Georges Assaf and Aya Naimeh

Organizers of relief for homeless in Lebanon

Top Ten 2020 #4

“Of course, helping people is always a joy”

Lebanese Young Talents began in 2009 as an organization whose mission was to raise funds for young Lebanese students without means to pursue athletics at the college level. Maronite Catholics Georges Assaf, a lecturer and head of sports training at Lebanon’s Catholic Antonine University, and Zeina Mina, Dean of the Faculty of Sports Sciences and a former Olympic athlete (Lebanon’s sole female Olympian, who competed in the Women’s 400 meter race in Los Angeles in 1984) were the founders.

After years of successfully raising money for young Lebanese to enter and compete in sports, something terrible happened that turned everything around for them: the Beirut blast of August 4, 2020.

The explosion, a detonation of 2750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate – equivalent to about 1.1 kilotons of TNT – stored unsafely in a warehouse in the port of Beirut, Lebanon, was felt in Turkey, Syria, Israel, Palestine and parts of Europe – and heard in Cyprus, 150 miles away – registered 3.3 on the Richter scale.

It left more than 200 dead, thousands injured, and 300,000 homeless. And a majority of these casualties occurred in the Christian section of Beirut, where the warehouse was located.

Georges, Zeina, Zeina’s daughter Aya Naimeh, and Fr. Joe Abou Jaoudé, the financial Director at Antonine International School whom Aya calls a “mentor” to the group, at that time decided to redirect the work of Lebanese Young Talents to relief efforts among the survivors of the blast.

Says Aya, “I was always raised around the value of helping others, so at a young age I started enrolling in activities that were other-focused, such as donating gifts and clothes and food to an orphanage in Beirut. I was educated in a Catholic school in Beirut, Notre Dame de Nazareth, where these values were reinforced.”

Young people and families demonstrate, demanding better government, after the Beirut blast of August 4, 2020

Right after the August 4 explosion, the group started traveling the devastated streets, helping people to clear their neighborhoods and homes of rubble. They gradually were joined by friends, coworkers, students from the university and, says Aya, “random people who had heard what we were doing and decided to join the cause.”

The core group now includes, besides Georges and Aya, Marc Haddad, Ornella El Khoury, Lea Bou Roufael and Maria Jabra.

“For us, it only seems natural to devote our time and funds to helping people,” says Aya. “This is the way we were all raised, as good Christians: ‘Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.’ (Matthew 5:42)”

“Of course, helping people is always a joy,” she continues. “For me, one of the most joyful moments was when we found Georges, a 62 year old man who lives alone in his apartment in Gaitawi… It wasn’t the fact that he survived by a miracle when his carpet protected him from debris and flying glass; it was the hope in his eyes, even though he was confused, not knowing whether to be angry or happy he survived, having a guilt that we all could relate to! We found him alone, not asking for help from anyone, just sitting in his destroyed apartment with no food, no lights, no water, nothing.”

Besides the destruction and human suffering around them, the young Catholic Lebanese see another sorrow as well: the exodus of Christians from a homeland where the Lord Himself once walked.

Indeed, an archeologist in 2019 identified Qana, Lebanon, as the “Cana” of the Gospel, where Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding celebration.

Aya says she, her Orthodox husband and Georges Assaf have witnessed many Christian friends leave the country in search of stability, “away from the political and economic problems.”

“We knew that was always an issue in Lebanon. I myself was born and lived in France when I was younger as my mother was fleeing the war in Beirut in 1989,” she explains.

But this time I feel it is different – we have almost no friends left in Lebanon, and those who are left are thinking of leaving the country in pursuit of better days.”

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