Vol 1 No 4 Spring/Summer 2001

A DRC Interview with Dr. Agnes Sanders

(Beirut, June 2001)


In 1993 two women, Catherine Mourtada, a Swiss teacher, and Agnes Sanders, a French physician, began participating in the human and social reconstruction of a shantytown in Beirut, Lebanon. Their efforts have not gone unnoticed. In 1999 Julie Hannouche reported on efforts to assist the street children of Beirut. (To read that article, go to the "News Clips" section of the DRC web site or click on the link at the bottom of this article.) Among those assisted are Gypsy children from the Hay al-Gharbeh shantytown. The Dom Research Center interviewed Dr. Sanders to get an update on her team's work.


DRC: The term "shantytown" conjures up a variety of images in our readers' minds. Describe for us the general living conditions for the Gypsy community in the shantytown.

Dr. Sanders: The dwellings are shanties made of remains of pre-existing buildings with the addition of corrugated roof, hardboard and plastic walls, old tires, etc. They usually have room for a family of 7-10 people. Those shanties are usually rented from local owners for about $60 per month. Furniture is very rudimentary: foam mattresses are piled up against the walls during the day and spread out at night. There are usually no chairs, tables or cupboards. Several families have TV sets. They cook on one-burner gas stoves. Water is carried by jerrycans and stored in large plastic barrels. Very few homes have refrigerators, but most of them have access to one if there is a real need; for example, to keep medicines. Clothes are washed by hand and dried on the line outside.

DRC: How many Gypsies live in the Hay al-Gharbeh area and from where did they originate?

Dr. Sanders: It is difficult to know exactly how many Gypsy families live there for several reasons: (1) they are still semi-nomadic coming and going between Syria and different parts of Lebanon; (2) the boundaries of the shantytown are not well defined; (3) the Gypsies are often hard to distinguish from other very poor Lebanese families living in the same area, and they sometimes intermarry; and (4) our work load is extensive enough that we haven't had the opportunity to compile definitive statistics. I would estimate that, in my dispensary, I assist regularly about 30 Gypsy families. The families are large with 5 to 8 children. They are drawn to this place because of their limited means and the drawing power of the clan, which groups itself in this area and attracts other members. Other such camps are found in Tripoli, Chekka and Aley. When asked where they originally come from, they say that they don't know and that they have been in the area for generations.

DRC: What types of employment do they hold?

Dr. Sanders: Very few hold regular jobs. If they do it seems to be in restaurant service. They have small, irregular jobs such as singing or dancing for parties, making traditional musical instruments and selling items on the streets. Some of the women are beggars, and a few women are fortune tellers. The unemployment rate of the male population is approximately 90%.

DRC: Is illiteracy a major problem for them? If so, how is your team addressing this and other needs?

Dr. Sanders: The literacy rate is very low. I would guess about 10%. However, they are interested in literacy classes, especially if we hold them within the clan. They would be reluctant to go elsewhere for classes and mix with other people. We hold literacy classes for children, for women, and starting this year, we began one for men. Most of them speak a Gypsy language but they commonly also use Arabic.

Our projects with the Gypsies are common with those destined for the entire population of the area: literacy classes for unschooled children, for men and women; hygiene classes for young mothers; free access to medical dispensary care, including free medicines; summer camp for children of the literacy classes; and regular Bible clubs. We are able to mix the Gypsy children with the other children in the literacy classes, but with the adults this has so far not been possible. Only Gypsies have attended these adult classes. One of the reasons for this of course is that they are disdained by the others.

DRC: Integration into the host society seems to be a common problem for Gypsy people throughout the world. Can you give us more information about this situation in Lebanon?

