Supporting Syrian Refugees in Lebanon


Sr. Josette Nasr, an OLA Sister in Lebanon, interviews Archbishop Issam John Darwich on the plight of refugees in Zahle Diocese. Archbishop Issam John Darwich began working with refugees in 2011. He formed a team to help this new mission. One of the main members of this team is Rachel, who was also interviewed. Below is part of Sr. Josette’s interview with Archbishop Darwich and Rachel.


Archbishop Darwich.
Image courtesy of

Sr. Josette: Archbishop Darwich, could you tell us about your outreach mission to the Syrian refugees and how you made contact with them?

Archbishop Darwich: From their arrival in the Diocese of Zahle, they went to our church, which is in the centre of Zahle. I felt called to receive them and help them. It was then I formed a team and organized a gathering. Rachel took charge of contacting the refugees and told them about her experience on the ground. Generally we work with Christian and Muslim children so they learn to dialogue and the value of mutual respect.


Sr. Josette: What type of help do you give refugees?

Archbishop Darwich: Firstly, we start with the Christian refugees that live in Zahle. Since they didn’t want to live in tents we looked for houses they could stay in – which depended on the number of persons and their financial means. We also tried to register them with the UN but because of certain issues we weren’t able to do this. For that reason, the diocese took on a response at all levels – nutrition, health, education and spiritual among others. Another element to our response was to help the women and children overcome the suffering and violence endured in their home country. Afterwards, we helped the youth find work – mainly those who had a profession. The last element of our work, in this year of mercy, was the opening of a restaurant which we named ‘The Table of John the Merciful’, in honour of Saint from the fifth century. Every day the restaurant takes-in between 150 and 300 Syrian refugees in need of a free meal along with some Lebanese who are also in need.

Sr. Josette: Who is in the group and how do you fund yourselves?

Archbishop Darwich: The group is made up of Rachel and Sana. Thanks to them all the work with the women, children and families is done. Every day we share our duties so we can best respond to the needs. The Diocese helps with funding some of the projects through a special ‘fund for the poor’ campaign. The Diocese looks after ‘The Table of John the Merciful’ restaurant in a financial sense. We also have friends throughout the world who help financially, along with some local groups.


Sr. Josette: Do you collaborate with the Melkite Catholic Church in Damascus?

Archbishop Darwich: It’s more a case of an exchange of information with the Patriarchs and Bishops of Damascus, Homs and Aleppo rather than any type of active collaboration.

Sr. Josette: What difficulties and challenges do you encounter?

Archbishop Darwich: Sometimes we are unable to meet the high costs of our multi-faceted response. We also help refugees, especially the poorest ones, to renew their visas. We try respond to all needs, which are sometimes very intricate.

Sr. Josette: What message would you like to leave with us?

Archbishop Darwich: I have a number of points to emphasise: Firstly, we, as Christians and as a Church, are called, without exception, to concern ourselves with the plight of refugees. In every refugee, we see the image of Jesus. Secondly, the international community, and more especially Churches across the globe, ought to help the refugees so to maintain the presence of Christians in the Middle East. The presence of Christians in the Middle East is important for Christians but also for Muslims. The diversity of religions, in Syria, like in all Arab countries, is crucial for society as a whole. We, as Christians, can be the yeast in the dough of our society and in this way we can make the Good News a reality for the people of Lebanon, Syria and Iraq through joy, love and brotherhood.

Sr. Josette: Rachel, tell me a little about your work with this group?

Rachel: I’ve been working for four years as secretary for this diocesan initiative. My role is to liaise with the families, ease their sufferings and help them with their difficulties. I know from personal experience what war is like and the forced displacement that it brings. I don’t try to find out the religious beliefs of whatever person or child before helping them. I just see the human suffering of the person who has lost all because of war. I see the person who needs help and moral support. My work focuses on two basic human needs: I don’t just mean food and other material needs but also ones spiritual needs.

In terms of activities, for example, we marked Mother’s Day and we had some 100 mothers, mothers who lost their homes, husbands and children. Our centre is also a place for women, who had been neighbours back in Syria, to meet after a long time and share important spiritual moments. Last year, we went to St. Chabel on pilgrimage. Many families have lost everything simply because they are Christians and they didn’t want to deny their faith in Jesus Christ.

I have one story which comes to mind. Fadi, a child who until now didn’t like Thursdays because the war started, before his eyes, on that day while playing with a friend. This child spent two months drawing exactly what happened on that day. He saw people shooting at soldiers on the right and left hand side of the street. He was on one side of the street and his father was on the other. Fadi have to navigate through those who lay dying on the street to reach his father. After two years of journeying with Fadi, and thanks be to God, he has been able to overcome this shock and make his First Holy Communion.


The scene at a refugee camp outside Zahle. Image courtesy of