A maze of tangled electrical wires crisscrosses above the narrow streets. Motor scooters zip by as two boys unload produce from a van, making a delivery to a tiny convenience store. An elderly woman chats with a shopkeeper standing below her second-floor balcony, adorned with birdcages and a faded Armenian flag.
This is Bourj Hammoud, a suburb of Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. Settled by Armenians fleeing extermination in the Ottoman Empire in the beginning of the 20th century, the densely populated area remains home to their descendants, as well as thousands of Syrian refugees.
Talar, a young Syrian Armenian mother, fled her home in Aleppo in 2013 when terrorists seized the neighborhood where she had lived with her husband and their son Krikor, now 9 years old. The three rushed to a relative’s home about 15 minutes away.
After a month away, her husband went to check on their apartment.
“Everything was completely destroyed,” Talar says, still outraged. “There was nothing at all that my husband could retrieve.” The loss of their family photos and mementos was especially painful.
As the violence continued to spread, the young family believed they had no alternative but to flee to Lebanon. They settled in a one-room dwelling in Bourj Hammoud. Her husband, who had a thriving livelihood in Aleppo as a carpenter, found work in Beirut in his trade, but after a month of labor he was never paid by his employer.
He then took a job as a taxi driver. Again, after a month of work, his boss
refused to pay him. With no money for the rent, the family was evicted from their apartment.
“The landlord changed the locks and we couldn’t go back in. For the second time, we lost our home and everything we had.”
Yet Talar and her family have not fallen into despair; through the services and hospitality of the Karagheusian Socio-Medical Center, they have found a lifeline.
A splash of sunlight amid the gray concrete of this urban neighborhood, the yellow Karagheusian Socio-Medical Center is a Bourj Hammoud landmark, welcoming all in need.
Thanks to the center, the family now has a steady income and
a place to live. The organization found Talar’s husband a position as a custodian at an Armenian school that includes accommodation on the premises — and offered class enrollment for young Krikor. And through the center’s women’s group, Talar has found an outlet for much-needed social contact and services.
In these and many other ways, the center is helping those who have been uprooted to set their feet once more on firm ground — enabling them to find opportunities, rediscover community and rekindle hope.
The story of the Karagheusian Center begins after the death of 14-year-old Howard Karagheusian from pneumonia in New York City in 1918.
His Armenian American parents resolved to establish a humanitarian mission — the Howard Karagheusian Foundation — in their son’s memory, focusing at first on sheltering, feeding and educating orphaned children who had survived the Armenian Genocide. The organization has operated in Lebanon, Syria and Armenia ever since — now for more than 95 years.
A team of 40 doctors, plus a staff of 40, serves about 4,000 patients a month at the Bourj Hammoud clinic. Of those, 3,000 are Syrian refugees and 1,000 from the Lebanese host community. About two-thirds of the clinic’s current beneficiaries are Muslim. “The health center is available to everyone, because health is for all,” stresses Lebanon Field Director Serop Ohanian.
In Bourj Hammoud, the Syrian refugee population is still growing, notes Mr. Ohanian. They live in overcrowded conditions, typically with two or three families squeezed together in small, dismal apartments that rarely see the light of day. During Lebanon’s humid, cold and rainy winters, moisture hangs on concrete walls, frequently turning into mold, sparking respiratory conditions among residents.
“Their situation is catastrophic, and getting worse. We’re seeing more Syrian refugees entering into poverty,” Mr. Ohanian says.
Lebanon is an expensive country, a marked contrast for the refugees who were once accustomed to a low cost of living and a range of government-provided services in their native Syria. A recent survey released by EuroCost International found that Beirut ranked seventh globally, surpassing London and New York City, in terms of the cost of living. Lebanon’s economic stagnation is compounded by the refugee crisis, with more Lebanese also slipping into poverty.
Aside from the bustling medical clinic, the Karagheusian Center includes a social unit with the aim of providing support and encouragement to Christians living in Lebanon — Syrian refugees, Iraqi refugees and the local vulnerable host community — so they may have a dignified life. The team includes eight social workers.
The center’s social services include home visits in which care, food and clothing are provided, as well as health support at the clinic. It provides an after-school program, where children do their homework in an encouraging environment, complete with tutoring. Schoolbooks have been provided to 750 Syrian Armenian and Lebanese Armenian children.
In the summer, the center hosts a day camp that includes activities, outings and remedial classes so children can enjoy their summer. In 2018, there were 390 camp participants. Additionally, psychological support is provided to Armenian Syrian and marginalized host community children with special needs as a way of reducing their ordeals.
The Karagheusian Center also offers vocational training for women in specialties such as hairdressing, cooking and urban agriculture so they may have the opportunity to help their families materially. Language classes in English and French ease their adaptation to Lebanon’s trilingual environment — Arabic, English and French.
As part of the women’s empowerment program, each week the center hosts three groups, with respective sessions on specific days for Syrian Armenian refugees, Lebanese Christians and elderly women in general.
In the auditorium of the neighboring Armenian Evangelical Shamilian Tatigian School, some 150 Syrian Armenian women begin arriving for their weekly gathering, chatting with each other, as if catching up with old friends. Announcements for upcoming activities include a day trip to Harissa, the shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon.
Some 80 percent of the women are from Aleppo; others had fled from Kessab and Latakia near the shores of the Mediterranean. Most have been in Lebanon for as many as six years.
Mr. Ohanian personally introduces that day’s special guest speaker: Camille Salame, M.D., a neurosurgeon visiting Lebanon, his homeland, from Norwich, Connecticut.