Dr. Sanders: Gypsies seem to stay separate from other sociological groups in Lebanon because of their cultural differences and poverty. Since they are illiterate and do not hold jobs, they do not integrate the society through their work. Many children do not attend school and thus don't mix with other children. They almost always marry in the same clan. Sometimes they "capture" a girl from another clan, and then face retaliation. This happens once or twice every school year causing some of our school girls to hide in order to avoid being kidnapped. They usually marry early (girls 14-17 years of age and boys 14-25 years of age). The fact of not having a job does not seem to be a hindrance to marriage. Often, very young people still in their teens, not holding jobs, marry and have children. Government services are theoretically available to them if they have Lebanese nationality, which seems to be the minority of them. Even then they do not know how to profit from those services or are not willing to use them. For example, we are helping a family who has a little blind eight-year-old girl who is bright and would benefit from a specialized school. The father is a registered Lebanese citizen and has fulfilled his military obligations. They are very reluctant to let her go to such a school. We've been working on convincing them for four years and are hoping to convince them with the condition that the girl would return home each night. The very poor non-Gypsy Lebanese seem to be much more willing to let their children be taken care of by such institutions.

Rabiah is a 15 year old boy who finished primary school with the help of a scholarship from our organization. We registered him in a Christian vocational school in the Bekaa Valley with another boy from the same clan. They only stayed one day and returned home, not being able to cope with the distance from the clan and mixing with other students. He is now selling nargujile on the streets of Beirut. It is not that we absolutely want to register them in Christian schools, but they cannot be accepted in regular schools because of lack of certificates or identity papers. On the other hand, it is a good opportunity and does not seem most of the time to be a problem for their parents.

DRC: You have mentioned some of the challenges that your programs face. Are there other circumstances that pose difficulties for your work?

Dr. Sanders: Parents often want to register their children [for school], but afterward make no effort to encourage or follow-up their children in this. For example, they move in the middle of the year to another city in Lebanon. However, the families we've been following for several years now make more effort in this regard.

[Cultural differences are also a problem.] In one family the father is a devout Muslim, contrary to most Gypsies in Lebanon. He seems to be respected by his family. Two of his boys are in our literacy classes were well-behaved and good students, but not allowed by their father to attend Bible clubs or Christian summer camps with us. However, after two years he accepted to let them come to such activities. The oldest son, after having finished the three-year literacy program with us, is now attending a Christian school and is used by his teacher as an exemplary student before the other students. We feel that this situation is not very easy for the boy, stretched between two very different cultures.

Our facilities have been good but precarious. The building is loaned to us by a political party which may take it from us at any time it wishes. We only have two classrooms and could use two more. We've been using the dispensary waiting room for literacy classes for adults. Of course, political tensions are always a problem in the area and there is much intolerance among the groups. We make a point of treating them all the same.

Unlike a village with its own authority structure, this group of people is a "destructured" people. This makes it difficult to effectuate change. They are juxtaposed families with no real authority figure. In addition, these are people who live and let live rather than having ambition and vision for change. We are trying to encourage them to take initiatives in their areas of strength, i.e., organizing a party to celebrate the first anniversary of the dispensary. As is the case for all peoples, love is the best way to reach them. There is sometimes a delicate balance between the love we want to give them and rendering them irresponsible by giving them too much. We need also great patience to be faithful with people who often give up in the middle of a program.

DRC: Would you tell our readers how your organization is supported?

Dr. Sanders: "Tahaddi" [an Arabic word that means challenge] is a non-profit organization recognized in France. We receive support from personal donors, mostly personal acquaintances in France and Switzerland and a few churches and friends in the USA. Our main expenses are the salaries of our three teachers, a part-time social worker and the rent of the little house which holds the dispensary. We also have a budget for our summer camp. We are trying to find support in Lebanon as well. For example, doctors, labs, pharmacists who help us by giving us discounts or free medicines or services, Christian schools letting us use their buses, the Baptist seminary letting us use their facilities for the Bible clubs, church people giving used clothing and toys. One local Baptist church helps us financially by taking a month child sponsorship ($20 per month) and one international church in Beirut helps us by giving about $50 per month. For the girls who finish our literacy program at age 14 or 15, we are now trying to find Lebanese social organizations willing to come and give them vocational training (hairdressing) in our school; the parents would not be willing to send them away to school. We recently set up a transitional board with the goal of putting in place a board with a majority of national members within five years.


While there are many similar programs among the Gypsies in Europe, this program is unique in the Middle East. However, similar social, medical and educational programs are in the planning stages in at least two other Middle Eastern countries. In future articles those efforts will be presented. A forum for the discussion, evaluation and enhancement of such programs among Gypsies of the Middle East is needed.


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