Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Nuns give abandoned babies second chance in life

Nuns give abandoned babies second chance in life
Fewer children are doomed to spend their lives in orphanages as adoption gains acceptance among Lebanese

By Nour Samaha
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: One early morning in 1848, at around 4 a.m., a nun at the Azaariyeh Convent in Downtown Beirut was woken by some noise outside. She got up to have a look and found a new-born baby girl balancing on one of the massive wooden beams of the house. The nuns named her Cecille la Poutre (Cecille the Beam). A week afterward, another nun encountered a man walking by the sea with a baby basket in his arms, with the child's head poking above the rim. When the nun asked him where he was going, he replied that the mother of the baby had died during childbirth and that he had concluded that the child must have "bad karma," and therefore should be thrown into the sea. The nun immediately relieved the man of his child.

These are just two of many stories about Lebanon's abandoned children. Sister Josephe, a nun in charge of adoption at the Creche St. Vincent at Azaariyeh, told The Daily Star that the situation of abandonment and adoption has changed dramatically over the last 30 years. "The daycare school moved in 1928 from Downtown to Achrafieh, where it continued to receive abandoned babies," she said. "After a certain age, boys were sent to an orphanage in Broumanna and girls were sent to another orphanage in Zouk. "By this point, abandoned children were coming in quickly, either due to girls getting pregnant out of wedlock, and therefore it was shameful for them to bring up 'bastard' children, or because couples could not afford to keep their child, or because the child was handicapped," she added. During the period prior to the Civil War, unwed women were socially obliged to hide their babies and dispose of them at the door of a convent, a church, or simply in a nearby street. Sister Josephe went on to say that unfortunately, at least one third of the abandoned children of that era reached a certain age and "lost their heads." "Maybe because they were abandoned and did not understand why, and obviously we could not provide answers either, as the majority of them had been left on our doorstep with no form of identification or tracing their origins ... They became mentally ill; aggressive, depressed, confused. They would be put into psychiatric hospitals, and spend the rest of their lives there."

The mid-1950s saw a dramatic change in the law, with the government authorizing Lebanon's first adoption service. With the approval of the church, the creche began giving children up for adoption. Couples from all over the Western world - including the United States, France, and Holland - flooded to Lebanon to adopt abandoned children. A few problems arose when the children grew up and came back to Lebanon to try and relocate their biological parents. Sister Josephe said that the creche found it impossible to assist them because they had no papers identifying their origins. "Most of the time, they were young girls of Lebanese, Syrian, or Palestinian nationality who left their babies at our door. We had no idea where they came from, what their religious background was, who the father was - so when the children came back as adults desperate to find their parents, we could do nothing to help."

The creche, now a daycare and adoption center, is also home to two women who were abandoned as babies in the 1960s. Blanche, now all grown up and helping the nuns look after the children, refuses to even entertain the idea of searching for her biological parents. When Sister Josephe joked that her mother was waiting to collect her outside, she replied: "You can tell her to go because there is no way that I'm leaving all of you behind, after everything you have done for me." Sister Josephe said that until around 1965, only foreigners, mostly European, adopted children, as the Lebanese were simply not interested. But in the 1990s, more Lebanese began adopting. "They became more accepting and more open-minded about the idea of adoption. Previously they only saw the babies as bastards." In Beirut there are two main homes for abandoned children in Beirut, Azaariyeh, where the babies left behind become Christian and can be put up for adoption, and another where they become Muslim and are placed in orphanages. "When the babies come in, we obviously have no idea what religious orientation they are," she explained, "but because we are a Christian institution, they become Christian and they will go to Christian families." "Nowadays, Lebanese are constantly demanding babies for adoption, but we just don't have any anymore. Not one single baby was abandoned during the recent war with Israel," said Sister Josephe. "The creche was completely empty. We were all very surprised, especially because many people came to ask about adoption, but I think mothers just did not want to let go of their children." Over a decade ago, the creche was receiving several babies a month, of all kinds of origins. "Babies who were black, Sri-Lankan, mixed race, or handicapped were coming in and being adopted," she said, "but now, with a waiting list of over two years, despite the rigorous background checks we make into the potential parents, babies are not being abandoned, and not being put up for adoption

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