Maya Chams Ibrahimchah, founder and president of Beit el-Baraka, who is well known for her activism for the preservation of Lebanon's heritage and old homes, is now working towards helping those in need, especially senior citizens who have used up their pension and their savings.
"Beit el-Baraka works on three levels: the supermarket where you can gracefully, and with dignity, choose whatever you need, the apartments that are restored for free and whose rent we pay and medical treatments, which include surgeries, medications and dental care that doctors –who support the association- provide to patients," says Ibrahimchah.
For now, 914 people (almost 328 households) are benefitting from the supermarket. Families do not only come from Karm el-Zeitoun and Achrafieh, but from as far as Akkar and Marjeyoun.
It all started last December, when Ibrahimchah was working on the restoration of the Heneine Palace in Beirut, where she planned on celebrating her husband’s birthday. Deeply committed to saving heritage, Ibrahimchah had chosen the location to emphasize the importance of preserving the old homes of Lebanon. "As part of the necessary renovations, I entrusted the making of curtains to a fashion designer in Burj Hammoud. But every time I went to see him, he would tell me to come back the next day. And every time I went, I kept seeing, under the bridge of Burj Hammoud, a woman sitting on a Samsonite suitcase. She looked scared. Every time I passed her, I thought to myself that this lady did not seem to belong to the surroundings. One day I parked my car, approached her and asked her if she was ok. She replied in perfect French ‘Do not worry about me,’" Ibrahimchah recalls.
At this point, it became impossible for Maya to just turn her back and pretend everything was okay. She sat next to the woman who started crying silently for a long time before she began telling her story.
The lady with the Samsonite suitcase is a retired teacher. She is single and spent her life working in a well known school in Achrafieh. As soon as she retired, she saw her end-of-service benefits drop rapidly, and had to leave her apartment to settle in a room in Dora that she paid $75 a month for. One day, the landlord told her that he was increasing the rent to $200. This amount was what new tenants––who were coming from Syria and who were ready to share the room with others––were prepared to pay. At the same time the former teacher got fired.
When Ibrahimchah met her, she had already been on the streets for three weeks, and the Samsonite suitcase was the only thing she owned. That same evening, Ibrahimchah provided her with a room to sleep, and then moved her into a proper apartment.
Through this woman, Ibrahimchah met other former teachers and retirees who were in the same situation––a situation where people who have worked all their lives find themselves in poverty a few years after their retirement because they used up all their savings. This is taking place in a country where the social safety net is almost non-existent.
The car, the phone, the bills and... the house
"We must change the law and replace the end-of-service benefits with a retirement pension collected at the end of each month," says Ibrahimchah. "You can easily tip over to poverty. People leave their job, and they begin to see their end-of-service benefits getting drained. So they start drawing from their savings, which also start to quickly decrease. Then some retirees end up having to sell their cars in order to raise some money and to save gas costs. As a result, they start going out less and less. As time passes, they can no longer afford to charge their mobile phones and they become increasingly isolated. Then the moment comes when they can no longer pay their house expenses or their rent. These people, who used to live normal and dignified lives when they were working, fall into poverty and are forced to live on charity," she explains.
At Beit el-Baraka's free supermarket for the retired in need, in Karm el-Zeitoun. Photo Beit el-Baraka
The situation was something that Ibrhaimchah, an activist at heart who fights for the most painful and sensitive causes, refused to accept. She decided to do something: she called on her friends and acquaintances to help set up the supermarket, restore homes and look after those in need. A support network was quickly created.
For food products, many well-known companies are lending a hand including al-Taj Royal Mills, Taanayel Farms, Cafe Super Brazil, Moulin d'Or, Globus, Nestle and L'Oreal, while the Lebanese Food Bank provides vegetables and fresh fruits.
For healthcare, many doctors work on a voluntary basis, and the Fayez Mouawad Foundation supplies the medications. "For the elderly, dental care is very important. A dentist who is part of our network provides free dentures, and thanks to him, the beneficiaries are learning to smile again, especially when they look at themselves in the mirror," says Ibrahimchah.
In terms of the renovation of houses, Ibrahimchah’s friends include Elie Banna, who sends out his workers at cost price, and Meker who has been offering the kitchens. Both Banna and Meker provide equipment and labor. "So far, 15 houses have been fully renovated. Water heaters have been installed in 28 apartments. The unpaid water and electricity bills have been paid for everyone," explains Ibrahimchah.
