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Chaldean Refugees in Lebanon Find First Communion Therapeutic
By Rita Abro :: Saturday, May 10, 2008 :: 70449 Views :: Article Rating :: Law & Order, Government & Society

Beirut, LEBANON  –  Little has been discussed about the Chaldean Iraqi children who have been forced to deal with the challenging situations of persecution in Iraq.  Christian families under siege in the war-torn country are faced with few choices.  For those that flee, Children are often in tow having to endure the trauma of the journey.  Pain, hunger, anxiety, confusion, and fear are just some of the issue these young kids face. 

Last September, Sondrine and Raymond Khamo lived with their parents in a two-floor house in Mosul, Iraq. Their uncle had been shot in the head when he was driving, and their mother, Haifa Khamo, was afraid to let her children go outside.  Until the night they decided to flee Iraq to save their lives. 

Today, the family of four lives in a one-room dwelling in Beirut. The children's father, Basel, an accountant, recently found work as a stocker in a supermarket. There's not much left from his $200 monthly salary after he pays the $100 rent.

Sentiments of sanity are found for the family in Lebanon.  The family is able to practice their Chaldean Catholic faith. The children Sondrine, 12, and Raymond, 11, were to make their first Communion May 10 at St. Raphael the Archangel Chaldean Cathedral in a Beirut suburb.  A time that many refugee children say is therapeutic and comforting. 

Of the 38 children preparing for their first Communion at St. Raphael's this year, 24 are Iraqi Chaldean refugees, ranging in age from 11 to 13.

Immaculate Conception Sisters Rahma Talo and Veronica Daoud have been instructing the children every Saturday since October.

Most Iraqi refugee families in Lebanon live in remote parts of Beirut. With meager incomes -- if they have work at all -- families cannot afford transportation to St. Raphael's, so the parish bus transports the children to and from their first Communion preparation classes each week.

Chaldean Bishop Michel Kassarji of Beirut will concelebrate the first Communion Mass with Father Joseph Malkoun, a Maronite Catholic priest who specifically asked to work with Iraqi refugees in Lebanon because there is a shortage of Chaldean priests.

"It is very painful for me to see all these people almost handicapped emotionally, spiritually, even intellectually," Father Malkoun said of the Iraqi refugees. "They would not be like this if they had lived a normal life."

Father Malkoun notices, for example, that many of the refugee children are aggressive.

"Look what the stress and all the violence they lived ... look what has been done to them," said Father Malkoun.

"The circumstances in which these children are living, it reflects on them. When you are violated, you are full of violence," he said. "Their human rights were taken from them. They have the right to live as human beings."

Aside from the atrocities experienced in their war-torn homeland and an impoverished existence as refugees, many Iraqi children in Lebanon, some as young as 10 years old, need to work to help support their families.

Three Iraqi children preparing for their first Communion at St. Raphael's have full-time jobs and do not go to school.

One of them is 13-year-old Fadi, who works for a private water distribution company so that his younger brother can go to school. Fadi's ride in the water truck between deliveries is the easy part of his day. When the truck stops, he must clamber up stairwells to apartment rooftops, dragging a heavy hose like a young firefighter, to fill up empty water cisterns. The job will become even more exhausting in the summer when Beirut temperatures reach 100 degrees.

"The role of parents is crucial" in preparing any child for their first Communion, said Father Malkoun. But with the Iraqi children, the priest noticed that their parents are not able to be as involved as they should because of the stress and anxiety they face.

"We see the children for a few hours on Saturday afternoon, but then we don't see them for the rest of the week," said Sister Rahma, who came to Lebanon from Iraq five years ago. "That's why when I do meet their parents, I encourage them to show an interest in what their children are learning and ask them to look over the (instructional) material they receive from the church.

"The previous years I had more time and I used to visit the children and their families at least a couple times a week. I'd listen to their problems and talk to them, and I felt this brought the children closer to God through me," Sister Rahma explained.

Meanwhile, Father Malkoun said he's witnessed how "the Iraqi families have little opportunity to communicate and assimilate with the Lebanese community. They are very isolated."

The priest, who also organized a Boy Scout troop -- half Lebanese and half Iraqi -- said the first Communion preparation at St. Raphael's gives the Iraqi children an opportunity "to come out from this cocoon they're living in, to develop their energy and to interact with other Lebanese children."

