Part of a conversation with Sister Antoinette Assaf, responsible for St. Antoine Dispensary, with L’Osservatore Romano
“Earlier, I heard a small explosion. I was resting as I took a little break from work. Suddenly, a big roar. I live on the fifth floor of a building that houses the Saint-Antoine Dispensary in Beirut”, an overcrowded and impoverished area where a mixed population of Christians and Muslims live. “Everything collapsed. Oh my God! What do I do? Objects and furniture fell on the floor. We started running. Are they bombing us? Why? Meanwhile I keep hearing more explosions, buildings collapse, windows explode. People screaming, looking for help, I see blood and ruins everywhere. These terrible images have awakened our bad memories of the war and the bombing, but this time no one warned us. Meanwhile, from the sky rose a huge cloud of black smoke mixed with pink and white. We started calling all the people we know who live in the area of the explosion, near the port: friends, relatives, collaborators, employees, volunteers, benefactors”. Sister Antoinette Assaf, 53 years old, Lebanese from Beirut, tells “L’Osservatore Romano” what happened last Tuesday. A terrible episode, the exact number of victims and the damage caused is still unknown at the moment. The ‘Land of the Cedars’ did not need another trauma of this magnitude. The religious woman, who is responsible for the Mission Development Office of the Congregation of Our Lady of Good Shepherd Charity and director of the dispensary since 2016, together with her sisters, doctors, nurses and volunteers, offers free specialized medical care and provides a basic health service to about 21,000 people.
How many people do you serve daily?
On average about 150 per day, up to 7,000 per year. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have tried to limit the number to almost 90 patients per day to avoid the risk of infection. From the very first moment of the blast, we were available to help, but since we are a primary health care center, all victims have been taken to the emergency room. People come to the Dispensary and ask for food and help, but above all they are looking for someone who can listen to them and understand the tragedy they have suffered; desperate and traumatized people who need a little hope. And this is our first mission, trying to give them support, listening, and being there for them.
Why Beirut? Why Lebanon? A city and a country where you can find an apparent democracy and where people of different faiths live in peace and harmony?
There is a lack of accountability in Beirut. We continue to hope even though Lebanon’s weak point is the absence of a common vision of the country. Each group sees the country differently and we have not been able to unify this vision. Our prayer is that this will soon be possible.
How many people work in the dispensary?
Our team includes 2 sisters, 15 employees, and 30 doctors. We have several partnerships, in particular with the Faculty of Medicine at Saint-Joseph University. Their presence guarantees a high-quality medical service, as this university is run by Jesuit fathers with whom we share the same vision of the value and dignity of human being, especially the most vulnerable who have the right to access health services as well as wealthy people. “One soul is worthy than the whole world” said our founders, St Jean Eudes and St Marie Euphrasie Pelletier.
What is and what will change about your ministries in Lebanon?
We will continue to do what we have always done: serving others. We seek to be a presence among the vulnerable and the most disadvantaged who live in precarious conditions, especially women, girls and children. We do all we can to reveal to them the merciful love of Jesus the Good Shepherd, through acts of mercy, support and protection.
What does Lebanon need to revive?
First of all, we need to unite our hearts and minds. We need to support each other to regain the physical and psychological strength necessary to overcome this great shock. Even before the explosion, more than 55% of the population was already living below the poverty line in Lebanon. With this deflagration, the population is on its knees, homeless, unemployed, without a care. Young people have a lot of potential and can help rebuild the country, but opportunities are limited for them too. Lebanon cannot cope with countless such problems on its own.
Do you think that economic help from the international community is indispensable?
Yes, it is necessary, also because the economic major crisis is evident. However, Lebanon must also become productive and be able to work for its own development. The road to recovery is long, very long.
Can the Catholic Church and other faith authorities play a decisive role in the rebirth of Lebanon, or is this a task for government authorities only?
The Church and other religious authorities have a primary role, especially because the Lebanese are people of great faith. I repeat: we must unite our hearts, consolidate coexistence and social cohesion. The Churches, many civil organizations, NGOs, inter-religious groups are working on this and they have been carrying out many initiatives for some time. I believe that without these contributions the situation could be even worse than it is today. But these actions do not rule out the role of the government authorities, who also have a great responsibility, because they have the political solutions in their hands.
If you wanted to make an appeal to whom would you address it, and what would you ask for?
First of all, an appeal to prayer so that people do not lose hope, but can preserve their faith in God and hope in their own country. I believe that the people of Lebanon are comparable to a phoenix, able to rise from their ashes after death. And I appeal to all those who care about Lebanon. We need solidarity: messages of comfort and love. This allows us to rise again. And, finally, economic support, humanitarian aid, and everything that can help people who have lost everything are vital.
(Interview by Francesco Ricupero for L’Osservatore Romano – August 8th 2020)