To restore houses and to pay rent, Ibrahimchah negotiates with their owners. "We renovate for free provided that they guarantee to keep a low rent for the next ten years," she says.
Ibrahimchah is also fighting alongside people who are helpless and vulnerable. "There are two groups: the young retirees (between 64 and 74), and the older ones (75 and over). Every young retiree who joins Beit el-Baraka is encouraged to take care of three other people (over 75) by visiting them regularly.”
Today in Karm el-Zeitoun, a network has begun to develop: every day, the neighborhood baker, which is located next to the supermarket, makes manoushe for Beit el-Baraka, which he sells at cost price. And a local hairdresser, impressed by all the effort he was seeing, agreed to open his salon free of charge during days off so that the elderly women of Beit el-Baraka can get their hair cut and colored if they wish to do so. Giving back is contagious.
The many facets of poverty
Being ashamed of having guests at home
Aline is in her 50s and is slightly autistic. She lives with her older brother Elie, also autistic, in a small apartment on the sixth floor of a building in Karm el-Zeitoun. The elevator stops on the fifth floor, and then one has to take the stairs to get to their home. Elie recently found a job. He is washing dishes in an Achrafieh restaurant. For many years, Aline and Elie’s home had no running water due to a lack of means. They also could no longer pay the electricity bills, so EDL (Electricite du Liban) cut it off.
Beit el-Baraka has refurbished and restored their small apartment. They installed water pipes, paid all their overdue rent as well as their water and electricity bills. Today, Aline is happy to spend time at home. She grows aromatic plants on her terrace and bakes cakes for people who come to visit her. "Before my house was renovated, I was ashamed to have guests over," she says.
Struggling to pay the bills
In Geitawi, Georges and Lina (siblings) live in a single-family house with a garden. They have just made contact with Beit el-Baraka, and now they go there once or twice a month. George had to stop working a year and a half ago because of acute osteoporosis that forced him to monitor his movements and not carry loads weighing more than a kilo and a half. For many years Lina worked as a saleswoman at a shop located in Achrafieh.
"I am now retired, and have received end-of-service benefits. But today, between the time that passed and my brother's illness, I spent everything I had," she says. She is a bit older than 70 and is learning to live in fear and want. "I have to go to my village for a funeral and I need to have my hair dyed and cut, but I cannot afford it,” she says. When asked if she can afford to buy new clothes, she says with a sigh: "Oh, it's been a long time since I bought myself anything because the most important thing is to have food in the fridge and pay the bills. Before, my niece used to help us financially. She paid for our electricity and our generator. But the company she works for is in financial trouble, and now she only gets her salary once every three month. She can no longer help us.”
Lina and Georges, who own the house built by their father, dream of restoring it as the walls and ceiling are being eaten away by mold. That's what Beit el-Baraka plans to do next, hopefully before the beginning of winter.
Treating a metastatic cancer
Jeanine lives in a room in Burj Hammoud. She was an Arabic teacher and also used to also work at a company in Dora. She got married twice and has three children. Now, at 70, she has run out of money and suffers from metastatic cancer. "Until two or three years ago, my two daughters helped me by paying my rent. But today, life is more expensive and they can not give me as much money as before. They have to also care for their children," she says.
Until she came across Beit el-Baraka, Jeanine had seen many doctors without really grasping what she was suffering from. A specialist had even suggested amputating her legs. Today, even though she has trouble moving around and still suffers from knee pain, Jeanine can stand up and is undergoing chemotherapy. She is being followed by the doctors from Beit el-Baraka, and the association is also helping her with her rent.
"I have always been generous. Furthermore, the local grocer knows me well. This is why he still lets me get my groceries even though I haven’t paid my bills in a while. I doubt that I will be able to repay him anytime soon. My neighbors come to visit me, and they help me to walk or stand up and clean my house," she says. Jeanine has the nails of her hands and feet nicely done. "My previous neighbor dropped by. She did the housework, helped me take my bath and painted my nails," she said with a smile.
For your donations:
All branches of BLC Bank.
Account Name: Beit el-Baraka,
IBAN: LB91 0011 0000 0000 1031 0066 2596
Swift Code: LICOLBBX
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 7th of September)
Last January, a unique supermarket opened in the heart of Karm el-Zeitoun. Its recycled wood shelves are filled with canned goods, bread, oil, sugar, salt, flour, legumes, biscuits, shampoos, soaps and many other products from well known brands. A refrigerator stores yogurt, cheese and labneh. There are no carts in this supermarket. Instead, there are large cloth tote bags marked with the name...