BEIRUT: Roger Dahan, known lovingly in Beirut's Mar Mikhael district as Ammo Roger (Uncle Roger), sits in a hospital bed shaven, stitched, bandaged and more comfortable than he’s been in years. At first, he doesn’t say much. It’s something he’s grown accustomed to living alone on the streets of east Beirut, selling lottery tickets and sleeping on the pavement.
When he does speak, it’s in a somewhat disinterested grumble. That is until the topic of food is reached and Dahan recounts his favorite dishes with the same fervor as a child recounting a Christmas past.
“Food!? Rice!” he says without a blink. “Chicken, fasoulya, rice, cheese rolls, many things.”
Dahan, 73, ended up here, in the Rafik Hariri Hospital in Jnah, after four young women who saw a tiny humanitarian crisis sprawled across a sidewalk launched a now-viral Facebook campaign and, for now, righted one case of Lebanon’s social service system failing its elderly citizens.
Early Thursday morning, Lara Hussein, a former resident of Mar Mikhael, was walking to pick up a few things from the corner store there. On her way, she passed her neighbor Dahan, the resident homeless man, sleeping as usual on the pavement, one disheveled shoe next to him. She was about to go on her way, when she saw blood coming from a wound across his bald head.
“I see this guy who I always see. He’s always eating labneh with bread. I always see him eating labneh,” she says. “I thought he was sleeping as usual, but I saw blood from his head and his hands.”
She looked around. There were people passing by, but no one seemed interested in Dahan’s state. An onlooker approached Hussein and told her he tried to contact the Lebanese Red Cross to no avail.
The Red Cross, operating not more than half a kilometer away, refused to take him because they knew, without family or insurance, no hospital would accept him. Hussein tried the police.
They said they’d see what they could do, and that’s the last she heard from them.
“So, I decided to take this picture,” she said. It’s the picture of Dahan, sleeping in the middle of the sidewalk, one very swollen foot dirty and bare. Her photo went viral immediately, and so did the Facebook group that followed, calling for the public to show support for Dahan and donate anything from a few bucks to a toothbrush.
“This is what’s really working these days to help people: Facebook,” she said. When Hussein returned, Dahan was awake and being showered at a nearby gas station by a longtime, and somewhat unlikely, neighborhood friend, Lea Comaty, another young woman and manager of Margherita pizzeria down the street in Gemmayzeh.
“I’ve been giving him food for a long time,” Comaty said, sitting in a chair beside his hospital bed. “All he wants is a sandwich and a Pepsi ... If he ever needed anything he just said my name. People know who I am and they would come and get me.”
Comaty woke up at 7 a.m. Monday to open a bank account for donations and then get to the hospital in time to help him get ready for the day. She spent a few hours with him Monday morning and came back again in the evening. She was also at the hospital Sunday when she got out of work, and of course in the morning before her shift started.
As the two bicker about how far she should prop up his mattress, it becomes clear Comaty is probably the closest thing Dahan has had to family in perhaps 30 years.
Educated in three languages, having studied at the College Notre-Dame de Jamhour and then at the American University of Beirut, Dahan speaks Arabic and French fluently. He also strings together cogent sentences in English, albeit very slowly.
More than 30 years ago, Dahan lived with his handicapped mother and elderly father, as well as a brother. Their family home was destroyed in the Civil War. When his brother died, Dahan had nothing left.
Dahan does not beg for money or handouts. He sells lottery tickets, and he speaks of it like an ordinary job. He works in Burj Hammoud from 10:30 a.m. until 3 p.m., making around LL10,000. Then he returns to Mar Mikhael to people watch and have a bite to eat.
Comaty and her friend Farah Baghdadi are helping Dahan in the hospital, checking in with doctors, keeping him company, even giving him a manicure. Hussein and Laetitia Bassil are working on the social media side, pushing the public to donate clothes, toiletries and small amounts of money.
Around noon Sunday, the Facebook campaign had raised close to $3,000, Hussein says. At 3 p.m. Monday, a social worker in the Hotel Dieu area of Ashrafieh began collecting clothing and other non-cash donations.
After some blood tests, doctors told the girls that Dahan was actually in pretty good shape given his living conditions. His dark, swollen feet were originally thought to have gangrene, but doctors explained that the swelling was due to extremely enlarged varicose veins from walking so much. There’s also a bad infection in one leg for which he’s being treated with antibiotics. The large cut on his head – the result of a fall – has been mended with stitches. He’s clean shaven and when he smiles, it’s wide and wrinkly and toothless.
“He doesn’t have diabetes, his blood is perfect,” said Comaty, who is all business. “I thought he was going to be a catastrophe.”
Dahan is very lucky. The vast majority of impoverished senior citizens survive solely on handouts from the country’s many nonprofit centers, which organize activities and dole out meals and some medical aid. Many social workers only hear of their patients’ deaths when a neighbor stops seeing them around, The Daily Star reported in April.
The kind of barriers Hussein discovered when trying to get Dahan to a hospital are part of the systemic neglect faced by the country’s elderly, many of whom live on the street or in rundown homes without family to care for them.
In fact, it required a political connection even to get Dahan into the Rafik Hariri Hospital. A call to a contact in the Health Ministry was perhaps the most vital part of finding a place to care for Dahan and to cover his medical expenses.
The young women are still sorting out what’s to be done when Dahan leaves the hospital.
They’re looking into Mission de Vie, a home caring for many of the country’s neglected seniors.
But Dahan’s not ready to think about that quite yet, as he’s reluctant to imagine leaving the comfort of his hospital bed. Smiling as though it’s all the time in the world, he says, “We still have two more weeks!”