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‘A bridge of smiles’: Food, fun and ‘shopping’ for Lebanese children
BEIRUT (CNS) — For 1,600 Maronite Catholic children in crisis-stricken Lebanon, Advent has awakened a ray of hope.
They were guests at a Christmas Village, organized especially for them by their archdiocese, with help from Catholics in other countries.
“The children are … suffering,” Maronite Archbishop Antoine Bou Najem of Antelias told Catholic News Service after welcoming a group of children to the Christmas Village on the grounds of the archdiocesan pastoral center.
“But today I am very happy for them. We are trying our best to give this Advent a deep significance so they can celebrate Christmas with peace, hope and joy, because Jesus is with us,” Archbishop Bou Najem said.
The children — divided into groups so they could fully enjoy the festival — came from 21 parishes in the Antelias Archdiocese, on the outskirts of Beirut, for the Dec. 8-10 event.
What awaited them was an oasis of joy, complete with rustic huts, festive lights, music, a spirited children’s entertainment show, food to eat and a take-home snack. Each child also got to choose an outfit of clothing.
The event was funded by donations from abroad, including Our Lady of Victory Maronite Catholic Church in Pittsburgh, the Maronite Diocese of Australia and the pontifical agency Aid to the Church in Need.
More than 5,000 Maronite children in Sydney participated to help make the Christmas Village possible, contributing from their own piggy banks.
“They are deeply concerned for the children in Lebanon. They want them to live in dignity,” Father Tony Sarkis of Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Catholic Church in Sydney told CNS at the Christmas Village. He added that many of his parishioners also have relatives in Lebanon now facing economic hardship.
The Sydney parish called the children’s fundraising project the “Star of Bethlehem.”
“Just as the star led the Magi to Bethlehem, this is our gift to Jesus — like the myrrh, gold and frankincense — so that the children of Lebanon will be given to Jesus while we give and are one with them,” said Father Sarkis.
“It’s all to put a smile on the face of our children here in Lebanon,” Father Sarkis said of his parish’s fundraising effort. “Although it is a big distance between Lebanon and Australia, this is a bridge of smiles that connects us.”
The financial meltdown that started in 2019, widely blamed on decades of corruption among Lebanon’s ruling class, has left four in five Lebanese living under the poverty line in the formerly middle-income country. The Lebanese currency has depreciated by more than 90% and thus devalued salaries for those who still have jobs.
Buses to the village were provided for the children, who were accompanied by parish youth group chaperones. Transportation has become an added stress for families: A fill-up for a standard car is now equal to half a month’s salary for minimum wage earners.
Archbishop Bou Najem praised the hard work of the more than 60 volunteers who assisted with the Christmas Village and the financial support received.
“We are really feeling this community spirit. Christians all over the world are helping us to stay in our country,” Archbishop Bou Najem told CNS.
As Lebanon unravels, waves of Lebanese — particularly young people — are leaving their homeland to seek a better future abroad.
“What we’re trying to do in our church now is to give hope to the families to stay in Lebanon,” said Father Nayef Zainaty, coordinator of social work for the Antelias Archdiocese, who was in charge of the Christmas Village.
Inside the village, after a visit to the crèche, children entered the boutique, gleefully pouring through colorful sweatshirts and sweaters and different styles of jeans. Volunteers were on hand to assist with sizes.
“We feel happy inside, because we see the children happy. The most important thing is we are giving them love and our smile,” volunteer Jocelyn Chedid told CNS.
With funding from Aid to the Church in Need, the clothing was manufactured in Lebanon. Volunteer Louis Hakim, using his professional skills as a business consultant, organized and coordinated the effort.
“Our primary goal is to make the children happy by giving them a quality product and to make them feel special. The second goal is to help factories in Lebanon stay in business,” Hakim explained.
Clothing also was purchased from local shops struggling to keep their doors open against the crumbling economy. Hakim recounted the reaction of a despondent shop owner to the purchase of items for the Christmas Village boutique: “This is rent for this month. I had no money to pay the rent.”
Their selection of clothing settled, the children assembled theater-style before a stage and each received a warm chicken kabob sandwich — a rare treat, as most families now cannot afford to eat chicken or meat. Food prices in Lebanon have increased by more than 1,870% since late 2019.
The Christmas Village guests were then roused by a festive quartet of horns and thundering drums. A young entertainer led the children in carols and action songs. They clapped, jumped and danced, and joyfully sang “I Love Jesus.”
The Antelias Archdiocese has other ongoing initiatives, including: “The Kitchen of the Priests,” preparing 700 hot meals twice a week; “The Pharmacy of the Priests,” helping those in need to obtain medications; and “The Family of the Priests,” involving clergy visits to families, to pray with them, listen to them and help them with their needs, including food, rent and tuition assistance.