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Al-Qaa priest champions humanity toward refugees

Father Elian Nasrallah speaks as Syrian refugee children play in the school courtyard in al-Qaa, Wednesday, April 9, 2014. (The Daily Star/Justin Salhani)

AL-QAA, Lebanon: Nearing the end of a long day, the priest sits back on a sofa in his living room as a late evening town committee meeting gets underway.

He should be leading the discussion, but yet another busy day of work has exhausted him, and instead his eyes glaze over slightly. As the head priest in Al-Qaa, a Greek Catholic town 10 km from the Lebanese border with Syria, Elian Nasrallah has assumed the role not just of spiritual leader but also logistics handler. Al-Qaa’s proximity to the border has led to an influx of 8,422 refugees to the town, according to figures released by UNHCR at the end of March.

His self-declared list of responsibilities – which includes running the town’s medical center and acting as principal of a school for Syrian refugees, religious instructor and fundraiser – has become so long that he is increasingly accused of monopolizing the town’s resources, lacking transparency and taking town decisions on his own.

Known to locals as “Abouna” (our father), Nasrallah has a short, slightly rotund frame and a head of white hair overshadowing remaining patches of gray. He never has to stray far from his home while in Al-Qaa; next door lies the church and directly behind is the two-floor building housing the medical center and refugee school.

Nasrallah rises between 6:30 and 7:30 a.m. He often travels to Beirut to fundraise or meet with donors, but on the day The Daily Star visits, he is staying in Al-Qaa and is dressed in a freshly pressed suit to give a non-governmental organization a tour.

By 8:30 a.m., he’s in the town’s medical center pacing frantically around the corridors. He enters and exits rooms with haste, often leading or following a new person, as if he’s recreating a scene from The Benny Hill Show. His phone never stops ringing.

After a brief meeting, he’s back in the medical center, simultaneously delegating tasks to volunteer staff and showing the NGO workers around. Before lunch, he takes time to celebrate his adult daughter’s birthday, gathering staff and visitors to enjoy pineapple juice and chocolate cake.

Then it’s back to his home, where the NGO workers are invited for a meal of local delicacies, including hummus, fried cauliflower, meat, tabbouleh, pickled Armenian cucumbers and arak. A dessert of fresh apricots with thin apricot jam and strong coffee follows, as full stomachs and satisfied smiles radiate around the table.

After his visitors leave, Nasrallah is back out the door to administer afternoon classes to Syrian refugee children. Lined up outside the school under the afternoon sun, the kids are marched inside to take classes in French, English, math, reading and writing.

Nasrallah motions to the overcrowded classrooms, each one filled with around 30 students and one teacher. “We need more tables and chairs,” he says.

Nasrallah explains that many children are from families with little or no education. When he is interrupted by two little girls running down the hallway he calls after them, “Come. Show me how you should walk in the hallway.”

The kids continue their classes, but Nasrallah is needed elsewhere; it is 4 p.m. and time for the young villagers’ religious lessons at church. Afterward, he will meet committees of locals and refugees to discuss the town’s most pressing affairs.

“There are so many things he does,” says Carole Naameh, a volunteer nurse at the town’s medical center. “He only takes Sundays off.”

Even on Sundays, he leads Mass, using the opportunity to ask for donations for his various causes.

When he recently came down with a virus that gave him a fever and put him in a Beirut hospital for a week, he continued to keep things ticking from afar.

“He had a 48 degree fever but his phone was never shut off,” Naameh adds. “He was constantly calling us telling us to do this or do that.”

But despite his saintly daily schedule, some of the town’s residents accuse the priest of being more in tune with the devil on his shoulder.

“The priest is a thief, a liar and a stooge,” Saadeh Awad yells.

Awad and others accuse the priest of a lack of transparency concerning the town’s financial affairs and making important decisions that affect the community all on his own.

Sitting in his shop with a small sticker on the front door that reads “No Sectarianism” in Arabic, Wajih al-Towm says the priest fails to take into account locals’ feelings. “If somebody wants to fix a glass panel in the church, he won’t allow it. He wants to be in charge of all the town’s affairs and no one else is involved. He doesn’t let the municipality or the mayor or anybody get involved.”

While falling just short of accusing the priest of blatant corruption, he says the priest’s opaque financial dealings have led many to think he pockets donated money. “Pass that responsibility to another group because as long as you monopolize it, people will have doubts.”

“About 80 percent of the town is against him,” adds resident Abdo Kallas, who echoed the other claims.

Asked about the accusations, the priest responds calmly, “When I’m at the medical center or the school, am I working alone?”

He says that some in the town are unhappy with the number of Syrians residing there. Nasrallah, however, says he feels responsible for the refugees.

“I started the school, I started the medical center. Humanity holds me responsible,” he concludes.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 12, 2014, on page 3.

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Summary

Al-Qaa priest champions humanity toward refugees

Nearing the end of a long day, the priest sits back on a sofa in his living room as a late evening town committee meeting gets underway.

As the head priest in Al-Qaa, a Greek Catholic town 10 km from the Lebanese border with Syria, Elian Nasrallah has assumed the role not just of spiritual leader but also logistics handler. Al-Qaa's proximity to the border has led to an influx of 8,422 refugees to the town, according to figures released by UNHCR at the end of March.

His self-declared list of responsibilities – which includes running the town's medical center and acting as principal of a school for Syrian refugees, religious instructor and fundraiser – has become so long that he is increasingly accused of monopolizing the town's resources, lacking transparency and taking town decisions on his own.

Known to locals as "Abouna" (our father), Nasrallah has a short, slightly rotund frame and a head of white hair overshadowing remaining patches of gray. He never has to stray far from his home while in Al-Qaa; next door lies the church and directly behind is the two-floor building housing the medical center and refugee school.


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