"And it's a rich experience for the Lebanese children to experience another culture, and especially for Lebanese children who come from wealthy families, to meet other children who do not have the same chance in life, to play with them, to live in common with them," said Father Malkoun.

The outlook for Iraq's Christians continues to be bleak.

"We even receive phone calls from families there who don't want to stay and wish to come to Lebanon," said retired Gen. Michel Kasdano, who volunteers full time at St. Raphael's to help refugees.

St. Raphael's is able to distribute food parcels to some 500 Iraqi refugee families each month, but more refugees are arriving in Lebanon, and the cost of food continues to rise.

None of the refugees see returning to Iraq as a possibility, said Kasdano. He added that the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees' process for resettlement, expected to take one to two years, is becoming slower.

"Those who are rejected by the UNHCR are depressed and have no hope. It's like the end of the world for them," Kasdano said.

"It seems they are stuck here," at least until another country decides to accept them, he said.

St. Thomas, MI USA

St. Thomas Chaldean Catholic Church
6900 Maple Rd.
West Bloomfield, MI 48322
Tel: (248) 788-2460
Fax: (248) 788-2153

Founding Pastor:
Rev. Hanna Cheikho

Current Pastor:
Rev. Frank Kalabat

Parochial Vicar:
Rev. Jirjis Abrahim

Rev. Emmanuel Rayes, Retired  

Rev. Frank Kalabat

Rev. Frank Kalabat was born in 1970 in San Diego, California and entered St. Francis Seminary of San Diego, California.  The admission to the Catholic seminary made him the first born U.S. Chaldean to enter an American seminary.  In 1992, Fr. Kalabat continued his studies at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan.  In July 1995, shortly after graduation he was ordained as priest by His Excellency Bishop Ibrahim N. Ibrahim.  

Fr. Frank chose Mother of God Parish in Southfield, MI. as his first assignment serving the Chaldean community as an associate pastor for half a decade.  In 2001, Fr. Kalabat was elected to serve as Pastor of St. Tomas Parish in West Bloomfield, Michigan where he remains today.   

Rev. Jirjis Abrahim

Rev. Jirjis Abrahim was born in Telkaif, Iraq in 1942. Upon graduation Fr. Abrahim was admitted to St. Peter Chaldean Seminary in Baghdad, Iraq.  After a decade of studies and numerous degrees, Fr. Abrhim was ordained a priest in 1967.  He chose to continue ministering in Baghdad, Iraq.  There he was appointed the headmaster of the catechism at Mother of Sorrows Cathedral.  Fr. Abrahim also assisted St. Therese Church in Baghdad until 1978.  Afterward he was asked to assist St. Joseph Church in Baghdad and was appointed Parochial Vicar from 1978-1992. 

In 1992, Fr. Abrahim was called upon to assist the growing Chaldean population in Michigan.  Upon his arrival he was assigned to St. Joseph Church in Tory, Michigan.  Two years later Fr. Abrahim was asked to become the pastor of a Parish community in Windsor, Canada  where he remained the parish pastor until 2001.

Continuing demographic changes in Michigan required Fr. Abrahim to return to St. Joseph Parish in Tory as a Parochial Vicar, where he remained until 2006.  In 2006 he was elected to St. Thomas Parish as Parochial Vicar in West Bloomfield, MI. where he currently serves the Chaldean community.


Rev. Emmanuel Rayes

Rev. Emmanuel Rays was born in Araden, Iraq in 1930.  He studied at St. John Dominican Seminary and was ordained to the priesthood in 1954.  The Chaldean catholic ambassador ministered in northern Iraq from 1954-1963, in Syria and Lebanon from 1963-1980, and in the United Stated from 1980 to the present day.
Form 1980-1983, he was appointed associate pastor at Mother of God Parish in Southfield, Michigan.  From 1983-1989 he served as pastor at Sacred Heart Parish in Detroit, Michigan.  During the early 1990’s he ministered to the Chaldean community in Farmington Hills and was at St. Joseph Parish in Tory where he was Parochial Vicar until 2000.

Although Fr. Rayes retired in 2001, he remains active in serving the community.  He is the author of many articles in Arabic and is the editor-in-chief of the Al Mishal and Al-Tariq magazine.  He has translated and continues to translate many books from French and English into Arabic.