the standard form of one-on-one Western therapy where people spoke to strangers about themselves was not suited for the women survivors. Together with a small group of other volunteers they developed the format of Kuchinate — which means “crochet” in Tigrinya. Connecting women to their culture, Kuchinate uses a variation of the traditional African craft of basket-making as a form of therapy, explained Dr. Kahn. The women gather together, share a meal, and work on the baskets, with the
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CARE FOR THE MARGINALIZED
Ende ma nit fuga. Ipiet harchit eos ut et odita aceptam necus con cone simus, sintet licid quatus.
repetitive movements of the crochet needle becoming like a meditation. The easy conversation that flows from their meeting makes it easier for the women to talk. The collective has 200 active members who also receive psychosocial assistance, with 90 women working on salary. Its work has become even more critical during the COVID-19 outbreak as the danger and instability has compounded the women’s fears and brought many of their horrific memories back to the surface, says Dr. Kahn. As unrecognized asylum seekers, they are not eligible for any of the unemployment benefits the Israeli government provides its unemployed citizens. There are some 30,000 African asylum seekers living in Israel, most having fled from Eritrea and Sudan. According to the Israeli nongovernmental organization
Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, an estimated 7,000 of those are survivors of Sinai torture camps, but only a small percentage have been recognized by Israel as victims of human trafficking. By Israeli law a victim of human trafficking is defined as someone who was forced to work without pay for an extended period of time by smugglers. Those asylum seekers who are recognized as survivors have the right to psychological, social and medical treatment for one year. Those who are not, as with other asylum seekers, do not have access to any such specialized professional treatment, leaving this vulnerable segment of the population in a continuous state of untreated trauma. Although there are a few humanitarian aid groups who work with asylum seekers in Israel, Kuchinate is the only one providing psychosocial treatment specifically
z Berhana Gebrihiwet inspects a mask she made in the studio of Kuchinate. u Ms. Gebrihiwet pauses from sewing to sit with her son, Hiyab, 1, and daughter Arsama, 10.
to women survivors of torture and trafficking. “These women are survivors of torture and they are carrying 60 kilos of baggage on their backs. COVID-19 just added another 70 kilos; it is a very heavy burden to bear,” says Dr. Kahn. “The women have felt very desperate and are in a state of fear — fear for survival, fear of change, fear of losing their jobs. There is a lack of hope for the future. It is very stressful.” Their main goal, says Sister Azeeza, has been to help empower the women and make them selfsufficient. From its humble beginnings selling small handmade
items at craft fairs, the collective was really flourishing before the outbreak of COVID-19, she says. Kuchinate had become a mainstay on the tourist map in Tel Aviv for both local and international visitors. The women took part in museum art and photo exhibitions, pop-up shops and home sales. They found support and a sense of kinship with each other — coming in to work together, eating together and joining together for counseling. “People were coming in, buying baskets, listening to [the women’s] stories, coming to eat. We were not worried. We had many sources of income. Sometimes we had two to four groups a day,” says the Comboni missionary. “Now we have a long waiting list [of women needing help.] Many need psychosocial help. We help according to need, but now it is impossible to feed or pay rent for all.” Though often resented — and sometimes even feared — in the neighborhoods in which they lived, and vulnerable to government censure, at Kuchinate they felt seen, heard and appreciated, adds Dr. Kahn. “When people buy your products, eat your food, compliment you, they give you value, respect and dignity,” she said.
s Israel went into full lockdown in early March, the collective had to change the way they worked immediately, says Dr. Kahn. While the group meetings were one of the foundations of Kuchinate, the women could no longer come in and they were isolated in their homes, many living in cramped apartments and in stressful situations. “From the beginning we really had to pivot. We are trying to be creative. We were mapping the needs of our women on the telephone, speaking to all the women on a regular basis. We gave out raw material for the baskets by home delivery so women could
continue working at home and get a salary. We delivered food.” What helped the collective get through those first frightening months was the help of their many volunteers and the financial donations from Catholic groups, such as Manos Unidas, which provided food vouchers, and CNEWA, which provided funds to help women pay their rents for the months when there were no sales. A grant from Alight further allowed them to buy an electric bike and hire one of the men from the community to deliver the materials. The Jewish Good People Fund also stepped up to provide funding at that critical juncture.
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CNEWA Connection Tigsit Kofole wraps a basket made by African asylum seekers for a customer in Kuchinate’s store.
