Quietly and politely they form a line in the hot sun outside the Socio-Medical Intercommunity Dispensary in the poor Beirut neighborhood of Nabaa. Some are elderly and live alone. Others have families to feed. All have put aside any embarrassment in accepting a handout, in order to eat.
The dispensary has been run by the Assembly of Female Religious Congregations since 1973. It was originally founded in 1968 by the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Mary to serve those in need.
As Lebanon’s economy worsened, the dispensary expanded its medical and social mission to the needy to include the distribution of hot meals in 2017, serving 250 portions per day. Now, as Lebanon teeters near economic collapse, the program has reached 1,200 portions a day.
“We’ve come to a situation in Lebanon where the middle class have become poor and the poor have gotten poorer,” says Sister Marie Justine el Osta, from the Maronite Sisters of the Holy Family, who serves as director of the dispensary. This is a disaster.”
Despite the increasing misery she encounters, the petite, energetic 72-year-old sister continues to offer a warm, encouraging smile to all those she serves.
“My strength comes from God, only,” Sister Marie Justine says. “Our mission is to stand by the people, to lift them up and give them a dosage of positivity and hope. To tell them that God is with us, that better days are coming.”
However, Sister Marie Justine admits, “What is really very painful for me is when you see people asking for the least of their rights – asking for food. They feel they have lost their dignity. It hurts me to see this.”
Maguy, a mother of four children, ranging from 7-16 years old, began coming to the dispensary for the hot meal program a few weeks ago.
“It’s something I never thought I would do,” she said of being on the receiving end for food assistance. “But I got to the point that I didn’t want to see my children starving. I will do anything for them.”
“The sisters and everyone here make me feel so welcome. God bless them for all they are doing.”
Hot meals are prepared off-site and beneficiaries bring their own containers, in order to eat at home. Due to coronavirus precautionary measures, distribution takes place outdoors at the entrance to the dispensary. Thus, the meal program was not disrupted by Beirut’s catastrophic blast that rocked the capital city on August 4, which killed almost 200 people, injured another 6,000, and displaced more than 300,000 people.
Although it is located 2.5 miles from the blast site, the dispensary still suffered considerable damage, totaling nearly $40,000 in repairs. Sister is thankful that no one was injured at the dispensary, as it was closed at the time of the early evening blast.
“In this country, we live day by day. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow. We can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel,” says Sister Marie Justine. “I always say that God always helps us. Thank God, He sends us helpers,” she said, such as Aid to the Church in Need. “We are so grateful.”
Yet the needs keep increasing, she points out. The possibility of a famine in Lebanon is very real. “We are getting closer (to famine), because goods are getting very expensive and people will not have enough money to buy anything from the supermarket,” Sister Marie Justine warned. “We need a miracle.”
A recent United Nations report shows that more than 55 percent of Lebanon’s population is now in poverty and struggling to meet their basic needs for bare necessities, nearly double the percentage from a year ago. The Lebanese currency has lost more than 80 percent of its value in less than a year and prices of food staples have doubled, tripled and even quadrupled.
Aid to the Church in Need has funded a program that is about to distribute food parcels more than 5,800 needy families affected by the Aug. 4 explosion. Sister Marie Justine will oversee part of the distribution.