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(Paddy Malloy for The Globe and Mail)
(Paddy Malloy for The Globe and Mail)

What I learned in a church in Beirut Add to ...

In the summer of 1992, my parents took my siblings and me to Beirut. They hadn’t been back since 1980, after coming to Canada during the civil war. The war had been officially over for two years when my mom decided it was time to visit relatives and friends they hadn’t seen in years. My dad would be coming for three weeks, with the rest of us staying two months.

On our third day there, at my grandparents’ house, I was on the balcony watching my brother and cousin try to start a fire with some matches they found. It was a hot, dry day; my legs were grimy with dust, my hair matted and sweaty despite the numerous bobby pins and barrettes meant to keep it off my face.

Water and electricity were precious resources: three sporadic hours of service and then nothing. I had just heard my grandmother call out to my mom that the electricity had cut out, but she was able to bottle some water.

Some guests had shown up unannounced, which was common since there was only one functional phone on the street. Neighbours could use it for emergencies; other than that, you were on your own. Having to host unexpected guests for several hours was something my mother did not miss about Lebanon, I once heard her tell my dad. But, alas, on that particular day, there was a room full of guests who had come to see the family visiting from Canada.

All I could think of was the mischief my brother and cousin were up to, and the sorts of trouble they would get into if I told an adult what was going on. My brother and I had an interesting relationship in those days, the kind where getting the other one in trouble was the only thing that mattered. I was so wrapped up in this thought that I didn’t think twice about dashing into the house and running as fast as possible to the kitchen.

Except I didn’t quite make it there. I crashed straight into my mom, who was carrying a tray of cups filled with steaming coffee. The coffee ended up on me. The next 10 minutes were a blur: my mom screaming, carrying me to the bathroom, my grandmother using bottled water to cool me off, my dad wrapping me in a wet towel, and then him and my mom running with me to the …church. A number of hospitals in the area were affiliated with churches, which functioned as stand-in clinics when hospitals were short on resources.

We entered the nearest church, with my dad yelling for help. Nuns ushered us downstairs to the basement and put me on a bed. Since the electricity was out, the room was lit by candles. Whispering ensued between my parents and the nuns, and the doctor who had finally come in. My parents came over and told me they had to go back to the house to get me some fresh clothes, and not to panic.

I started wailing. The doctor gently pushed my parents out of the room, and came over to me. He was very old and walked hunched over, with a bit of a limp. He wore enormous eyeglasses that seemed to cover his entire face and a white lab coat. We stared at each other for several seconds while I sniffled quietly. Then, his face cracked into a smile, and in perfect English he said, “Well, my dear, what have you gotten yourself into?”

The pain? Excruciating. It was an intense mix of heat and burning and I thought my skin was about to fall off. Because supplies were limited, the doctor had to use a combination of creams that he hoped would have close to the intended effect that the standard cream would have. He spread it all over the burned areas – my torso, shoulders, arm and upper back. The nuns were holding me down and one was putting pressure on the burns. I thought I would pass out.

When the doctor was finished, my upper body was wrapped completely in white gauze several times over. The bandaging could pass for a T-shirt with uneven sleeves. His instructions were clear: absolutely no swimming and don’t scratch. Being unable to swim was particularly devastating: I had been dreaming of splashing around in the sea for weeks.

While my parents were speaking to the doctor, I walked upstairs to the Catholic church. The candles were lit, and in the main room nuns were singing hymns. I watched silently from the corner, peeking into a world completely unknown to me, my skin starting to itch. One nun spotted me, smiled and then winked.

I was in bandages for about a month. The unscheduled visits from friends and family to the house increased. I didn’t possess the extraordinary amount of willpower it took not to scratch my skin, but by the time I left Lebanon, all was healed; there is no scar tissue.

It has been 20 years since I was injured, and many other memories have been formed along the way. But that one stands out: a moment in time so profoundly different from the rest of my life. Even though I was only nine years old, the experience of being cared for in a candlelit church made a huge impression on me.

Back home in Ottawa, having supports so readily available made me appreciate them all the more. But to have lived in a place (even for a short while) where creativity was constantly required to meet basic needs, showed me something important: the resilience and the resourcefulness of people, and, more important, their generosity. It was a good lesson to learn.

Beesan Sarrouh lives in Kingston.

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