Even as Israel's native Arab and Armenian Christians confront ethnic and religious discrimination, Christian migrants from Africa, especially Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan, flock there seeking a measure of stability and opportunity. The Hebrew-speaking vicariate of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and the men and women religious who administer the Catholic community’s shrines and religious houses, are engaged actively in ministering to the many needs of these migrants. Join CNEWA to support these inspired initiatives in the Holy Land. Call: 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or 1-866-322-4441 (Canada). But, adds Sister Azeeza, looking back now, it was as if there had been a stroke of providence just before the country went into lockdown: The collective received a donation of sewing machines from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Some of the women were well on their way to learning how to use them, and she and Dr. Kahn had returned from a meeting in England laden with a large supply of African material meant to be used for the new cloth bags and book covers they were planning to add to their product line.
With the lockdown they quickly adapted their production to include face masks. They also expanded into making dolls for the children of the asylum-seeker community, as well as modern handbags. “It was like God knew what the women [would] need and he opened a gate for them,” she says. Sister Azeeza also provided spiritual support for the women during the lockdown, praying over the phone with them and sending messages of hope on their Whatsapp groups. They are now focusing more on their online sales and although people are buying fewer baskets,
sales of the masks are doing very well, says Dr. Kahn. The dolls are sold on their online store as a way people can make a donation to the children of the asylum-seeker community, or they can purchase a doll for themselves. The masks have also proven to be a source of encouragement for the women, as they are able to see people actually wearing them in the streets. “I see people wearing the masks we made, and I understand I have done something. It looks nice and it makes me feel good,” says Berhana Gebrihiwet, 33, who recently remarried after her first husband left her, and lives with her husband, 10-year-old daughter and a year-old son in a two-room apartment in Tel Aviv. She spent a year in a Libyan jail as she tried to escape from Eritrea, and gave birth to her daughter, Arsema, in prison. She eventually made it through the Sinai desert to Israel with her baby in 2011. It was, she said in a refrain heard from many of the women, “very difficult.” Mourning the now 13-year-old son whom she was forced to leave behind in Eritrea, Mrs. Gebrihiwet hopes to someday be reunited with him. Prayers from a booklet prepared by Sister Azeeza have helped her pass the more difficult moments, she says.
ockdown restrictions were eased in May, and a schedule was worked out for the women to be able to drop off their stock at Kuchinate and pick up new material. On a warm Tuesday morning in August, manager Eden Gebre, 30, one of the members of the cooperative who has been in Israel for eight years, checks the baskets
for quality control, while other women cut up vegetables and cook lentils for their communal lunch. The managers not only help keep the collective running smoothly, but also serve as role models for other women going through more difficult moments. “There are a lot of people with problems, big or small. Some succeed more than others; others can’t continue, their lives are very difficult,” says Mrs. Gebre, a mother of three, who recently underwent a liver transplant and was unable to work during lockdown. Her husband suffers from asthma and is not working now, leaving her to support the family. She spent six months in an Egyptian jail where she was shot and beaten before she finally made it to Israel. “All the time I say we have to think we are not little. Here in Israel everyone can work; we just need to take responsibility for our lives. I
want them to advance. I say, ‘Look at me, I am not young now; I have children. The most important thing is your health and if you believe you can do it and are strong, you can do it,’ ” she says. Some women slip into an office to speak privately with Sister Azeeza and Dr. Kahn, who have formed a warm friendship over the years of close collaboration. The two work together almost seamlessly to help the women not only to evolve themselves, but also to empower others. “I feel good about myself and have learned a lot of things, like how to forget about [my own problems] and worry about other people [who are worse off],” said Selam Gonets, 26, the community manager for Kuchinate. Mrs. Gonets has three children and just returned to work at Kuchinate after her husband recently came out of quarantine at a
Dr. Diddy Mymin Kahn and Sister Azezet Kidane speak to an asylum seeker from Sudan in their office at the women’s collective.
COVID-19 quarantine hotel provided by the Israeli government. During that time she had been unable to work because she needed to take care of her young children. Now her husband has been laid off from his job at a restaurant and she is the sole breadwinner of the family. Working at Kuchinate has given her a sense of purpose, she said. “I love to help when I can. [The women] come [to talk to me] and I listen to what they have in their hearts. This is my work, but I also want to give. I can also give help.” Mrs. Gonets sits on a low bench next to the group of women gathered on the sofas as she rhythmically shakes a pan of roasting coffee beans above burning coals, preparing her drink
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in the coffee ceremony traditional to the Horn of Africa. As the beans toast and begin to emit their warm fragrance, she has one of the other women pass around a straw tray with popcorn. Soon, she follows, walking among the group with the pan as the women wave their hands in front of their faces to breathe in the aromatic smoke rising from the beans. Short and energetic, Mrs. Gonets smiles often. She is well versed in sharing her story, but she lets it be known she will share only the details she wants. She had never had any intention of leaving Eritrea, she said. She was in 11th grade and a good student, and had planned to continue on to college to be a social worker. But then one of her good friends fled Hiyab Asmerom, 5, and Asima Taklah, 5, hold dolls made by the women of the Tel Aviv collective.
