By Bishop Gerald Kicanas
One in a series
(Editor’s Note: Bishop Gerald Kicanas (right) of Tucson, Ariz., vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is on a trip to Lebanon, his ancestral homeland, and to Israel and the Palestinian territories, where he will attend an international meeting of bishops in support of the church in the Holy Land. He has agreed to be a guest blogger for us during the trip.)
DAY TWO: Jan. 6, 2010
BEIRUT, Lebanon — The day began with a hearty breakfast which readied us for what was an informative, engaging, moving and powerful day.
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It began with a visit to the Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center, begun in 1994 to respond to a few Sudanese refugees who faced tough conditions and needed special care. A life-size picture of Mother Teresa greets you on the wall as you enter the office.
It means so much to see the church aligned with the poor and the marginalized. Caritas Lebanon and Catholic Relief Services work hard to be present to those struggling and in need of support to assist and to empower them. I feel that same pride with programs in our diocese like Dioceses Without Borders, a cross-border effort to link the Archdiocese of Hermosillo, Mexico, and the dioceses of Tucson and Phoenix in addressing the needs of our community, and the Kino Border Initiative in Ambos Nogales, a Jesuit-born initiative which is serving migrants crossing into the United States and those sent back across the border. This concern for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers is what the church should be about.
In Lebanon, the Migrant Center reaches out to serve people, mostly women, from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Ethiopia, Nepal, Sudan, Somalia, Madagascar, Bangladesh, Iraq and, of course, the Palestinian territories. When Caritas Lebanon first got involved it had only one office and three people being served. This year there are 10 offices serving 110 people. They also serve a detention center with 500 people housed in a former garage, a bleak place where people struggle to retain their human dignity.
Migrant workers in Lebanon, as in other countries, can be subject to exploitation. They are brought to the country by agencies to serve mostly as domestic workers. They are taken advantage of by these agencies and, at times, they can be physically and sexually abused by their employers or their families. They have no rights and are living a kind of slavery. The Migrant Center provides legal assistance, social counseling, medical aid, and they are working to formulate a unified contract that would protect worker rights. They have begun an advocacy program to raise awareness in Lebanon of these abuses. A sign on the wall in the office shows kitchen utensils surrounded by the words that read, “Would you tolerate someone hitting you or mistreating you?”
Some in the country are not happy with the effort, not unlike those who criticize the church in the United States for speaking up on behalf of migrants and refugees or the unborn or other very vulnerable human beings.
A growing concern is human trafficking of East Europeans, mostly from Moldova, who are given “artist visas” when, in fact, they are forced into prostitution.
We visited a safe house run by the Migrant Center. A sign greeted us at the door which read, “Life is beautiful no matter how hard it has been.” On the wall hung a chain of paper cut-outs of women, each bearing the name of a young woman — a victim of trafficking — who was rescued from mistreatment. Fifteen women from countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and Somalia were living there that day. They stay three months to a year and later are returned to their home country. One could not but be moved by the sadness, fear and mistrust visible on their faces. Their eyes showed the pain and mistreatment they have experienced. It haunted me.
In every country there are countless numbers of insignificant and marginalized who are robbed of their human dignity. They deserve our attention and response.
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We left for downtown Beirut, which is being restored again as are many parts of the city. Building cranes are apparent all around. Shops, mosques, and churches stand amid a few war-torn buildings, stark reminders of the violence which, too often, characterized these streets.
St. Vincent De Paul Church in downtown Beirut is just a hollow shell, but a Nativity scene has been set up in a cavity of the building, a glimpse of hope for peace.
We came downtown to meet Bahiya El Hariri, who is the former minister of education and a member of the influential Hariri family and now a member of the Cabinet. Her brother, Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, was assassinated in 2005 which led to more instability. His son, Saad Hariri, headed the March 14 coalition in the most recent election in 2009 and is now prime minister, a role always held by a Sunni Muslim.
She welcomed us wearing a burqa veil. We were told not to extend a hand in greeting to a woman clothed this way, but she reached out and greeted us graciously. Clearly she is a strong, bright woman, wise in the ways of her country. She spoke of five difficult years that have ensued after her brother’s assassination and the many fears people live with. But the new election, the unity government, brings hope, a new beginning of Lebanon. There is an urgency to work together, to refuse civil and internal war, to seek common ground.
