I arrived in Lebanon a Wednesday after few hours of flight. I was happy not having to carry Marcel with me and felt much better and lighter not having to worry about it.
I straight met Wael, who was waiting for me at the airport. 1 hour later I was arriving at Bukra Ahla center (better tomorrow), the place I was about to work at the coming two months.
Here myself and the other volunteers coming from all over the place were working on behalf of the SB Overseas organization, a Belgian NGOs providing help for the displaced people and refugees of the area.
“SB” was operating in Belgium, Turkey and Lebanon and had three centers in the country; one in Beirut nearby the overcrowded Shatila refugee camp, one in Saida in the biggest refugee shelter of Lebanon and another in Arsal in the Beeka valley next to the Syrian border where thousands of people where stuck…
I was affected in Beirut were I started teaching English, science and math every day.
The first week was mainly spent on getting used to the workload and meeting the people. Akshita, Sophie, Malena, Juliette, Abdullah and the other members of the center I was about to work with.
I was given a class to teach to and a curriculum to follow.
As far as I can remember, the teaching work was always something we were doing alongside the volunteering work, but now, this was the volunteering work by itself and it meant a completely different thing.
As I was already aware of the importance of education for the future of people (introduced at the salam school in Gaziantep two years ago and later in many other places…) I knew that the point here was much more than simply sharing knowledge.
It was about teaching the people empowering skills to help them in their future life.
More than this SB Overseas was somehow filling the education gap that 7 years of war was creating.
The NGO was based in Belgium but was operating in the most crucial places: Turkey and Lebanon, to support the Syrian refugees.
Here, in Lebanon, the organization was working in three specific places: the capital Beirut, near the Shatila refugees camp; the Ouzai shelter of Saida, the biggest of Lebanon, and, in the surrounding of Arsal, the last city before Syria, where international volunteers were forbidden due to security reasons.
These kids, youth and women we were teaching to wouldn’t be able to go to the overwhelmed Lebanese schools (already receiving more Syrian than Lebanese kids) and Bukra Ahla center was somehow their only access to education.
Then the workload was impressive (and I’d lie telling I was the busiest teacher as I had to save time besides of the teaching work for the other parts of my work here).
The situation here reminds me the one in Turkey with the difference that in Lebanon, the hundreds of thousands of refugees were packed in a much tinier country.
Moreover, the state was at the crossing between several unstable countries such as Syria, its direct neighbor, Palestine, Israel and other bigger players of the area like Saudi Arabia and Iran which were involved in a Proxy war for a long time fighting to take over this piece of land.
But not only coming from outside, the instability came also from internal movements.
I’d say that, like two years ago in Turkey, you could fell that something was moving in the country, something intangible and blurry, but ready to burst anytime.
But still, this context didn’t affect the way we were operating. Here in Beirut nearby Shatila refugees camp, the work was tremendous.
The camp (more a slum than a camp, as it was built some 65 years ago for Palestinian refugees and was now a city ”in the city”) was supposed to host 3000 people, however, up to 50000 were living there, stuck like sardines in this tiny overcrowded space. The Bukra Ahla center was providing help to as many kids youth and women as possible, though we knew that it was just impossible to help everyone.
Every single day, hundreds of kids were coming to follow the classes. Separated in 3 shifts, the teachers were giving English, Science and Maths lessons alongside the Arabic lessons provided by the crew of the center.
It was all but easy to teach there, some kids barely knew how to write (even in Arabic) while some other had already good bases in English. Then we had to adjust our teaching plans regarding our students.
From handwriting lessons to phonics, listening practice to speaking, writing and reading … we had to cover all basics of the English language.
And I was lucky enough to be given one of the smartest class. I’d never forget the class Grade 1 – AE where I found some of the cutest kids ever. From the lovely Ali and Mohammad, the sweet and girlish Rouaa, Amouna and Kawthar passing by the nasty Walied and Moutaz … These twenty kids were making every single day an attraction.
Teaching them was an intense circus made of both, chaos, laugh and knowledge. It was everything but a quiet process and I felt like managing a bunch of cats and dogs put all together in the same space … a wilderness hard to contain sometimes. A harsh and fragile humanity, exploding sometimes in tears, in fights or laughs …
Another part of my job here was to document the work of the organization. I have been sent to the different areas where SB was operating and could realize how important the organization was for the people.
In Saida a little town in the south coast, the school was within the ouazi shelter, a huge disaffected school building were thousands of people were packed. The place was a mess, a ruin…
Everything but a space you would like to live.
Nonetheless, the refugees were based here and were living in harsh conditions for several years.
This is in this context that the organization opened the school in the shelter. It was a huge work. A difficult one… As Kevin, the director of the place told me. Having to deal with proximity, diseases, violence etc… was part of the daily work of the staff there and I assume their tasks were twice harder than ours.
But SB was also working in Arsal, a remote city in the Lebanese mountains bordering Syria. Arsal was in the beeka. I went to the valley before and found what I knew was happening there… Thousands of people scattered here and there all over the place, living in tents and shelters just as bad as you could expect.
Informal camps were popping up around the villages and you could barely tell how numerous were the people living there… But as far as I knew around 2 millions Syrians were in the country. That’s were SB was also trying to support the hard life of the people in needs.
In Arsal, their space was located in one of the many ”camps” surrounding the city. Here the population was bigger… The city was basically just a rock thrown away from the Syrian border and most of the people there couldn’t pass the checkpoint as they were ”clandestine”.
For these reasons, and also because of the tensions in the area between several armed groups, the place was controlled by the army which made the access to the location more difficult.
There, the school was located in a small building neighboring the tents. The space was composed of the rudimentary material, just enough to keep the school running… Chairs, desks, boards one bathroom and rhalass …
You could tell by tasting the ambient temperature that the people there, both the staff and the students were freezing. The temperature in the mountains was really cold and walking through the camp you could see that nothing was prepared to pass the winter, to support the cold, the wind and the snow… And still, the place was the busiest.
Every day 140 kids were coming to the school to learn French, science, maths and Arabic… I felt that was the place where help was the most needed and I’m sad not to be able to work here.
But we had enough work to keep us busy in Beyrouth anyway.
Between the classes, the video works, the donations and distribution works,
the Christmas and new year’s
eve events, the art projects and the peer exchange that I was continuing between my French student and the Shatila’s youth …
the two months I spent around the country have been as busy as usual.
So far, I’d say that it’s been one of the most important works I’ve been doing. One of the most useful and rewarding. I met some of the best people I ever know and being struggling with everyone, trying to work out something bright for the next generation, was something beautiful and life-changing.
Yes, the situation is bad, yes there’s despair, struggle and harness. Yes, the country is unstable but it’s also what’s making it such a lively place full of contrast and diverse stories.
And I feel sad leaving the persons I love to carry on further in Jordan.
But yes I’ll return to Lebanon and I’ll stay there … It’s just a matter of time.