First Singapore youth in Order of Malta pioneer project returns

Marianne Tan (extreme right) is the only Asian in the pioneer group of the Caravan project. Photos provided by Marianne Tan

WOULD YOU LEAVE your job to live and work without pay with Muslims to care for mentally and physically disabled people in Lebanon? Marianne Tan had that opportunity, and she leapt for it.

The occasion presented itself through ‘Caravan’, a project launched in January 2009 by the Grand Hospitaller of the Sovereign Council of the Order of Malta in Rome.

The Grand Master Fra’ Prince Matthew Festing had called for the development of a 10-year programme aimed at strengthening the youth in the motto of the Order, in the defence of the Faith and assistance to the poor and suffering.
Marianne and nine other youths joined this international project which helped to foster mutual trust and understanding among young people of different denominations and religions in Lebanon through the service of the poor, handicapped children and adults, and the sick.

Marianne, 22, was the oldest in the group which comprised mainly Germans from aristocratic families and “a few other ‘down-to-earth’ people”. She left Singapore on Jul 24, 2009, for Frankfurt, Germany, where besides learning to speak Arabic, she also learnt about Islam from muftis (Islamic scholars).

‘Caravan’ came at a time when the youth worker was discerning her vocation in life. Three people inspired her greatly.

“Germany was truly a hard time for me,” recalled Marianne in a sharing of her trip she gave to members of the Singapore Order of Malta on Apr 6.

Attending lectures held in German, a language she did not understand, did not help, but from a particular lecturer, she learnt that love exists as a relationship between God, herself, and other, a theoretical lesson soon to be applicable in her work in Lebanon.

‘They too are human’
Her first stop after leaving Germany was to Chabrouh, located in rural Lebanon some 40 kilometres northeast of Beirut, where the ‘Caravanites’ worked in a centre specially designed for the disabled.

“We had to take care of our guests’ every need,” recalled Marianne. This included spending time with them, changing their clothes and diapers, and even giving them a shower. The last proved to be a challenge for Marianne when she had to give her first guest, Tony, a shower.

In the hours leading up to the chore, Marianne fretted. “How am I going to give him a shower? I’ve never given anyone else a shower before!” she recounted her fears to the small audience.

But she knew one thing for certain – she wanted to give Tony a good shower “as though it were my body”, she said. The chore unexpectedly gave her a deeper appreciation for the human body, and she grew to enjoy what she did for him.

On the final night she was with him, the mostly unresponsive Tony made some verbal noises and this “really encouraged me”, she said. It taught Marianne that even though disabled, Tony “was human, and could respond”.

Her second guest, Raghida, was severely handicapped. “She would pull me and hit me. I did not know how to deal with her, and I was losing patience,” said Marianne. The stay was memorable mainly because out of all her guests, Raghida was the only one whose parents came to visit during the five days.

Marianne recalled that after her parents left, Raghida kept crying for her mother. “I realised that even someone like her can feel, and she is human,” she said.

Her third guest, Rashid, was an Arabic man who loved to eat, and did almost nothing else. When she learnt that Rashid liked the army, and would respond exuberantly to any mention of it, she brought him to meet a Lebanese army troop training in the mountain area near Chabrouh.

“I never saw him run so fast before!” exclaimed Marianne.

Her experience at Chabrouh taught her a valuable lesson. “I learnt that all my guests are human. They knew what they liked and what they wanted.”

Living in Lebanon

According to Marianne, there are many domestic helpers in Lebanon, “more than there are in Singapore”. She recalled that once, while hanging clothes out to dry, Marianne spotted a domestic helper waving to her from the house opposite.

“I caught myself thinking whether or not to wave back,” she said. She reasoned that if she did, the other would think she was a domestic helper. This, upon reflection, made her realise that she saw domestic helpers as people of lower status.

On the Feast of the Epiphany, a Franciscan friar carrying a bucket of water visited their house to bless it. The friar had mistaken Marianne for the domestic helper, and she played along because she had come to realise a valuable lesson.

“I was the same as a maid. I shared the same dignity as a maid, and I too had come to Lebanon to serve,” she said.

The change in her was not unnoticed. Her single mother Margaret Tay said that her only daughter (among five children) has “grown up tremendously” and that she felt blessed because “not many young ladies would take the challenge to go to such a dangerous place for no pay”.

Marianne’s brother, Julius, who cooks for a living, said that before she left, Marianne was “a bit of a slacker”. “Now she’s more fired up, more open, more gungho about things, and wants to do more with her life,” he said.

Love God and love neighbour

As the end of ‘Caravan’ drew close, the ‘Caravanites’ visited Deir Mar Musa (Monastery of St. Moses the Abyssinian) in Syria, where she met Father Paolo, who inspired her with what he said – that though dangerous for youths to make such trips, it can also be full of hope, though he cautioned that such hope can turn violent too. He reminded them, “there is no solution to all the suffering in the world”.

Marianne reflected later during a long walk in the desert, that her journey had given her opportunity to see the disabled, the poor, the prisoners, and others suffering, and this had made her “very angry”, also realising that if she bottled this anger, it would “turn violent” as Father Paolo said.

She decided to express that anger by throwing stones in the desert and was soon moved by environmental concern to pick up waste in the desert.

She filled her haversack with plastic bags, styrofoam cups, and plastic waste, and wanted to continue even when it was full.

It was then that Father Paolo’s words came to mind: There is no solution to all the suffering in the world.

With that, Marianne learnt another important lesson. “I’m not called to save the world, or to love the whole world. All I have to do is to love God, love my neighbour who are those around me, and love myself,” she said. This, she knows now, is her vocation.

As Marianne ended her walk, she turned to gaze back at the desert lit by the setting sun. She noticed that the plastic bags “glittered like diamonds” on the sand and reminisced that God can make even rubbish beautiful.

By Daniel Tay

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Moving forward

MARIANNE WAS THE only Singaporean to attend the pioneer Caravan group launched by the Order of Malta. She plans to contribute her experience to the Youth Ministry Office run by youth chaplain Father Brian D’Souza.

In particular, Marianne wishes to share with those working in youth ministry in Singapore:

God can use anyone, regardless of background or talents.
The social teaching of the Church, is not sufficiently brought out in youth ministries here.
Catholic youths here lack knowledge and experience in interreligious dialogue.
Marianne hopes to contribute towards furthering growth among youth ministries in these three areas.

For a start though, she will accompany members of the Singapore Order of Malta and those with maladies for a pilgrimage to Lourdes. The group of 48 comprises six doctors, with Sister Elizabeth Lim, RGS, and Father Joseph Tan as spiritual director. Both Father Tan and Sister Lim have cancer.

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