Fratelli: Beyond Borders Accompanying the Most Vulnerable
Brother Matthew Kotek, FSC
It’s 7 AM on a late October (2020) morning when the Brothers community at the Fratelli Project in south Lebanon are greeted by the sounds of engines revving up as they leave the chapel following their morning prayer. To the average person, the revving of engines may not have any significance, but to the Brothers this sounds means that buses are warming up and preparing to pick up the children and young adults of the Syrian refugee community in the area and bring them to Fratelli. This sound is symbolic of Fratelli finally being able to return to serving its mission after many months closed in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
« Fratelli », an Italian word meaning Brothers, encompasses the mission of the Fratelli Project in Lebanon. Founded as a joint ministry of the De La Salle and Marist Brothers, Fratelli’s mission is to serve the Syrian refugee community living in Lebanon. The formation of the Fratelli Project came after discussions at the 2014 General Chapter called for the De La Salle Brothers to form relationships with other religious orders in order to create ministries to serve those most in need. So, in 2015 De La Salle Brother Andrés Porras from Mexico and Marist Brother Miquel Cubeles from Spain formed a community in Lebanon to explore the possibility of establishing a project to serve the educational needs of refugees from the Syrian civil war which began in 2011.
In the spring of 2016, this dream was realized after the first students were welcomed to Fratelli. As the need for more space grew, the Project soon moved to the former Collège de Notre Dame des Frères Maristes in Rmeileh, south Lebanon, and also established a satellite campus in the Bourj Hammoud neighborhood of Beirut in the École Saint Vincent de Paul. Since its beginning, the Fratelli Project has grown exponentially thanks to the financial support from the De La Salle and Marist Brothers as well as other charitable organizations from abroad. In addition to financial support from abroad, the Fratelli community has been blessed by the presence of Brothers and volunteers from abroad that commit to animating the mission along with the local Lebanese and Syrian teachers and staff. Currently, I live community with three Brothers at Fratelli: Marist Brothers Miquel Cubeles and Esteban Ortega from Spain and De La Salle Brothers Gilbert Ouilabegue from Chad.
In the wake of multiple crises affecting Lebanon including the October 2019 revolution, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Beirut port explosion in August 2020, Fratelli has worked hard to adapt in order to meet the ever-changing needs of the refugee community. In order to continue to provide programming to the Syrian children and young adults during the pandemic, Fratelli had adopted protocol including temperature checks, mandatory mask wearing, and social distancing in classrooms. The adoption of these protocols allows Fratelli to safely welcome students and staff back to campus. Fratelli’s programming currently includes: morning and afternoon preschool programs, a basic literacy and numeracy (BLN) tutoring program for children and young adults currently enrolled in school, English and Arabic courses for young adults, sewing and childcare courses for young women, electrical courses for young men, and youth basketball and football (soccer) programs. Fratelli also hosts summer camps in July and August after the completion of the academic year.
In the months since my arrival in Lebanon in October, I have had the opportunity to observe and experience all that Fratelli embodies. From accompanying the drivers in the morning to pick up the children, to assisting the teachers in their classrooms, and to co-teaching an English course, I am learning that my role as a Brother at Fratelli is to accompany the children and young adults that we serve and help them realize their potential.
The Brothers also accompany the staff at Fratelli and support them in a variety of ways. One way of accompaniment that I particularly enjoy is the daily lunch that Brothers prepare and share with the Fratelli coordination team. On any given day you’ll find us four Brothers with the five members of our coordination team (Ali, Maria Pia, Rana, Reem, and Yara) gathering to share a meal, discuss the pressing needs of the children and staff, and share stories of our daily lives–all done in a mixture of Arabic, French, Spanish, and English. Though language can be a barrier to communication at times, I have found that the sharing of our own stories in a variety of languages to be a truly transformative experience.
In addition to the formal programming, celebrations are an important part of the Fratelli experience; they help lift the spirits of the children and bring them joy amidst their difficult situation. Though many other celebrations have had to be cancelled this year due to pandemic-related closures, we were happy to have the opportunity to celebrate Christmas with the children this year. To celebrate, we welcomed Santa and our Fratelli mascot « Fra Fra » who greeted the children, sang songs with them, and gave them gifts for the holiday. It’s events like this that not only bring about great joy and laughter amidst a difficult year, but also serve as a symbol to the greater community in Lebanon and abroad of the ability of the Lebanese and Syrian communities to work together in support of a common goal–providing vulnerable youth with an education so that they can have a brighter future.
As the day comes to a close and the children return home, the Brothers once again return to the chapel for evening prayer. As we do each day, we thank God for the people we have encountered today, we pray for peace in our world, and we pray through the intercession of the our Blessed Mother (Buena Madre, Bonne Mère) that we may continue to accompany those entrusted to our care at Fratelli.