I was thinking of the polarization that sometimes exists in our society in the United States and sometimes even in the church, which happily has not erupted into violence but which needs to be addressed. True and honest dialogue is all that can move us from these polarities that divide and separate at times leading to violence.
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Madame Minister Hariri expressed hope that now reconciliation is beginning. No group can be eliminated or disregarded. She discussed the role the church can play in the situation in the Holy Land and the need for Jerusalem to be a city of peace. Peace cannot be realized by violence. She felt it important for the church in the United States to exercise leadership for peace.
She was very proud of the work of the Hariri Foundation, which has as its mission bringing people together for dialogue. She sees the importance of interfaith dialogue to address extremism in all forms. Extremism has no face, she indicated, and cannot be solved by a war against it but by efforts to reduce its bad influence.
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She hoped the United States would encourage tourism to Lebanon, so important for its economy. She emphasized the role of education and good citizenship achieved through voluntarism as important first steps toward change.
She reflected on the struggle with the presence of so many Palestinian refugees and the difficult conditions of the camps. This is a complex and delicate issue but the new government is putting in place guidelines for migrants to provide human rights and services. She spoke of the need to reduce intolerance of others because always the poor suffer most.
She spoke of the need for working with religious leaders in order for them to promote growth among the people. These leaders need skills and to learn how to dialogue and work together. They play an important part in forming the minds and attitudes of the people.
Lebanon is a country of the young, she observed. They must be actors for change. It is important that they be taught to lead and not just to follow. Sometimes religious or political leaders lead the young in the wrong direction. Youth must not be followers but determine what is constructive and beneficial for the well-being of their society.
Lebanese have two major fears, she thought: war with Israel again or civil war again. Yet the Lebanese are people of peace who want to thrive and prosper.
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We drove along the beautiful Mediterranean Sea, headed south to visit Saida and Tyr, historic biblical places important to Christians but areas that have experienced much strife.
We visited the Development of People and Nature Association which is a nongovernmental agency with which CRS is affiliated. They strive to help people identify their problems and difficulties and to accomplish positive change which sustains. They are involved in training youth and increasing youth participation in local political life. They are trying to inform and teach communities about environmental issues.
As we passed through the villages it was clear that there are still serious struggles in the South. It is an area that was hard hit in the 2006 war. All bridges were destroyed and many buildings as well. Restoration is happening through resources partly from Iran.
There are two major political groups among the Shiite Moslems — Amal and Hezbollah. You see that in the signs in green for Amal and yellow for Hezbollah often picturing young men who have died in fighting for their cause.
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In Saida we met with the Sadr Foundation, which is a Shiite organization intent on helping with women’s causes. It is named after Imam Sadr, who encouraged the Lebanese to rise above their clashes. He went to Libya and has not been heard from again.
One of the efforts of the foundation is to try to help Lebanese to stay in the villages. Now about 55 percent of Lebanese live in Beirut. They strive to assure the basic rights of the marginalized especially women and girls.
The director spoke also of the need for interreligious dialogue, especially among religious leaders. They play a major role in forming the attitudes of the people. It would be difficult to do this formation in programs of preparation for imams since most often the preparation of imams takes place outside of Lebanon.
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We spent some time in the village of Qsaybe in the South where a community project was being done by the Development of People and Nature Association. We met with the mayor, members of the local sports club and the “consensus team.” The group included men and women, older and younger. In the process the team we met with had done an analysis of people’s concerns through an idea fair in which people expressed their concerns and priorities. The youth wanted open space, a playground, and the adults a waste water treatment project. All got involved identifying and prioritizing needs. This was among the first times people were asked about their needs and they responded enthusiastically.
This sounded very similar to community-organizing efforts in many communities in the United States. It was interesting hearing the enthusiasm and pride of the community as they worked together to address their needs. However there were fears that hopes were raised but perhaps results would not happen.
Some ideas that came forward were realistic but some would involve the need for greater resources than are available.
As we were leaving, some of those present approached our car and indicated that they did not want to embarrass us or put us on the spot at the meeting but they wanted to say that: “We are not terrorists. We don’t want guns or shooting. It’s not how we live. We love life. Can you help us to ask the United States to keep Israel from attacking Lebanon? We trust you. We like you. But don’t give bombs to Israel.” I was struck by the power of their fear and the longing they feel for peace.
It was a full and fulfilling day.