The forgotten ones in the “House of Light”

by Karin Leukefeld, Damascus

In the Beit Nour retirement home in the old city of Damascus, old men spend their twilight years. Almost all of them are alone. Their children have left Syria in search of work. Others do not want to or cannot take care of their fathers.

The new year begins with gifts. For the men of the Beit Nour in the old city of Damascus, the gifts come with a small delegation of the Sisters of the Salesian Order. The Beit Nour, which means the House of Light, is a home for the elderly run by Sisters of the Mother Theresa Order. The nuns come from all over the world to serve the poor and vulnerable in Syria. Four sisters at Beit Nour are assisted by three helpers to care for the 26 men who live in the home. Two women prepare meals in the house’s kitchen. In Dweila, another district of Damascus, the sisters run another house for single elderly women, the Beit Hubi, the House of Love. They do not like to be in the public eye. Photos and tape recordings are not welcome. To the objection that the public should know how important their help is, one of the sisters replies: “Our work is for God, that’s enough”.
  It is a different story when the Sisters of the Salesian Order visit the Beit Nour in January to deliver gifts. The delegation is led by Sister Carol Tahan, who is from Aleppo. She runs the Italian Hospital, which was founded by the Salesians in Damascus in 1913. Before the war, the Ospedale Italiano was one of the most prestigious hospitals in Damascus. But since 2011, many doctors, medical technicians, therapists and nurses have left the country, and the clinic can almost only be maintained with donations.

Donations, which are used to help the poor

At Christmas, thanks to these donations, it was possible to give away a Christmas bonus of 100,000 Syrian pounds to each of the hospital’s employees. “Some donate for the continued operation and medical equipment that the hospital needs. Others help so that we can help the poor.” There is Bernhard from Germany, for example, who has been collecting money for years with his association near Munich and passing it on to them. “This year we were able to buy a second-hand CT X-ray machine for computer photographs, which are always urgently needed. We were also able to distribute these warm jumpers to the elderly from the donations. We paid part of the money to a textile company that sewed the jumpers, which we then give away here at Beit Nour and the other homes.” The workers received a good wage of 15,000 Syrian pounds per jumper, the equivalent of about 4.60 euros, he said. “Because they were able to sew many jumpers, they also earned well,” says Sister Carol. “So, the donations help on both sides, the workers and the elderly. And we thank them for their support.”
  The Beit Nour is an old Damascene house and is tucked away in one of the many narrow streets of the old city. The high courtyard is closed with a roof, creating a hall that serves as a lounge for the men. The plants climbing up, the walls are decorated for Christmas. “Merry Christmas” is written on a garland in which red cardboard poinsettias are stuck. The letters are cut out of red and green glossy paper and glow in the sunlight streaming through the windows on the top floor.

Three large piles of warm jumpers

The Salesian Sisters have put up three large piles of warm jumpers on a table that is set up like a table with presents in front of the manger. About twenty men look expectantly at Sister Carol, who gives a short speech. At the end of her New Year’s greetings, one of the men beats his drum. Immediately, the other men fall into the rhythm, clapping their hands. From a back corner of the large room, a man slowly emerges and moves to the rhythm, dancing. Sister Carol, who is also beating her hands together to the drum, joins the dancing man and together they spin around the room for a few steps. Then Sister Carol calls out that it is now time to distribute the gifts and the men return to their places.
  The Salesian Sisters take two or three jumpers each in blue, grey, white and brown for the men to choose from. The jumpers are stopped to check the size, then they move on to the next one. At the very end, the dancer also receives his jumper. As good as he is at dancing, he still cannot coordinate the movements of his arms. The Salesian Sisters help him to try it on, and finally he stands in the circle of fellow residents in his new jumper and smiles proudly. Applause erupts, but that is too much attention for the man. Quickly and without looking further into the circle, he retreats to a room off to the side and closes the door.

Loneliness is the worst

While the other men continue to sing and dance with the support of the drum, Sister Carol Tahan finds time for a short conversation. Some of the old men are bedridden and cannot take part in the small celebration, says the resolute woman, who wears the grey costume of a senior Salesian Sister. They had brought so many jumpers so that some could be chosen for them too. In addition, the men should have the opportunity to exchange their jumpers if they turned out too small or too big. In the next few days, she will also visit the women at Beit Hubi in Dweila to hand over gifts. Another home for the elderly is the Beit Saadi, where she will also bring jumpers. “There are 170 elderly men living there,” she explains. Some, she says, were diplomats, professors, engineers or respected doctors. “In their rooms they have photos of their lives, of their families and children.”
  Loneliness is the worst thing for the elderly because they no longer have a family in Syria. Spouses have died, the children are abroad somewhere. Sister Carol knows the story of most of the men at Beit Nour. “Over there on the bench sits Gabriel, he is 75 years old. He came to us in the convent one day because he had lost his daughter with whom he was staying. He didn’t know what to do. We helped him to set up a small business. We bought him a trolly with which he could sell sweets, biscuits and little things for children near the schools and earn a modest living. But when the war started, he had to stop working and then he was taken in here, at Beit Nour.” The men’s religious affiliation doesn't matter, she says. “No one is asked about it, everyone is welcome.”

“Eleven terrible years gone by”

The next day, everyday life has returned to the Beit Nour. In the mornings and afternoons, the men sit together and there is time for conversation. Some play tawla (backgammon), a popular board game, others leaf through books or talk.
  The drummer from the day before sits next to Abu Majd, who agrees to talk. He does not want his name to be mentioned in public. In his “former life”, Abu Majd was the owner of some of the best restaurants in the Syrian capital. “I had a restaurant in Abu Rummaneh, Sanabel in Al Qusour, Vendome in Mezzeh, I had a Chinese restaurant and another in the old city of Damascus. The Al Waha restaurant was on the way to Harasta, it was demolished because a road was being built there. One restaurant specialised in potato dishes.” The 60-year-old’s voice is getting quieter and quieter, he seems heavy hearted.
  When asked how he lost his restaurants, he barely audibly answers this “difficult question”. In 2011, he says, there were problems with various companies. He had entered into a relationship with a larger company, but it had taken all his restaurants. After that, he had no work, lost all his money, his wife left him and he fell ill. A priest helped him to get into the Beit Nour. His family neither supported him nor visited him. Two sons are in the United Arab Emirates looking for work. Only his eldest daughter had visited him, but she had also left the country.
  Life in Beit Nour is good, says Abu Majd. He spends his days with his “friends”. He reads a lot when he is in his room, which he shares with two others. The books at Beit Nour are “exclusively religious”, he also reads his own books on history, politics and novels. He has lived in very good circumstances all his life, he says. But “now eleven terrible years have passed, and I don’t believe in a better future”. At Beit Nour, he says, he learned a lot about religion and found a new family: “We stick together and help each other.”
  Religious songs play in the background, men push their chairs into a circle, others retreat to their rooms. An elegantly dressed Damascene woman has come and taken a seat in the circle of chairs. She reads from a slender book, now and then the men respond in chorus. The Sister of the Mother Theresa Order indicates that it is time (for the visitor) to leave. On the way out, one of the men calls out, “Happy New Year. Come again!” Almost imperceptibly, Abu Majd nods his head in farewell.  •

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