the country, and Mrs. Gonets was thrown in jail for two weeks as an accomplice until her father could have her released. At that point, she knew she would also have to leave. “I had never left home and I cried. It is more difficult for a girl,” she says. She was so naïve and unprepared that she left wearing nice clothes and open-toed shoes, she recalls. She went to Sudan, where she had an aunt in a refugee camp, then made her way to join her brother in Israel against his wishes. It took her one month to make the crossing and toward the end of the journey there was no water. A truck she was riding on packed with almost 100 people overturned and she was injured. Thanks to her slight stature she was able to convince some of the people to help her. “They wanted to leave me. I was very little. Men helped me. Someone
carried me on their back until we reached Sinai. … I will never forget it. It was so difficult. Finally we came to [the Israeli border] and the soldiers received us well there,” she said. “I knew so little, I thought everyone in Israel was Christian. I thought right away I would go to Nazareth, Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Then suddenly we saw the reality. You see people don’t like you because you are black. I still feel the stress and I pray. Then I met Sister Azeeza and she gives me strength.” Mrs. Gonets adds that she still dreams of studying social work.
s the women prepare for their general meeting, Sister Azeeza leads the women in prayer, reciting Psalm 24 in Tigrinya. The sister was pivotal in exposing the existence of the Sinai torture
camps as a volunteer with the Physicians for Human Rights-Israel. She began recording testimony in 2009 from men and women refugees coming in to their free medical clinic requesting treatment for strange and horrible wounds. Some were pregnant. For the women of the collective she is their confidante, their mother and their best friend. “At Kuchinate I feel calm. Here, Sister Azeeza and Diddy are like my mother. I don’t tell anyone my problems, only Sister Azeeza. What is in my heart, I tell her. It is like a family here, now I have support,” said Yerosalem Araya, 30, the new shipping manager and a single mother to a 5-year-old son. She used to work as a cleaner at shopping malls, but was laid off. Her husband, who was in the United States, divorced her after three years of initially requesting a visa for her and their son to join him. “During the coronavirus [lockdown] it was very difficult being alone. Kuchinate brought food to my home.” Ms. Araya graduated from a Catholic high school and spent two years in jail without seeing her family because she refused to join the Eritrean army. When she was released, she fled to Sudan, then to the Sinai desert to reach Israel, first with a group of people and then on her own. “It was very difficult. Very difficult,” she says, wiping tears away with a tissue. “When I saw a car of Israeli soldiers driving by the border I couldn’t even speak. I waved my hands. I didn’t care who it was. They brought me water.” Displayed on one of the front counters at the Kuchinate store is a yellow-fringed handbag that Araya helped design. In Eritrea she loved doing crafts and her mother and sister taught her how to make baskets, she says.
“Cleaning [houses] was depressing. Here I sometimes get new ideas and I can work it into my creation. I like to see when people buy the things I have made,” she says. “I want to do something good for my son. I want to give him a good life.” In the late afternoon, as the other women have begun to gather their things and leave, Achveret Abraham, 33, arrives from her cleaning job. She wears a sheer scarf draped over her hair and looks tired. She is one of the first members of Kuchinate, having spent three years at the refugee women’s shelter where Sister Azeeza volunteered, which became the base for the collective. Quiet and unassuming, Ms. Abraham arrived in Israel a decade ago, escaping the violence and constant fear through the Sinai desert. She was forced to leave behind a son, now 16 years old, whom she hopes to see again one day, and has two daughters in Israel: a 10-year-old with special needs and a 7-year-old. Her life in Israel is still a struggle, and she has found support in Kuchinate, Sister Azeeza, and her prayers. And the artist who has emerged from within her tells her stories through the stunning baskets she produces. Ms. Abraham works on into the quiet nights after she finishes her cleaning jobs and her girls are asleep, and her baskets have been featured in magazines and displayed at several museums in Israel, Sweden and New York. “I never thought I would have something in a museum. It is not easy work. I think hard about what to do, what colors to use. Sometimes my girls tell me what they think. They tell their teachers about my work. “I feel good; I feel happy to make something beautiful, so whoever buys from me will have something beautiful,” she says. “I am making something beautiful for the world.” n
When the future seems hopeless, we offer hope #WeAreCNEWA
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JUDITH SUDILOVSKY HAS WRITTEN MORE ABOUT THE COLLECTIVE AT cnewa.org/blog
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Judith Sudilovsky is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem covering social and religious issues in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. She is a correspondent for the Catholic News Service and her work has appeared in Our Sunday Visitor, Living Lutheran and The Jerusalem Report, among others.
