To understand Najla Chahda today, you must first understand her past. As a young woman, Chahda was caught up in the civil war that gripped Lebanon between 1975 and 1990, an event that defined her early life.
“I lost everything,” Chahda said. “Suddenly I found myself with nothing.”
From that beginning, Chahda was to embark upon the journey of service to others that led here, to her position as Director of Caritas Lebanon’s Migrants Center. It was a journey that, like many here in Lebanon, was marked by the turmoil that grips this region.
Studying political science at a Beirut university during the civil war, Chahda was first introduced to the work of Caritas Lebanon as a volunteer for the Daughters of Charity, a group of sisters working with Caritas to carry out various kinds of social work at the height of the war. Moving on to study for her master’s, Chahda was hired full time by Caritas in 1988, and was drawn from the outset to emergency work.
“When I started my study, I was trained in emergency work, and this interested me most,” Chahda recalled. “I have a lot of energy, and in emergencies this is how it happens, you are very busy.”
Channeling that energy, Chahda worked through the end of the civil war in West Beirut, helping Muslims there affected by the war. Then, in 1994, Caritas Lebanon opened a migrant center for Sudanese refugees, about 2,000 young men and women who had been studying in Lebanon but had been displaced by the war then raging back in their own country. Because she spoke English and was able to communicate with the English-speaking Sudanese, she was charged with running the migrant and refugee center. It was during those years that Chahda had the first of several experiences that were to shape her career.
Visiting the husband of a Sudanese woman who was in prison because of improper documentation, Chahda says she was shocked at the living conditions of the detainees. At the center, 600 men were crowded into four 12 by 18 foot rooms, and had to take shifts to lie down to sleep.
“They were held in prison just for bureaucratic reasons, and had no dignity,” Chahda said. “They were treated like animals.”
Chahda immediately began lobbying for assistance in opening a program to help prisoners, providing legal assistance and family support to those detained for documentation problems.
As it happened, it was a similar experience just two years later that drove her on to a new chapter in her career. During a visit to neighboring Iraq in 1997 Chahda was moved by the level of poverty of those she met there, many thousands of whom had been fleeing to Lebanon to escape the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.
“When I saw the poverty in Iraq I thought I cannot help but support these Iraqi’s living in Lebanon,” Chahda said. “After that I was working to change, working from my heart. It was a change in my life.”
Since that time, working through the Migrants Center, Chahda and her staff of social workers, lawyers, and volunteers have been assisting thousands of migrants and refugees in Lebanon. In 2000, Caritas Lebanon started a retention center program aimed at protecting the rights of those migrants and refugees caught up in legal issues surrounding their documentation. Today, Caritas Lebanon is the only non-governmental organization allowed to operate inside of the government-run centers, working directly with refugees and migrants. It is, says Chahda, exhausting but rewarding work.
“It can give you a lot of energy when you win one case,” Chahda said. “It can make you forget all of the troubles and hardships.”
But it was work with Lebanon’s huge numbers of migrant workers – 200,000 in all here – that led Chahda and her staff at the Migrant Center to their current role in the war now taking place in Lebanon. Providing legal assistance and human rights awareness to migrant workers from other countries, her office found itself squarely on the front line of the conflict when hostilities began with Israel on July 12. As Israeli air strikes pounded Beirut, Chahda and her staff relocated 200 female migrants from the government detention center, located under a bridge many feared would be targeted by the Israeli Air Force. As word spread of the work they had done, thousands of migrants, displaced by the war in Lebanon, began coming to them for help.
Since the outbreak of the war in July, the Migrants Center has added six shelters to the two already operational in and around the city, offering food, shelter, and support from social workers to thousands of migrant workers left abandoned by their employers as the war rages. Many are left without documentation, which Caritas is helping to secure so that they can be repatriated to their home countries. Thus far, Caritas Lebanon has assisted more 4,000 migrants to leave the country, escorting them on buses all the way to neighboring Syria, from where they are flown home by their government.
Working now amid the tension and stress of Beirut, Chahda is well suited for the job at hand. Her quick laughter and warm smile belie the deep passion and strong spirit that define her. Having herself been displaced more than 20 years ago, Chahda shares a connection to those of all nationalities who are vulnerable and voiceless – a connection that defines the role she is now playing amid the drama of Lebanon.
“With the Migrants Center there is always something new to do,” Chahda said. “You are always looking for solutions to make people’s lives better.”