Women listen with rapt attention to Dr. Salame’s presentation on back and neck pain. Some mothers pace, carrying fussy babies. A blonde, curly-haired toddler romps with her arms outstretched, her tiny feet pitter-pattering the floor, relishing the open space.
Concluding his talk with open questions from the group, Dr. Salame invites women with special back and neck concerns to accompany him to the Karagheusian clinic for a consultation.
“This is CNEWA in action,” he says, strolling with them to the sunny yellow building. Dr. Salame has been a longstanding donor to CNEWA.
“This is an oasis of hope,” he says of the center and its mission. “This is what keeps people attached to life: They know they have a place to go to that’s working for them all the time, working for them on their behalf. That keeps their spirit going. It takes a big heart to create big things. We need more of this in Lebanon.”
Of the 25 women he met with individually for consultations immediately after his lecture, Dr. Salame says, “I enjoyed talking to each one.” Although all had back- or neck-related issues, he says only one case was serious enough to possibly require a need for surgery. Center staff made notes on her chart, to begin pursuing this treatment.
In the clinic’s courtyard, Talar sways her younger son, Christ, nearly 2 years old, in his stroller as she waits to meet with Dr. Salame. She wants to ask him about the neck and arm pain she has been experiencing.
Being part of the women’s group at Karagheusian “has changed my life,” the young mother says. “We’re living in a small room, and I see only the four walls. But when I come here each week, it lifts me up.” She credits the center for her renewed strength and cheer.
Elizabeth, 58, also waits to meet with the visiting doctor about her back pain. She and her husband came to the safety of Lebanon in 2012 from Aleppo after their house became unlivable, with no water or electricity.
Before the war, life had been comfortable. Elizabeth’s husband was a jeweler, and they owned their spacious four-bedroom apartment.
Now they are living in a small, one-room dwelling. At 65 years old, Elizabeth’s husband now works at an auto repair garage. The hours are long; the labor, grimy and physically intensive.
“At a time when he should be thinking of retiring, he’s working so hard and comes home exhausted,” she says, love and concern written across her eyes. He also suffers from back pain, she says.
“And we’re barely able to cover our rent,” she adds.
“This group really helps us to overcome our difficulties,” she says of the women’s meetings and group therapy sessions. “So many of us were psychologically disturbed because of what we’ve gone through. When we came here, I felt so alone. But through the center, I’ve made many friends.”
Although Karagheusian is a secular organization, the Christian message is evident.
“We encourage them to give glory to God for everything,” social worker Janine Tanilian says of the organization’s women’s groups. “Even though they are in a really bad situation, they can thank God because they are alive, their children love them and these days will pass and the sun will shine.”
Lebanon’s refugee crisis has posed a tremendous challenge for the many churches present there. Efforts to care for the refugees abound, but resources are scarce and fatigue impacts even the most generous. To serve the Syrian Armenian population who fled to Lebanon, a committee comprised of members from the Armenian Apostolic, Armenian Catholic and Armenian Evangelical churches was formed to better reach the displaced families. The three churches entrusted the Karagheusian Medico-Social Center to be the coordinator of aid and to provide the needed support; after all, their congregations — for generations — have been receiving medical and social services from the Karagheusian Foundation.
“We have seen lives changed for the better with the direct support of CNEWA and through the collaboration and coordination between the church, our organization and CNEWA. The hopeless have received hope,” says Field Director Mr. Ohanian.
Bishop George Assadourian, who serves with the Armenian Catholic Patriarchate, praised the Karagheusian Center, noting that its “presence and continuity is of great importance to the poor population who are being served,” whether members of the host community or refugees.
“We would encourage their work and recommend all support to the organization to keep doing its good work toward the disadvantaged population,” Bishop George added.
“I want to thank God for the work Howard Karagheusian did and will continue to do,” says the Rev. Raffi Messerlian, pastor of the Armenian Evangelical Church of Nor Marash in Bourj Hammoud.
“I believe that what they did and what they provided was very important and very essential,” he adds, “and I see that the heart of their outreach is keeping the dignity of human beings by trying to provide some of the basic needs necessary for individuals.”
The Rev. Sarkis Sarkissian, chair of the religious committee of the Armenian Apostolic Prelacy in Lebanon, commended the organization. “In the midst of social and economic hardship, this organization was a refuge to all who sought help,” he says. With its medical and social services, the center “has improved the lives of the community members and has brought considerable changes in the lives of so many.”
During the influx of Syrian refugees to Lebanon, “they were the only social organization to lend their helping hand and receive all the refugees equally,” Father Sarkissian added.
“We, as the Armenian prelacy, highly appreciate what the center did for more than seven years for the refugees and also for the host community members. We also thank [CNEWA] for funding most of the projects the center offered to the refugees and host community members.”
Back at the center, the women’s group members also express gratitude; they have found a stable foothold from which to look to the future.
“I can’t stop thinking of my memories,” Talar says wistfully. “But I thank God we are alive. We have to open a new page every day and not look back.”
While she hopes her family may one day resettle in the West, she is happy that they have found some stability in the present — especially for their children.
“Everything from the past is gone, but for the sake of our kids we have to be strong. My dream is for my sons to have a good future, doing something that they love.”
Elizabeth, too, expresses quiet resolve. “I don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow,” she says.
“The future looks dark. But because I have faith in God, I know that he will help me to cross through these times.”
Doreen Abi Raad is a freelance writer in Beirut. She has written for Catholic News Service and the National Catholic Register.