Elder Werner Gysler stood outside a location of the Restaurants du Coeur in Lebanon where he received a delivery of rice and lentils.
With his wife, Sister Lilly Gysler, he carried the supplies upstairs to Antoinette Kazan’s café and went to work.
Food was prepared and tables were set. Hundreds of people arrived to dine during the busy lunch hour; most also filled containers with food for dinner. Ms. Kazan and the Gyslers personally greeted every guest. No one was given a bill.
“We want people to come here to keep their dignity,” Ms. Kazan said. “We don’t take their names. We don’t take their pictures.”
The Gyslers left their home in Switzerland to serve a full-time welfare mission in Lebanon. They also function as the country directors for LDS Charities.
Ms. Kazan — a nurse, social worker and health educator — and her family have been supporting displaced people in Lebanon since the mid-1980s.
Her efforts started in 1983, when many individuals had to flee their villages due to civil war in Lebanon. “We opened our doors as a welcome center,” she recalled. “We are still working.”
Of what has now become known as the Restaurants du Coeur (Restaurants of the Heart or Restaurants of Love), she added: “This is not the work of just one person. A person had the idea, but he can’t succeed alone. So this was done as a group — the family, friends and the benefactors.”
Restaurants du Cœur exists because the economic crisis in Lebanon makes it difficult for all people, especially the elderly, to have warm meals for lunch, she said.
Today there are 23 branches of the Restaurants du Coeur. Each branch is overseen by an association that secures funding and allocates a budget depending on the number of people who come to eat and the number of days they provide food.
The Restaurants du Coeur, which also operate senior centers, of sorts, for Lebanon’s elderly population, rely on donations and the help of hundreds of volunteers — including LDS Charities and many members of the Beirut Lebanon Branch.
Karim Assouad, president of the Beirut Lebanon District, which includes Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Egypt, said Church members share devotion to the same principles as Ms. Kazan and the other volunteers at the Restaurants du Coeur.
“They help the poor and the needy,” he said, explaining that many of the Restaurants du Coeur patrons are too old to work or no longer have jobs. “They have no pension-plan to profit from and are dependent on the help of neighbors, friends and organizations such as Restaurants du Coeur.”
President Assouad said LDS Charities helps the Restaurants du Coeur by donating food and other supplies, such as blankets or hygiene items that are distributed at the café.
“Restaurants du Coeur runs an elderly social club where the elderly come and engage in activities that help them stay active and healthy,” he added.
President Assouad said from time to time the youth in the Lebanon Branch serve meals and help in other ways at the Restaurants du Coeur.
Ms. Kazan said her relationship with local Latter-day Saints is very good. “They helped us a lot and we depend on them. Every time we face an issue they’re the first people to offer help and they have always helped us.”
She said when she reached out “with love and time” in 1983 to people who didn’t have a home, she expected to be done in one week. “We started because of the need at the moment,” she said. But she put herself in the place of each person that needed help and her service “stretched from 1983 until this day.”
Today she said she spends more time at the restaurants than she does at her own home.
“It is our duty to do this,” she explained. “Inside the restaurant we [are] all one. We don’t ask about religion. We don’t ask about politics. The best thing for us is when people say the food was good. We don’t ask for anything else.”
One restaurant patron expressed gratitude for the help. “When we were displaced we were very sad, we left our village, we were crushed.”
Now, she said, she comes to the restaurant every day. Here she not only finds a place to find food and friendship — but also a place to serve others who need more than she does.
Volunteer Georges Farra said those in need would come to the Restaurants du Coeur at 9:30 a.m. and “stay without doing anything until noon and at noon they would eat and go back to their homes.” That is when the senior center began.
Now those who come feel “that they have a purpose,” he said. “Antoinette gives a lesson to all of us.”
Elder and Sister Gysler say they have also learned many wonderful things by serving with Ms. Kazan.
After all of the guests in the restaurant were served for the day, the Gyslers took time to distribute hygiene items donated by LDS Charities.
Then they sat down and ate a lunch of rice and lentils with Ms. Kazan and talked about the people they served that day.
“These families left their things, their houses, and their lives,” said Ms. Kazan. “They even lost their loved ones there, but they didn’t have to lose their dignity.”
Elder Larry R. Lawrence of the Seventy currently presides over the Church in the Middle East Africa North area. He said: “Political uncertainties can sometimes make us fearful. We mustn’t forget to act on our covenants to mourn with and comfort those who stand in need.
“In a country such as Lebanon that historically has been driven apart by factions, it is so encouraging to see Antoinette Kazan’s and the LDS Beirut branch’s example that unifies people of many different backgrounds and beliefs. There is a peace and joy every day for those who visit and also for those who serve in the Restaurants Du Coeur. This is a practical application of the Savior’s statement ‘For I was a stranger, and ye took me in’ (Matthew 25:43).”
For more information about LDS Charities’ work with Restaurants du Coeur, please see the following video: www.ldscharities.org/videos/feeding-the-refugees-in-beirut.
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