BEIRUT — Even if youth in Lebanon are themselves affected by economic crisis and political instability, it didn’t stop them from helping those who have even less. A group of Caritas Lebanon youth volunteers didn’t think twice when they traveled to neighboring Syria three days after an earthquake to help others.
On Feb. 6, the 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit southern Turkey and northwestern Syria, killing more than 50,000 people — almost 6,000 in Syria, according to the U.N. — and more than 44,000 in Turkey.
In coordination with Caritas Syria and Caritas International, Caritas Lebanon’s Emergency Response Unit (ERU) sent a delegation of 15 volunteers to Syria to assist in relief operations Feb. 9-16.
The Emergency Response Unit of Caritas Lebanon is a team of young people who are trained in emergency response and humanitarian aid. Following their experience responding to the tragic Beirut harbor blast in 2020, the team has developed the expertise and experience needed to respond quickly and effectively to crises and disasters.
It was their first humanitarian emergency mission outside of Lebanon.
“On our way to Aleppo, we were really shocked by the views that we saw — total destruction. We couldn’t differentiate what was destroyed by the war, and what was destroyed by the earthquake,” Peter Mahfouz, head of Caritas Lebanon Youth Department, told OSV News.
“Our main mission was to support Caritas Syria in the humanitarian work they are doing: distribution of mattresses, blankets, clothes, food kits, bread, water and medicine,” Mahfouz said. The supplies were distributed to various shelters. The Lebanese team helped with packaging, transporting and distribution.
The Caritas Lebanon ERU served in the affected Syrian cities of Aleppo and Latakia, providing assistance and basic necessities to those who had lost everything in the earthquake.
“What shocked us the most is the horrible situation of the people,” Mahfouz said.
The earthquake devastation follows 12 years of war and comes on top of an economic crisis in which 90% of the Syrian population lives in poverty.
The Caritas Lebanon ERU volunteers witnessed the desperate need for the basics of life, particularly when they were distributing food and water.
“People rushed just for a bottle of water,” Mahfouz said. “One scene I will never forget is that of an old man who was pushed against a door by the people around him, just to receive a bottle of water,” he recounted.
“In Syria, there is a need for everything. They need every type of support possible,” Mahfouz said.
Even though Caritas is a Catholic organization, Mahfouz noted, and Syria has a Muslim majority population, “you can see everyone from all different religions having faith that Caritas will support them.”
The Caritas Lebanon ERU began each day with prayer, followed by Mass. “All our acts are based on the teachings of the Gospel, so it’s implementing our faith in action,” Mahfouz said.
While Caritas Lebanon could not help financially or with materials or equipment, “we just supported logistically, and our presence there gave a huge sign of hope for the Syrian team of Caritas. They saw that Caritas is on a global level of support. We are by their side in times of need, and they saw how the Church is all one,” Mahfouz said.
The Caritas Lebanon ERU initiative reflects the overall mission of the organization.
“Caritas Lebanon’s mission is to help anyone in need of assistance, whoever it is,” Carmelite Father Michel Abboud, president of Caritas Lebanon, said.
“Our presence at their side is a sign that they are not alone. What happened to them could have happened to us,” he said.
Lebanon has been in the throes of a crippling socioeconomic crisis since 2019, in which more than 80% of the population now lives below the poverty line, with the World Bank branding the crisis as one of the worst across the globe in more than 150 years. The small country of Lebanon also is host to some 1.5 million Syrian refugees from the war-torn country.
“We helped our Syrian brothers when they came to us as refugees who needed help, so why not when they are in mortal danger and need it more than ever?” Father Abboud said.
“We have no money to offer because the Lebanese people are still in need, and Lebanon is still in its crisis. We offer everything we have to help, so we have given our time, our energy and our lives to help, and we are always ready to offer what we can,” Father Abboud said.