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ave you heard the expression, “baptism by fire”? Well, permit me to describe my own as the new president of CNEWA and of its operating agency in the Middle East, the Pontifical Mission. Last autumn, when I first received word of my appointment from CNEWA’s chair, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, followed by confirmation from the Holy See’s Congregation for the Eastern Churches, I was excited at the prospects of following in the capable footsteps of my friend, Msgr. John E. Kozar, and of his predecessor, Msgr. Robert L. Stern. Under their leadership, CNEWA has grown in these last 33 years to be a powerful voice and an efficient engine in service to the Eastern churches. With a passionate professional staff and a stable of committed partners in North America and in the Middle East, Northeast Africa, India and Eastern Europe, the task of taking on the role seemed less daunting. But then the coronavirus pandemic swept through, closing worldwide everything in its wake: commerce, business, government, religious acts — life! For a moment, everything paused, and stood at a standstill. Our world suddenly and eerily went quiet, and dark. CNEWA, too, reflected this sudden turn of events. It was a sad day when we locked the doors to our New York offices. It was sadder when we heard of the many good works of the churches we are privileged to serve shuttering their doors. However, without skipping a beat, people turned to the church in their need, looking for masks or sanitizers and soaps, perhaps a hot meal or medical care for a sick family member or neighbor — or just a kind ear. And driven by their commitment to the Gospel, religious sisters, lay men and women, priests and bishops throughout CNEWA’s world responded in love, regardless of the faith of those seeking their help. They did what they could, despite the risks, and often with meager resources. These, the foot soldiers of Christ, then turned to us, the CNEWA family, and sought our help. As with you during this time, many of us were reminded
by Msgr. Peter I.Vaccari
of the words of the prophet Isaiah 55:6, 8: “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call him while he is near. … ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,’ says the Lord.” And although nothing prepared any of us for what came next, we rolled up our sleeves and got on with what CNEWA does best: We rallied our partners, gathered our resources, assessed and prioritized the needs on the ground, and told our story. We reached out to you, asking for your prayers, and for your financial help, too. And you have responded as you always have, time and again — with loving generosity. Thank you. Amid this pandemic — as we rolled out our assistance to the men and women of the Eastern churches as reported in this edition of ONE magazine and daily on social media — another tragedy struck. The blast that tore through the port of Beirut that summer evening in early August not only killed, maimed and destroyed innocent lives, but its fire and force blew the cover off of decades of political negligence and corruption, exacerbating the political and socioeconomic freefall tormenting Lebanon. Earlier this year, I made my first visits to our offices and sites in Beirut and Amman as part of my CNEWA formation. I could not but feel Lebanon was perched on a dangerous precipice. Its people — no matter how resilient — seemed near despair, helpless and unable to alter a dangerous course for a land they loved. And yet, I felt confident our team members in the Beirut office were as committed as ever to journey with all the people of Lebanon; committed to be instruments of healing and hope in their native land. When I visited the shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon with Michel Constantin, our regional director, he pointed to the inscription on one of the monuments with the powerful words of St. John Paul II: “Lebanon is more than a country. It is a message.” This message, my friends, is the power of coexistence: the ability of Christians and Druze and Shiite and Sunni Muslims to live together in reasonable harmony, a
conviviality that once dominated the Middle East for centuries, but sadly exists today only in Lebanon. This message of coexistence is not only important to uphold for Lebanon, and by extension, the Middle East and the entire CNEWA world. It is also important to uphold in our own lives, whether we live in rural Canada, the west coast or in the bustling I-95 corridor linking Miami, New York City and Boston. We live in a very divisive, violent moment, in what Pope Francis has described as a “throw-away culture.” We live surrounded by so much suffering, for many a time of hopelessness. However, I appeal to you: Our faith invites us to witness the truth in the words of the Gospel, “Yes, God so loved the world he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him may not die, but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16). So I ask you, join us in following the example of the Virgin Mary, who, as Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, “is the woman of prayer and work … who sets out from her town ‘with haste’ to be of service to others.” Are we not called to be people of prayer, discernment and haste, messengers of hope and healing wherever we are in the world? I ask you, too, for your prayers for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, that we remain an effective instrument of the Gospel. And finally, I plead for your support — however you can help. Please know you and your intentions are remembered each day when I offer the sacrifice of the Mass in the CNEWA chapel. Let my final words of this reflection be words of gratitude, gratitude to you for your interest in the mission of CNEWA and for your prayerful support and solidarity!
Msgr. Vaccari visits the St. Anthony Dispensary in Roueissat, Lebanon, on his February 2020 pastoral visit.
God bless you,
Peter I. Vaccari President, CNEWA
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