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Rough Start, Fine Finish

text and photographs by Marilyn Raschka

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Hani got off to a bad start. He was born in Beirut in 1975, the same year that Lebanon erupted into civil war, and grew up in the streets of a lower middle class neighborhood. Tensions between his parents made home a hateful place. The need for a loving, understanding mother and an encouraging, proud father were so lacking that he sought them elsewhere – on the dangerous streets of Beirut.

Soon Hani met Michel, another child of the street. Then the two found Georges. These “three musketeers” were innocent boys who shared the same problems and, predictably, sought solutions in all the wrong places.

Today at 18, the three are still musketeers, but they volunteer their free time saving Beirut’s postwar youngsters from the dangers of the street. The turning point in their lives was an organization called AFEL, whose French acronym is translated as the Lebanese Child Home Association.

The staff and volunteers of AFEL run three centers, including one boarding home, that welcome children whose home life is often nightmarish. Marital problems, parental illiteracy and overcrowded living space are not conducive to emotional and intellectual development. And “culturally hidden” is how counselors account for the lack of information about the physical and sexual abuse suffered by some children.

“It’s a shame for the family to admit a problem,” said one psychologist. This is just another way of explaining how the Lebanese barely recognize the problem of child abuse.

Saving the family’s reputation in the Lebanese culture is seen as more crucial than protecting the child. The authority of the father is rarely challenged – even by the law.

Since 1976, AFEL has been walking a tightrope, striving for a balance between the rights of the child and the sanctity of the family. Their work has earned them the respect of both local and international organizations, including the Pontifical Mission’s Beirut office, which has over 60 donors who sponsor many of the program’s children.

At the main site in Beirut, lunch is served to 150 kids who come directly from school. They chow down tasty, nutritious food cooked by their mothers who take turns preparing lunch. The director, Samira, smiles when she describes how proud the children are to tell their friends that “of course it’s delicious, today my mother is cooking.”

The philosophy of AFEL is to keep family ties in place, not to segregate the children or to label them as different. “No one can point and say you have no family,” said Mrs. Simone Wardeh, AFEL’s founding mother.

At lunch a little home cooking goes a long way toward achieving the program’s goal of creating a better environment for children. Afterwards the children break up in groups and, under the supervision of a tutor, do their homework in small rooms that provide quiet and comfort. In this case, homework done away from home is homework better done.

Lebanese parents traditionally put education before everything else, often jeopardizing their financial security to pay for schooling. In many areas of Beirut the public schools were looted, burned and occupied, leaving parents no choice but to send their children to private institutions. Many institutions used their connections to keep the militias at bay.

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Tags: Lebanon Children Education Homes/housing Civil War