Like water in the desert

Children learning the love of Jesus in the care of The Philemon Project.

Children learning the love of Jesus in the care of The Philemon Project.

And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward. (Matthew 10:42 ESV)

A cup of cold water does not seem like much, but in a desert place where parched throats burn and lips just long to be wetted for comfort, it is enough.

Today we visited two places of oasis for families who find themselves in that desert place: The Philemon Project and Our Lady Dispensery, both in Beirut.

The Philemon Project is a pro-social Christian preschool serving the poorest of the poor, those living at the extreme edges in this large city. They have about 60 young children aged one to five years whom are being poured into in ways that will eventually transform their families. These children may have two parents or only a mother as a caregiver. All these parents are working parents who don’t have the luxury of loving on these children at home. At Philemon, they spend the days, 8-5:30, Monday through Friday, in a clean, happy environment, being fed nutritious food, learning English, playing together and learning how to be pro-social, not anti-social, individuals. We learned that it is so important for children to have these experiences at this very early age so their brains develop the tools that will help them thrive as they grow.

In the midst of transforming a child, a family can also be transformed as the parents learn the skills to keep up this work at home. In homes where children might have had more yelling and hitting, those children are learning how to be good neighbors with their school friends and those same skills come home with them.

Elsie is the new managing director of The Philemon Project, bringing her own education in sociology and business administration to bring procedures to an even more professional level.

Elsie is the new managing director of The Philemon Project, bringing her own education in sociology and business administration to bring procedures to an even more professional level.

This project is employing women in meaningful jobs at good wages so it has an impact on their families as well.

And this project was birthed out of a discovery of unlicensed preschools where many migrant workers found places for their children during their work hours. In those illegal facilities, these very young children were often tied into their chairs and even sedated to keep control of them. The Philemon Project stands in stark contrast to those facilities and our prayer is that it might be replicated across Beirut and Lebanon, and lead to the transformation of the whole country.

Our second oasis was a visit to Our Lady Dispensary, a ministry that began operating in 1983, providing medical and social aid to people living in their surrounding neighborhood. Their work has increased with the war in Syria as refugees arrive from there seeking aid and solace. But with the advance of ISIS into Mosul and the Ninevah plain in Iraq in August, 2014, they began serving Iraqi refugees who had been forced from their homes, and found their way from Mosul to Kurdistan and finally to Beirut.

Grace Boustani, the angel of Our Lady Dispensary.

Grace Boustani, the angel of Our Lady Dispensary.

And today we met women from two of those families, Mariam and Marsen. Mariam is a Syrian Orthodox woman with a husband and four children. Marsen is a Chaldean Catholic with a husband and five children. Blessedly, neither had experienced the loss of any family members in this exodus, but everything else was lost. Have you heard the expression, “All we have is literally the clothes on our backs”?

Well, for these two women that is the actual truth. They arrived in Beirut last December with nothing. Marsen was eight months pregnant when they fled and delivered her fifth child in Kurdistan. As she held him and nursed him, she told us what they left behind. They had homes. Their husbands had good jobs. Their children had toys. They went to school. They had photos of the same middle class life most of us know so well.

Now their husbands work at menial jobs (which they are glad to have) that pay about $325 per month. Rent alone in this neighborhood where up to 15 people may share a small apartment is about $400 per month.

Our Lady Dispensary fills part of that gap by providing monthly food parcels, distributing some clothing when they can get it, providing for minor medical needs and by having programs for children and families so there might be some joy in their lives.

Marsen from the Ninevah plain in Iraq with two of her five children.

Marsen from the Ninevah plain in Iraq with two of her five children.

The angel who oversees this oasis is Grace Boustani, a social worker who knows their journey personally, as she herself fled in that same way as a young woman during the Lebanese civil war. Her family migrated to Canada, but Grace returned to serve the great needs in her country.

And the takeaway is always the same for this writer and it comes from Hebrews 11:1 – Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

Mariam from Mosul, Iraq.

Mariam from Mosul, Iraq.

These women and their family are strong in their faith. And even in the midst of an exodus from their homelands, driven out by such evil and leaving everything behind, they have this faith in God that sustains them. They asked for nothing from us today except to remember them and to pray for them. And that is what we ask you to join us in doing.

And remember and pray for the providers of cups of cold water, angels all.

(Rev. Robert Hamd, the executive director of The Philemon Project, and Grace Boustani, director of Our Lady Dispensary, both offered gracious thank-yous to The Outreach Foundation for support which has allowed them to continue these ministries. Support can be directed to The Outreach Foundation through their Iraq and Syria appeals, www.theoutreachfoundation.org.)

Julie Burgess