In August 2023, a group of 25 volunteers from the Brazil Adventist University (UNASP)–Campus Hortolândia Church embarked for Lebanon, a Middle Eastern nation bordering Syria. Included in their luggage was equipment to set up a complete mobile hospital in the Islamic country, with the aim of caring for the health of thousands of Syrians and Lebanese. The hospital provided medical, dental, and optical services. The volunteer doctors and dentists carried out 1,700 consultations with the help of other professionals.
The Winners project has been active in Lebanon for many years, offering educational and sporting activities to underprivileged children. It is a ministry supported by the Federation of Adventist Entrepreneurs (FE). The project welcomed the volunteers for a safe stay, yet no one imagined a conflict (Hamas vs. Israel) was about to break out.
The missionaries from the UNASP Hortolândia campus spent 17 days in Lebanon in August and returned safely to Brazil before the conflict began. However, Mariah Custódio forwent returning to Brazil to remain in the Arab country as a volunteer for two years. Despite the current conflicts, she and her fellow missionaries from other parts of the world decided to stay. At this delicate time, they are receiving even more attention from the Adventist Church in order to remain safe in the country.
The missionary group from UNASP Hortolândia campus assisted at the mosque and city hall of Majdal-Anjar, located 62 kilometers (approx. 39 miles) from the Lebanese capital, Beirut. Deputy mayor Saed Yassine went to visit the place of assistance and took the opportunity to receive medical care. The official posted on his social networks a thank you message for the social projects developed for the benefit of the population.
At the age of 73, Dr. Edgard Oliveira Jr., an ophthalmologist, has been a missionary for many years and agreed to embark on yet another mission. The ophthalmology department treated 659 patients. Of these, 535 people received custom-made prescription glasses. The Dr. Edson Jara, a general practitioner, and Dr. Albert Schveitzer, a pediatrician, treated 750 Lebanese and Syrians. According to Dr. Jara, "most of the patients complained of stress, anxiety, and muscle pain, apparently due to too much physical exertion."
The dentists faced many challenges in treating oral health because the population is not in the habit of brushing their teeth. The dentists attended to 400 people and carried out restorations, surgeries, and other procedures, restoring health and self-esteem to children and the elderly. In Lebanon, Pastor Ronaldo Arco, from the UNASP Hortolândia Church, assisted doctors and dentists, while other members of the team worked in areas other than those with which they are familiar. Some were cooks, translators, receptionists, and attendants for the opticians and pharmacists—both units set up to assist patients.
The heat, time zone, language, long working hours, culture, religion, and especially the constant blackouts made the mission even more challenging. However, the determination to help the people was far greater than the challenges were.
Thiago Icassatti, a functional analyst, worked on the mission as a dental assistant and translator. He points out that the Lebanese have a feud with the Syrians, which made it difficult to attend appointments. "The women are ignored by the men, and the parents have a habit of physically assaulting their children. Another fact is that they don't shake hands with people of the opposite sex," says the translator.
The country is currently experiencing a deep economic crisis.
To give a perspective, a well-earning professional gets a monthly salary equivalent to US$80. The predominant religion in Lebanon is Islam; faithful Muslims believe in Allah. "The missionaries were told not to talk about religion or Jesus, unless they were asked," adds Icassatti.
The challenges began even before the trip, starting with the high cost of each volunteer. Keilise Ebinger, a nutritionist, was surprised by the immediate answer to her prayer. "I was at the Lebanon Mission meeting and decided to pray to get financial resources to go on the mission. Then a couple approached me and said that they couldn't go to Lebanon but that they felt like paying for all the costs of my trip," she says gratefully.
According to Dr. Oliveira's account, "A few days before we were due to leave, we found out that the ophthalmological equipment to carry out the vision tests was no longer available in Lebanon. So the ophthalmologist joined a prayer group to intercede for the difficult situation. In just one day, we managed to get the materials at cost price. It was a real miracle."
Dr. Jara shared how prayer can immediately solve a problem: "I was in the mosque attending to patients, and suddenly, the power went out. The place was full of patients, and with the fans and air conditioners turned off, the heat obviously increased, making people uncomfortable. So I decided to call two colleagues from the mission to pray for the power to come back on, and the answer was immediate. As soon as we said ‘Amen,’ the power came back on."
Another remarkable experience took place in the men's barracks. The place was attacked with stones and shots by a neighbor who was irritated by the noise of the generator. The next day, the volunteers found the bullet casings and stones scattered on the floor and thanked God that no one had been hit.
Friendships and Gratitude
The volunteers also had moments of relaxation with the Lebanese people. "I was invited to go for a walk and try the typical foods, such as maneesh, which is similar to pizza. I had the opportunity to sing praises in the home of another Lebanese family," says Icassatti.
Doctor Jara contemplated the landscapes of the Arab country mentioned in the Bible: "We saw exuberant places like the Valley of the Cedars, as well as the cities of Sidon, Tyre, and Zahle."
The Lebanon Mission members returned to Brazil with the certainty that their mission had been accomplished. Proof of this is a message a Lebanese woman gave to the volunteers: "The people of Majdal-Anjar said that they had never been treated so well by a group of volunteers, that they felt loved and asked when the group would be returning to the country."
UNASP's volunteers have yet to return to Lebanon, mainly due to the current conflict in the region, but in the meantime, technology helps them keep in touch with some patients who have become friends.