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AmericanCatholic.org 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.

Special Features
Day 1: Yaroun, Lebanon

View ACO in Lebanon in a larger map

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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Josephine Bakhita: For many years, Josephine Bakhita was a slave but her spirit was always free and eventually that spirit prevailed. 
<p>Born in Olgossa in the Darfur region of southern Sudan, Josephine was kidnapped at the age of seven, sold into slavery and given the name Bakhita, which means <i>fortunate</i>. She was re-sold several times, finally in 1883 to Callisto Legnani, Italian consul in Khartoum, Sudan. </p><p>Two years later he took Josephine to Italy and gave her to his friend Augusto Michieli. Bakhita became babysitter to Mimmina Michieli, whom she accompanied to Venice's Institute of the Catechumens, run by the Canossian Sisters. While Mimmina was being instructed, Josephine felt drawn to the Catholic Church. She was baptized and confirmed in 1890, taking the name Josephine. </p><p>When the Michielis returned from Africa and wanted to take Mimmina and Josephine back with them, the future saint refused to go. During the ensuing court case, the Canossian sisters and the patriarch of Venice intervened on Josephine's behalf. The judge concluded that since slavery was illegal in Italy, she had actually been free since 1885. </p><p>Josephine entered the Institute of St. Magdalene of Canossa in 1893 and made her profession three years later. In 1902, she was transferred to the city of Schio (northeast of Verona), where she assisted her religious community through cooking, sewing, embroidery and welcoming visitors at the door. She soon became well loved by the children attending the sisters' school and the local citizens. She once said, "Be good, love the Lord, pray for those who do not know Him. What a great grace it is to know God!" </p><p>The first steps toward her beatification began in 1959. She was beatified in 1992 and canonized eight years later.</p> American Catholic Blog St. Paul talks about the Christian life as a race, and encourages us to run so as to win. So it’s not just OK, it’s commanded to be competitive, to strive to excel. But true greatness consists in sharing in the sacrificial love of Christ, who comes to serve rather than to be served. That means that this race St. Paul is talking about is a race to the bottom.


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