ZAHLE, Lebanon — The aroma of caramelized onions, cumin and baked fish still lingers as volunteers busily fill hundreds of containers of meals for the poor.
Smiles and laughter abound on the assembly line at Restaurant du Coeur (Restaurant of the Heart).
“We are all happy, working together. We want to go to Jesus when we die, so we have to work here to win the first prize,” volunteer Eliane Irani said with a giggle, as she ladles gravy on a portion.
Amid Lebanon’s debilitating economic crisis, which has plunged 80% of the population into poverty, the delivered meals are a lifeline for 230 needy people, most of whom are elderly.
Beneficiaries receive two portions of hot meals: one to be eaten on the day of delivery; the second consisting of nonperishable ingredients, not requiring refrigeration, for the following day.
Many households can no longer keep their refrigerators running, as they cannot afford supplemental generator power. Lebanon’s state electricity provider is now only supplying around two hours of electricity daily in most parts of Lebanon.
The meals program is a joint effort between the Jesuits of Lebanon and international businessman Nabil Chartouni, a Zahle native, especially known for his Lebanese company Faqra Catering.
The initiative takes on a special meaning during the Advent season.
“Advent is a time of hope because we are expecting the birth of Jesus. It is a period of expectation,” said Jesuit Father Gabriel Khairallah, who oversees the program.
“Our aim is to give a little bit of hope, to help people not to fall into despair, to give a little bit of joy to people who lost everything, who live in misery,” Father Khairallah said.
“Mainly, to give them their dignity,” he added. “This is very important, because God came to give us dignity, to tell us we are a child of God.”
Most of the beneficiaries were previously lower middle class; now they are the new poor.
Amid such dark times in Lebanon, Father Khairallah said: “This is the challenge of Advent: hope, dignity and joy. To tell them, you are a son and daughter of God.”
While volunteers are “the pillars” of the effort, said Father Khairallah, the cooks in the kitchen — most of whom are individuals with special needs from poor families — receive a small stipend for their work.
“It’s a spirit of fraternity and a spirit of service. We are here to serve,” he said, noting that the beneficiaries “are our brothers and sisters.”
Zahle was long considered a Melkite Catholic hub. But since the conflict in neighboring Syria, the town and surrounding Bekaa Valley of Lebanon experienced a swell of Syrian refugees.
Father Khairallah said beneficiaries are not asked about their religion. “It’s preaching, by acts, to show God’s mercy to everyone.”
On the menu for this day is “sayadieh,” a Lebanese fish and rice dish, prepared with caramelized onions and topped with gravy; for the next day, “makhlouta,” a hearty grains stew, whose literal translation means “mixed.”
Chef Joseph Sadaka rattled off the quantities of ingredients used for those two dishes: 44 pounds of rice, 44 pounds of onions, 49 pounds of fish and 106 pounds of grains, chickpeas, lentils and bulgur.
But, he specified, with a warm smile, “Love is the most important ingredient.”
Sadaka ran his own restaurant for many years in Zahle but had to close due to an illness.
“I was at home for four years,” Sadaka said. Now, as chef for the kitchen, “I began to cook again,” with one arm in a sling.
“Half of my work is to thank God because I now have good health,” he said.
One of the biggest challenges, said Father Khairallah, is raising the needed funds for the meals. He is hoping for more donors from abroad.
“The situation is getting worse and worse,” he said of Lebanon’s crisis. Lebanese who previously would have donated are now in need themselves.
In three years, the Lebanese currency has lost 90% of its value.
Adult children who used to help support their elderly parents can no longer do so, as they struggle to provide for their own children. With the currency crash and triple-digit inflation, the value of salaries has evaporated such that basic needs are out of reach.
“The poor are getting poorer and poorer, and every day the prices go up and up,” Father Khairallah said.
Rania Kamaz, who has multiple sclerosis, is one of the beneficiaries of the meals.
She returned to her native Zahle as her health deteriorated and she could no longer work.
The disease first impacted her legs, then her hands, then her eyes, such that she is nearly completely immobile and almost blind.
“Slowly, slowly, it’s moving and getting worse,” Kamaz said from her home, where she is helped by her two sisters, who are currently unemployed.
Ever determined to still provide earnings, she takes on editing and text correction projects, using her mobile phone with one hand. A task that should take her five minutes is a two-hour process.
Her faith sustains her, and she said with a calm assurance: “I don’t have to worry about tomorrow, as long as Jesus is with me.”
Earlier, a Melkite priest visited and gave her Communion. The sacrament is important, Kamaz said, “to clean my soul.”
“I thank God for the meals,” she said. “It’s a great help, not only for me, but for all the people who need help. It keeps them alive and also to have faith in God, to know that there are people who care.”