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RSS Feeds had the opportunity to go on an immersion tour of several countries in the Middle East, sponsored by the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. Jennifer Scroggins reports from Lebanon in early November. On Day 1, they visited Yaroun village.

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Day 1: Yaroun, Lebanon

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Day 1: Yaroun, Lebanon

The future is uncertain for Christian Lebanese young people.(photo by Jennifer Scroggins)
The old man clasps his hands as if he’s praying—no, pleading—for help as he speaks. “They need work … opportunity to work,” he says of the younger generation of Yaroun, a small village in southern Lebanon. “Most of our young people go away. Why? Because of the war—and also no opportunity for their future.”

What he is describing is a phenomenon all too common throughout Lebanon, which is seeing its youth leave its small towns—and often, the nation itself—to pursue education and employment in larger Lebanese cities or abroad.

In the south, a predominately Shiite Muslim region, the emigration problem is particularly acute as small Christian communities worry for their survival after some 2,000 years of existence. Once the young Lebanese leave home to make their way in the world, they rarely return to the villages in which they grew up.

In Yaroun, for instance, both the public and private schools have closed due to a lack of students. In the village of 1,500, only 170 are Christians. Among them, there are a mere 15 children in the village—only one girl.

Melkite Greek Catholic priest Marios Khairallah, Archeparch of Tyre, says in Yaroun there are no new marriages, no newborns. Many of the Christians he serves live in Beirut and return home to visit only on weekends or holidays. In many cases, he sees families being broken apart as children move on, leaving behind aging parents and grandparents.

Ironically, construction booms on the outskirts of many small southern towns, as large homes with gated entrances are beginning to overtake the otherwise sparse landscape. Those homes are the property of Shiites, most of whom have made their fortunes elsewhere, especially in the Gulf states, and now are returning to build estates, many for only temporary use, in their original villages.

In the land of the powerful Hezbollah party, the growing presence of Shiite wealth is more than just a symbol to the dwindling Christian communities. It underscores that behind the lack of jobs and educational options, the region’s war-torn history is the root issue.

Melkite Catholic Archbishop George Bakhouni(photo by Jennifer Scroggins)
“People need security from fear of war,” says Melkite Catholic Archbishop George Bakhouni, from the seaside town of Tyre. “They want security for the long term.”

Lebanon was plagued by wars both internal and external for a decade and a half, beginning in 1975. As recently as 2006, the nation found itself caught in a war between Hezbollah and Israel.

In the south, where water is scarce, cultivation of products such as tobacco and olives long has sustained the population. To return to any kind of prosperity, however, the region needs more options for its people—and that means support and investment from the private sector. (Nearly universally, the Lebanese decry their government as corrupt and neglectful.)

But in an area where war could break out at seemingly any time, private investors are seemingly impossible to come by. Thus, so is economic development. In the village of Ain Ebel, only 200 meters from the Israeli border, even the vice-mayor splits his time between his hometown and Beirut. Nevertheless, he says that with some help, the southern Christians will not lose their hold on the land they love.

“We’re here because our roots are deep in this land. But that’s not enough,” says Tarek Matta. “To stay, we need support from others. “As long as there’s blood in our veins, there will always be crosses on these hills.”

Matta speaks with an obvious passion and expresses his determination to find a solution for his region’s many problems.

Rita Sidawi(photo by Jennifer Scroggins)
In the meantime, though, young people such as Rita Sidawi, 20, will continue to move to Beirut for college—and beyond.

Sidawi says she feels “a special affection” for Ain Ebel. “Yes, of course, if we have work here, we stay here.” She describes the difficulties of being new to Beirut, where she feels like a stranger. It’s “like being born again,” she explains.

Bakhouni, the Melkite archbishop, insists that governments must take the initiative to make real peace. Only from there, he says, can the situation in Lebanon be reversed or improved. Says Bakhouni: “The one who is looking for peace will make sacrifices.”

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Charles de Foucauld: Born into an aristocratic family in Strasbourg, France, Charles was orphaned at the age of six, raised by his devout grandfather, rejected the Catholic faith as a teenager and joined the French army. Inheriting a great deal of money from his grandfather, Charles went to Algeria with his regiment, but not without his mistress, Mimi. <br /><br />When he declined to give her up, he was dismissed from the army. Still in Algeria when he left Mimi, Charles reenlisted in the army. Refused permission to make a scientific exploration of nearby Morocco, he resigned from the service. With the help of a Jewish rabbi, Charles disguised himself as a Jew and in 1883 began a one-year exploration that he recorded in a book that was well received. <br /><br />Inspired by the Jews and Muslims whom he met, Charles resumed the practice of his Catholic faith when he returned to France in 1886. He joined a Trappist monastery in Ardeche, France, and later transferred to one in Akbes, Syria. Leaving the monastery in 1897, Charles worked as gardener and sacristan for the Poor Clare nuns in Nazareth and later in Jerusalem. In 1901 he returned to France and was ordained a priest. <br /><br />Later that year Charles journeyed to Beni-Abbes, Morocco, intending to found a monastic religious community in North Africa that offered hospitality to Christians, Muslims, Jews, or people with no religion. He lived a peaceful, hidden life but attracted no companions. <br /><br />A former army comrade invited him to live among the Tuareg people in Algeria. Charles learned their language enough to write a Tuareg-French and French-Tuareg dictionary, and to translate the Gospels into Tuareg. In 1905 he came to Tamanrasset, where he lived the rest of his life. A two-volume collection of Charles' Tuareg poetry was published after his death. <br /><br />In early 1909 he visited France and established an association of laypeople who pledged to live by the Gospels. His return to Tamanrasset was welcomed by the Tuareg. In 1915 Charles wrote to Louis Massignon: “The love of God, the love for one’s neighbor…All religion is found there…How to get to that point? Not in a day since it is perfection itself: it is the goal we must always aim for, which we must unceasingly try to reach and that we will only attain in heaven.”   <br /><br />The outbreak of World War I led to attacks on the French in Algeria. Seized in a raid by another tribe, Charles and two French soldiers coming to visit him were shot to death on December 1, 1916. <br />Five religious congregations, associations, and spiritual institutes (Little Brothers of Jesus, Little Sisters of the Sacred Heart, Little Sisters of Jesus, Little Brothers of the Gospel and Little Sisters of the Gospel) draw inspiration from the peaceful, largely hidden, yet hospitable life that characterized Charles. He was beatified on November 13, 2005. American Catholic Blog You know, O my God, I have never desired anything but to love you, and I am ambitious for no other glory.

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