[Episcopal News Service] The Diocese of Maine and a group of determined Episcopalians have organized a campaign to bring the two teenage sons of an Anglican archdeacon in Beirut, Lebanon, to study at an American boarding school. And although immigration delays have presented a frustrating setback, the effort has given hope to the family and a sense of purpose to the Mainers who are making it happen.
“There’s so much need in the world, and you think, ‘What can I possibly do?’” said Heidi Shott, who came up with the idea. “And this is just such a concrete thing that we as a diocese can do, is to give these guys an opportunity.”
Shott met the Ven. Imad Zoorob, archdeacon of Lebanon and Syria in the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and The Middle East, through her work as communications director of the American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. The Diocese of Jerusalem covers Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Syria and Lebanon. Zoorob lives with his wife and two sons, in Lebanon, and serves All Saints Episcopal Church in Beirut.
The Zoorobs weren’t seriously hurt, but the blast magnified their concern for their sons’ future in a country beset by a series of escalating crises. The explosion came on top of the simultaneous disasters of COVID-19 and a catastrophic economic collapse. In the months since the explosion, food shortages, power outages and violent protests against government corruption and mismanagement have been the norm.
In a Zoom call with Episcopal News Service, Zoorob described the astronomic inflation Lebanon has experienced and discussed what he fears might be next.
“They’re talking about an upcoming war between Lebanon and Israel. There is not much here, unfortunately. … I want my kids to leave because we’re fed up,” Zoorob said.
Shott and her organization had a virtual conversation with Zoorob as part of an emergency fundraising campaign for Lebanon after the explosion, and the bleak scene Zoorob described stuck with her.
“In some ways, the explosion was almost a sideshow to the … political turmoil and the inflation,” Shott told ENS. “The [statement] that got to me was a liter of milk, which was the equivalent of $6, is now the equivalent of $50,” while guaranteed government pensions have been slashed.
Shott was especially moved by Zoorob’s concern for the future of his sons, Ralph and Marc, ages 15 and 16.
“I walked away from that thinking, OK, this is outside of our mission for AFEDJ, but just as a mother and a human being, just hearing him talk about his worry for his own children. … There’s no hope for them in [Lebanon]. So that got me thinking.”
Shott and her husband had previously been legal guardians for a teenage asylum-seeker from Burundi, guiding her through the asylum process and getting her admitted to Lincoln Academy, a private day and boarding school near the Shotts’ home in Newcastle, Maine, which their son had attended. Perhaps they could do something similar with the Zoorob boys, she thought.
“I finally brought it up to my husband and just said, ‘What do you think?’” she told ENS. “He was like, ‘Hey, you act on what God puts in front of you. And this is in front of us. Let’s see what we can do.’”
Shott tested the waters in an email to the Zoorobs, and “they were sort of stunned,” she said. “They said they didn’t sleep the whole night; they couldn’t believe it.”
The Shotts met the Zoorob family on Zoom in fall 2020 and were impressed by Ralph and Marc, whom they found “lovely, engaging and smart.” Heidi Shott had just met Lincoln Academy’s new headmaster and reached out to him about the Zoorobs. Like many American boarding schools, Lincoln Academy had worked to attract more international students in the 2010s, building a new dormitory in 2015. But international enrollment dropped off during the Trump administration and even more so once COVID-19 hit, Shott said.
“He was all over it,” Shott said of the headmaster, who floated the idea of bringing over a Lebanese student from the All Saints community in Beirut every year.
With the school on board – and providing some financial aid – the next step was raising enough money to cover the boys’ remaining tuition and living expenses. The goal was set at $100,000, enough to ensure both boys would be covered until graduation. Shott asked Maine Bishop Thomas Brown if the diocese would be willing to help raise the funds, and the answer was an enthusiastic yes.
Brown made the Zoorobs the centerpiece of his Epiphany sermon, underscoring the importance of embodying the church’s promise of welcoming everyone.
“The way I see it, Ralph and Marc are given a chance to learn and we have a chance to focus our gifts and our love – and be changed,” Brown said. “We often cannot help everyone, especially in situations that seem completely overwhelming. But in this case, we can help two, which in turn will change their world.”
With fundraising centralized through the diocese, the Shotts’ parish, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Newcastle, immediately stepped up and got the drive off to a strong start “because they just love the idea,” Shott said. Via Zoom, the Zoorobs met St. Andrew’s rector, as well as some of the women of the parish “because they wanted to introduce themselves and they wanted to find out what [the boys’] favorite snacks were.” The parish formed a committee to help support Ralph and Marc when they arrive in Maine, which they’d hoped would happen in mid-February. So far, $28,000 has been committed to the scholarship fund, according to the diocese.
But the last step in the process – getting visas for the boys – has proved to be the most difficult. The Zoorobs had visa interviews scheduled for Feb. 5, but then a spike in COVID-19 cases closed the American embassy in Beirut. All visa interviews except for humanitarian emergencies were canceled. Shott even contacted the office of U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine to see if he could help, but he was unable to expedite the process. She expects visa interviews to resume in a few weeks and hopes the boys will get to Maine in time for the start of Lincoln Academy’s final trimester in mid-March.
In the meantime, they’re still attending their local school online in Beirut, but “I think they’re already [at Lincoln Academy] mentally,” Imad Zoorob told ENS. “For a moment or a few days we were desperate, but … their whole attitude is over there already.”
“It’s an opportunity for us to show that welcome that the Gospel talks about,” Shott said. “It’s not about international borders. It’s the family of your heart.”
– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at email@example.com.