The “fiery” Maronites: people of faith and generosity

A Maronite prayer group pray the rosary together.

The Maronites are a fiery bunch. We are the people who bend, but never break. Our migration story is one of persecution and bloodshed for the sake of faithfulness, liberty and independence. It is a story of struggle, survival and strength. Our ancestors come from a small land filled with some of the greatest Saints – Saint Charbel Makhlouf, Saint Maroun, Saint Rafqa and Saint Nimatullah Hardini. After being forced to flee war-torn Lebanon, our early migrants found hope in Australia, a land of prosperity, freedom and democracy: a place we proudly call home.

At the turn of the 20th century, many Christians in Lebanon suffered persecution under the Ottoman Empire. Consequently, the first Lebanese most likely arrived in Australia in 1850. But it was after the outbreak of civil war in Lebanon in late 1975 that many immigrants fled to Australia to escape religious and political persecution. Many left behind their families and loved ones, knowing that they may never see them again.

But it was in the crucible of hardship that an unwavering spirit of steel was shaped. Many migrants had to navigate through this turbulence and start from scratch. Many migrated with nothing but courage, compassion and hope for a better future.

Today, many Maronites have adjusted and adapted to Australian life, but still carry with them these innate values of hospitality, generosity, ambition, resilience and endurance.  Even though many have heard their parents and grandparents share painful and traumatic memories of the past, they have witnessed their families rise from the ashes of hardship.

A Maronite celebration of Palm Sunday. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

In today’s multicultural and diverse Australia, there is a growing movement within the Maronite youth to find ways to keep our culture alive and strengthen the social fabric of Australian life.

Today’s youth pave the way for future generations. As such, Bishop Antoine-Charbel Tarabay works strenuously to enrich, empower and inspire the next generation of Australian Maronites to be great leaders and contribute to the modernisation and development of Australian society.

“Since their first arrival in Australia in the mid 1800’s the Maronite people have beautifully contributed to many aspects of the Australian life, striving to integrate into the Australian culture and society,” says His Excellency Bishop Tarabay, “As proud Maronite Australians, they expect their fellow Australians to understand and embrace their religious traditions and social values.”

Be it building Youth Centres in every Maronite parish with regular youth group gatherings, annual youth Christmas parties hosted at His Excellency’s residence to bring together the youth, frequent BBQ’s and pizza nights, Maronite Youth Diocesan Council’s sports events and dinner dances, and night patrol food runs – the aim is to activate the youth to participate positively in Australian life.

Palm Sunday celebrations at Our Lady of Lebanon Co-Cathedral in Harris Park. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

“For 10 years, I was battling addictions. Two years ago, I hit rock bottom and I lost all hope in life,” said one youth member from St Charbel’s, Punchbowl, “If it wasn’t for my friends at St Charbel’s and this loving community, I probably would have ended up in jail, dead or still heavily on drugs.”

To reduce mental illness stigma and help others overcome addictions, MaroniteCare was founded in 2004. MaroniteCare’s free counselling and support services are designed to aid those struggling with relationship issues, mental illness, grief, loss and to provide ongoing mental health support for those struggling with addictions.

“The Maronite Church has many avenues to help people in more ways than just charity,” says youth-coordinator and engineering student Tony Elias, “Diligent groups such as Seeds of Hope, a committee focused on supporting those with mental illness, are some of the leading activists in regard to awareness and providing training to volunteers to address mental health issues within and without the Maronite Community.”

“In this land, we are given opportunity to do that. We are given much, and so we should give back in every way, shape and form we can”, says Mr Elias.

Many youth regularly volunteer with Maronites on Mission Australia. This initiative began in 2013 with a group of nine parishioners from Saint Charbel’s parish in Sydney who decided to embark on a medical mission in the Philippines. After providing food packages to over 300 families, building a roof for an orphanage, providing medical assistance for over 1000 patients and building two houses for struggling families, these young missionaries decided that their mission was to bring hope to a broken world.

Our Lady of Lebanon Co-Cathedral in Harris Park. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

Today, their mission has grown. Hundreds of volunteers have found meaning and purpose in their own lives through selfless service. Some key achievements include: 52.5L of blood donated since 2013, 17,160 meals prepared and served to feed Sydney’s homeless every year, 260 home visits to struggling families in Sydney each year and annual missions to the Philippines where volunteers provide humanitarian aid.

“Saint Mary MacKillop left behind a powerful message for us today – to never see a need without doing something about it,” says Christopher Ibrahim who coordinates the food runs at St Joseph’s Croydon, “If we all do our small bit, our world will be a much better place.”

Another pro-active Maronite run non-for-profit is Queen of the Most Holy Rosary (QMHR), which is dedicated to empowering individuals with basic human needs. Sydney volunteer, Mrs Loris Turk describes her work with Missionaries of the Poor in Jamaica, I am reminded that there are children and people around the world that are dying without anything and anyone, forgotten by the world, rejected, unwanted, unloved. But it gives me so much reassurance and peace that at Missionaries of the Poor, they are given so much love and compassion.”

As part of QMHR’s yearly Christmas appeals, they rely on generous community donations to send off 40ft containers to countries in need. So far, they have sent containers to Iraq, Lebanon, Philippines and Jamaica, containing baby products, kids clothing, sanitary products, household items, medical supplies and food.

This fiery spirit of generosity and hospitality is very much embedded in the Lebanese culture. Amid the tragic Syrian Refugee Crisis in 2016, Lebanon hosted around 1.5 million refugees. Despite the enormous economic pressures caused by Lebanon’s unemployment issues and the surrounding wars, the people of Lebanon welcomed these refugees.

Today, many Lebanese in Australia feel a connection to those dwelling in the midst of suffering and hardship. When reminiscing about our heritage, many Australian Maronites trace our origins back to a time when our ancestors were also refugees, forced to leave everything behind and separated from their homeland in hope for a better and safer life elsewhere.

Georgette Bechara is studying Commerce/Law at the University of Sydney. Georgette regularly writes for uCatholic and ChurchPop and aspires to be a voice for the many persecuted Christians in a world that is often so hostile towards people of faith.

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