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Beirut organization cares for elderly in need

Teta Elham ("Grandma" Elham) receives a food package July 21, 2023, from Teta w Jeddo ("Grandma and Grandpa") at her apartment in Beirut. The Beirut-based organization, founded by Father Guillaume Bruté de Rémur, rector of the Redemptoris Mater Seminary in Beirut, provides hot meals, food packages, medicine, and human support to needy elderly suffering under Lebanon's economic collapse. (OSV News photo/Doreen Abi Raad)

BEIRUT (OSV News) — They have survived life’s multiple hardships, including Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war. Now, the elderly in Lebanon have been thrown into poverty amid the country’s crippling economic crisis.

“This last part of their life should be a reward for everything they’ve done. It is very sad to realize how much they are wounded by the circumstances of life. It is so hard to see their suffering,” said Father Guillaume Bruté de Rémur, rector of the Redemptoris Mater Seminary in Beirut.

In response, Father Bruté de Rémur founded Teta w Jeddo (“Grandma and Grandpa” in Lebanese dialect), an organization that provides hot meals, food packages, medicine and human support to needy elderly in Beirut. It reverberates with Pope Francis’ appeal to bring the elderly to the center of Christians’ lives and away from the margins of families, as he urged on July 23, when the church celebrated World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly.

The initiative was born out of the Aug. 4, 2020 catastrophic Beirut port blast, in which 218 people were killed, according to Human Rights Watch; more than 7,000 injured, of whom at least 150 acquired a physical disability; and at least 300,000 displaced.

Father Bruté de Rémur and some volunteers, in helping the blast victims, realized that while many non-governmental organizations were making repairs to homes, there was unaddressed suffering among the aged as a result of the economic crisis.

Father Bruté de Rémur notes that in Lebanese society, where life centers around the family, the elderly are highly esteemed. “They are considered wise people,” he pointed out.

There is no social security system in Lebanon. It is normal for adult children to look after their parents and elderly relatives, as well as supporting them financially.

“This is one of the huge problems we have now in Lebanon. The economic crisis is destroying this ability of the family to take care of their elderly. It’s very dangerous,” Father Bruté de Rémur told OSV News.

“Little by little, these natural bonds of solidarity between generations are fragilized by the economic crisis,” he said.

Since late 2019, Lebanon has been in a state of economic collapse that the World Bank describes as one of the worst in over a century. The local currency has lost around 98% of its value, unemployment has risen to more than 30%, and inflation continues in triple digits.

Poverty has overtaken nearly 80% of the population in the once middle-income country.
The French-born priest, who has served in Lebanon for 23 years, sums up the country’s dire situation by saying “it’s a disaster. It is difficult for people in the West to understand. We are like living in purgatory.”

Teta w Jeddo is currently helping 150 elderly people.

Celebrating Mass in commemoration of World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly July 23 under the theme “His mercy is from age to age,” Pope Francis in his homily said that “today the word of God calls us to be vigilant so that we do not marginalize the elderly in our families or lives.

“Let us be careful, so that our crowded cities do not become ‘centers of loneliness’; that politics, called to provide for the needs of the most fragile, never forgets the elderly,” the pontiff stressed.

The pope urged the fostering of connections between the young and the old — which is also one of the strengths of Teta w Jeddo.

“It’s something I discovered I have a passion for,” said 21-year-old Teta w Jeddo volunteer Sophia Ghorayab of spending time with the elderly during home visits with the organization’s beneficiaries.

“What is really touching is most of the old people that we help always have a smile on their face, no matter how bad their conditions are,” Ghorayab, a recent graduate in architecture, told OSV News.

The “common denominator” Ghorayab noticed among Teta w Jeddo beneficiaries, all of whom are Christian, “is that they all pray and put themselves in the hands of God. It’s what gives them strength to keep going, because no one knows what’s going to happen in this country.”

“This really helps me to see the importance of faith,” said Ghorayab, a Maronite Catholic.

In Beirut’s Mar Mikhaël (St. Michael) neighborhood, directly across from the port, one of the beneficiaries is Teta (“grandma”) Najweh, a petite soft-spoken widow with a delicate smile who lives in a modest second-floor apartment.

In her late 60s, Teta Najweh seems older than her actual age, as do so many senior citizens in Lebanon worn out by deteriorating living conditions.

“I never got a break from life,” she confides.

For 25 years, Najweh has been working as a clerk at a medical clinic, a 10-minute walk away, beginning her shift at 6 a.m. “I love my work. My boss is very nice,” she tells her visitors.

But Najweh’s meager wages have become worthless with the currency devaluation and, despite suffering from kidney disease, she continues working, as her employer-provided health insurance covers her dialysis treatments.

“Even if I’m dying, I will go to work,” Najweh says with a determined smile.

The memory of the horrific blast still haunts her, nearly three years later.

“Any time I hear a loud sound, I get scared,” Najweh said.

“I was sitting here on the couch. The window broke and glass was flying everywhere, all around me,” she said, recounting the disaster that ripped through the city like a tornado. “St. Charbel protected me. Nothing hit me,” she said.

Najweh pointed to a small end table adorned with a framed image of Lebanon’s beloved St. Charbel, a prayer card of St. Joseph and the infant Jesus, and the Holy Family. “The pictures didn’t move. They stayed just as they are now,” she said with amazement.

“I pray every day. First, I start with the Rosary when I wake up,” she said.

“I pray for you so you can keep standing on your feet and keep helping us,” Najweh told Teta w Jeddo visitors.

“For us at Teta w Jeddo, it’s very important to spread, in a very subtle way, the love of the Lord,” Father Bruté de Rémur said. Although it is not a religious organization, he pointed out that “we are founded on the idea of bringing Christ to the people with our presence, with our tenderness.”

Amid financial challenges that Teta w Jeddo faces due to Lebanon’s crumbling economy, Father Bruté de Rémur notes, “Thanks be to God, God provides.”

Still, “what we need now is support,” he said.

“Our dream is to have people who engage themselves in helping one elderly person for a year,” Father Bruté de Rémur said. Such a sponsorship program with families from abroad costs around $100 a month and can be processed on the organization’s website.

Doreen Abi Raad writes for OSV News from Beirut.

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