Beit El Baraka: Beacon of Hope for the Elderly in Need

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Lebanon has a growing population of marginalized senior citizens who can no longer fend for themselves. Unless supported by other family members, many depend solely on meager pension plans, if any at all, and have very limited access to health care. They often struggle to obtain basic grocery items and may also live in dilapidated homes, sometimes with no running water or electricity.

In November 2018, Beit El Baraka, a Lebanese non-profit NGO, was launched so that the most vulnerable can get the assistance needed to live in dignity. At The Wellness Project we wanted to shed light on this wonderful initiative, and so we spoke to its founder Maya Chams Ibrahimchah, a former marketing consultant, to find out more about her holistic philanthropic mission.

Helping the Marginalized Elderly

It all started when Maya noticed an elderly lady sitting on her Samsonite suitcase under a bridge in the neighborhood of Burj El Hammoud. “I was frequenting a business supplier in this area and I kept spotting this woman sitting in the same place every time I passed by,” explained Maya. Eventually she struck up a conversation with the lady and found out that she was a retired teacher from a reputable French school in Ashrafieh who recently got evicted from her home (after she retired, her pension eventually ran dry and could no longer afford the rent). Deeply moved by her story Maya was determined to help her, so she relocated the former teacher into a new apartment and covered her rent and utility bills. “It all kind of started from there really,” continued Maya, explaining how this charitable gesture inspired her to establish Beit El Baraka.

Beit El Baraka currently helps 328 families in need across Lebanon offering the following: food and hygiene supplies, housing/home care and medical care. To cover groceries, a purpose-built supermarket in the Beirut neighborhood of Karem il Zaytoun was established, where all the products are regularly donated by various suppliers (ranging from major FMCG companies to other charity organizations and private donors). Maya believes that donated food should not be given out in pre-packaged charity boxes, to allow her customers to select what they need, as they were accustomed to doing before hitting on hard times.

Eco-Friendly Practices at Beit El Baraka Supermarket

The supermarket gives all customers its branded reusable cotton tote bags to fill up their groceries (plastic bags are not permitted). “We also collect all the carton boxes which come with the goods and return them to our suppliers, and in return we get additional merchandise for our supermarket as a reward – it’s a barter system and it works extremely well for us,” said Maya. In addition to recycling the boxes, Beit El Baraka asks their customers to return all the empty plastic containers (such as, milk, labneh, yogurt, shampoo bottles etc.) from their groceries. “Once a week a rep from recycling facility in Bekfaya picks up the empty bottles and recycles them,” continued Maya. “Thanks to my customers, this habit of returning empty plastic containers has now spread all over Karem il Zaytoun!”

Picture: Beit El Baraka Eco-Friendly shopping bags

Beit El Baraka also helps the recipients with their home care needs. This could be anything from paying their overdue home bills, covering their rent, fixing their plumbing, and remodeling parts of their homes, to finding them new accommodation. “We work with a team of volunteer architects and entrepreneurs who believe in our cause,” shared Maya. Repairs include sanitary requirements, heating, waterproofing and mildew removal. Beit El Baraka also equips beneficiaries’ homes with a refrigerator, an oven and a central boiler if needed. “When people buy a new house in Lebanon they often change the bathroom fittings so all the original sinks, toilets and faucets get thrown out. Our team of architects and engineers donate these unused bathroom accessories and fit them for our recipients,” explained Maya.

 

Medical care is the third service offered by Beit El Baraka, and to date it has secured an agreement with five private hospitals, three dispensaries and six doctors to treat their members and offer free consultations, including dental. Since government hospitals in Lebanon are understaffed and oversubscribed, Beit El Baraka is often obliged to send their members to private hospitals for treatment. “Many of our friends working in the medical sector have been volunteering to treat the sick elderly members, too. However, we always need more help. Medical is one of the biggest budgets we need to secure,” stressed Maya.

Of course, not anyone who comes in asking for medical treatment or wants groceries is automatically eligible explained Maya. First, the charity needs to conduct an investigation to determine if they are the right candidate. After the initial interview, Beit El Baraka makes a home visit, an inquiry with neighbors and family members, and a financial check. Priority is given to the elderly with no income, no property and no family members helping them. “We need to make sure we are helping the right candidate, so that no donation is deprived to those who have applied and need it the most. Once the candidate is approved, which takes us 10-14 days, they – the candidate along with immediate family members in many cases – is eligible for free food and home supplies, home improvement and medical care.”

Beit El Baraka exists thanks to its generous donors explained Maya. “Initially my husband and our circle of friends have all helped tremendously – both morally and financially. We now have about 2,500 donors all in all – from individuals, companies and other NGOs. We get aid from the Lebanese Food Bank who sends us fresh produce weekly and the Mouawad Foundation who provides the medicine for the sick elderly.”

Communal Life Network

Beit EL Baraka also created a program that addresses seclusion and loneliness among the elderly and that also provides a purpose for the younger retirees (between 65 and 75 years of age) who are in need for aid too. “We will match our younger beneficiaries – who are still in good health by giving them the responsibility of attending to the everyday needs of our disabled or most vulnerable seniors, such as cooking for them, giving them a bath, cleaning their homes, paying them a social visit and following up on their medical needs,” explained Maya. These younger retirees are given daily tasks and report back to Beit El Baraka on a weekly basis. “The assigned responsibilities give them a sense of purpose again, and they also feel that they have ‘earned’ their provisions and help from Beit El Baraka. As a result, they feel more dignified.”

Escalating Poverty

Since the start of the Syrian war crisis in 2011, poverty has risen significantly in Lebanon. Statistics shared by the World Bank in November 2017, which is reflected on Beit El Baraka’s website, reveal startling numbers, and they have since been growing at an exponential rate:

● Poverty increased by 61% in the last 5 years.
● 38% of Lebanese are considered “poor”.

● 350,000 are considered “extremely poor” living below the poverty threshold with less than 4$ a day, (according to the United Nations Human Rights Council).
● Unemployment ascended to 30% (36% of which are young adults).

Maya also pointed out that there has been a sudden spike in evictions among the elderly Lebanese who were renting small apartments or studios. “With the spillover of the Syrian refugees, Lebanese landlords saw a financial opportunity. So, first they would impose higher rent on their elderly Lebanese tenants. If they couldn’t afford the new rent, the landlord would evict them, then offer the space to a group or family of Syrians for triple the former rent, for example.”

At the moment, Beit El Baraka is not taking on new elderly beneficiaries and is focusing on serving its existing members. “We have reached a plateau frankly, and we simply need more donations if we are to expand our database of recipients,” concedes Maya. “We are hopeful though. We will keep on knocking on doors.” So, what is the next step for Beit El Baraka, if it is to expand, we ask hypothetically? “Well, ideally we would like to set up a Beit El Baraka House, so that we have everything in one place: the supermarket, the medical facility and pharmacy. We would also like to accommodate many of our members so they live together in the house. It would be like one big community,” said Maya.

Indeed, that would be an amazing feat for Beit El Baraka! We wish them all the best hoping they can reach out to many more people in need! We are always thankful for the noble work of those who help others. Well, if you also have been inspired by their mission and wish to follow them or even get in touch, you can log onto their website www.beitelbaraka.org, email them on info@beitelbaraka.org and find them on both Facebook and Instagram. Finally, we are going to end with a short film about the mission and spirit of Beit El Baraka….

References and Pictures:  All the information, images and the video for this story have been provided by Beit El Baraka.

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