BEIRUT — Gazing at the colorful, glistening ornaments adorning the Christmas tree that brightened his dingy, disheveled living room, 89-year-old Gabriel smiled with a twinkle in his eye.
“I love to see young people working together,” he said of the Christian and Muslim volunteers who had come to decorate a Christmas tree in his apartment and bring a spirit of joy.
Gabriel was just one of 30 poor elderly Christian residents in the Beirut suburb of Ain El Remmaneh who benefited from a Christmas decorating project Dec. 9. It was a collaboration between Lebanese youth from the Order of Malta, a Catholic organization, and “Who Is Hussain?” a Shiite Muslim organization.
The two youth groups have previously united for service projects to benefit their respective organization’s beneficiaries, most recently in July, serving elderly poor an iftar feast during the Muslim season of Ramadan, hosted at an Order of Malta Lebanon center that was also attended by Christian poor elderly.
The Order of Malta Lebanon, established 40 years ago, is part of the Sovereign Hospitaller Order of Malta founded in Jerusalem more than nine centuries ago. It manages a network of 30 initiatives throughout Lebanon that include community health centers, mobile medical units and day care centers for the elderly and hosts 24 annual camps for those suffering from severe mental and physical disabilities as well as for underprivileged children and the elderly.
“Who Is Hussain?” was founded in the United Kingdom in 2012. The Lebanese chapter was established a year later. Lebanon’s “Who Is Hussain?” youth director, Jaafar Mistrah, says the organization’s projects target all levels of society and include activities such as bringing flowers to hospitals for the sick and poor and distributing food during its “10 days of kindness” outreach during the Shiite feast of Ashura. Its blood drive in Lebanon, held at the end of Ashura, broke the Middle East record for the most units collected in one day.
“In a country of 17 different religious denominations that has gone through multiple wars and crisis, the Order of Malta has never ceased to serve every suffering person, with no distinction, across Lebanon — even in the most remote villages,” Marwan Sehnaoui, president of Malta Lebanon told the Register.
“Moreover, the order has always reached out to collaborate with different faith organizations to be able to widen its scope of service in very sensitive areas. It is thanks to and through these collaborations that the order has become an instrument of love, peace and coexistence in Lebanon,” he added.
“Through our daily actions, we strive to protect what St. John Paul II said: ‘Lebanon is more than a country; it is a message to the world,’” Sehnaoui pointed out.
“When you see pictures such as a veiled [Muslim] nurse wearing the cross of the order, this is the message that we want the world to see. Protecting the dignity of every suffering person is a common value to all religions,” he said.
Gabriel, in his chair near the television, facing a dusty Divine Mercy image, reminisced about his life as the two volunteers intently listened while adorning his Christmas tree.
The Muslim charity provided the trees and decorations for the project.
“I worked from the time I was 18 until 82,” he said, sharing highlights of his varied career that included a position in a bank, translating an entire set of encyclopedias from English to French (it took him two years) and the night shift as a proofreader at Lebanon’s daily French newspaper. “Now I just stay at home. When you stop working, you rust,” he explained. So to keep his mind active, Gabriel is learning Italian via a book to add to his repertoire of three other languages: English, French and Arabic.
Gabriel’s long years of labor did not offer him the benefits of a pension, and his life is now one of poverty. His two unmarried sons, 49 and 52 years old, both of whom have disabilities, reside with him.
“I keep encouraging my children to be optimistic and to always persevere,” Gabriel said. His wife, who suffered from diabetes, died four years ago after complications from a leg amputation.
The three men rely on the Order of Malta’s monthly in-home food parcel distribution, which includes basics such as rice, pasta, tomato sauce, tuna fish and hummus. As part of the Christmas decorating project, the two youth who visited that day came laden with a food parcel as well as a Bûche de Noël, a popular Christmas cake.
Despite his hardships, Gabriel summed up for his visitors: “You know the Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life? That’s like me. Thank God, I’ve had a wonderful life.”
Reflecting on their time spent with Gabriel that day, both volunteers were impacted by what they experienced.
Nada El Sarbali, 22, who is studying nutrition and biology at Beirut Arab University, noted that in her volunteer experience with “Who Is Hussain?” and other organizations, she had never met with the needy in their actual residences. “It was overwhelming,” El Sarbali told the Register of the living conditions she encountered at Gabriel’s.
“When you see how they live, I thank God for everything I have, and there’s a good feeling inside [of me to help them] I don’t know how to explain,” the young Muslim woman said.
Malta volunteer Nathalie Safar, a 31-year-old pharmacist, concurred, “It’s the first time I saw someone living like this. They really need help.”
Safar, who is Greek Orthodox, noted that she was especially touched by how Gabriel, even amid his struggles, said that he’s “always optimistic.” A Maronite Catholic, Gabriel told the volunteers that he “never stops praying.”
“We are making them feel Christmas again, especially the family spirit, that someone is caring for them,” Safar said of the Order of Malta’s partnering with “Who Is Hussain?” that day.
Before blowing a kiss to his visitors and wishing them a “Merry Christmas,” the elderly man asked about one of the order’s young volunteers, now working abroad, who used to visit him. “I know when he comes to Lebanon to visit his family, he will come to see me,” Gabriel said confidently.
Gabriel is just one of the participants in the Order of Malta Lebanon’s Elderly Guardianship Program, in which the order’s youth volunteers visit the homes of lonely elderly people on a monthly basis. At the order’s community health center in the Ain El Remmaneh suburb of Beirut — Gabriel’s neighborhood — the Order of Malta Lebanon serves a weekly hot meal for the needy elderly in addition to providing medical and social services. Regular outings are also organized.
Amid a festive atmosphere at the Malta center, as the youth gathered before setting out for the Christmas tree decorating project, “Who Is Hussain?” volunteer Aya Jouni, a public relations professional who has a fashion blog, told the Register, “In Lebanon, we have many cultures and religions. It’s important for us to be working together as ‘one hand’ to help and support each other.”
Jouni, whose family has always had a Christmas tree since she was little, said she was also looking forward to her plan later that day: decorating a tree for her nieces and nephews.
Commenting on the spirit of the Christian and Muslim youth working together to bring Christmas joy to the poor elderly, Malta Lebanon President Sehnaoui said, “They are the demonstration that the things of this world — technology, materialistic things, ambition — have not yet succeeded to destroy the soul of a youth filled with love and fraternity. Yes, there is hope for better tomorrows.”
Doreen Abi Raad writes from Beirut, Lebanon.