Since my arrival into Beirut, I have had two site visits to the Syrian refugee camp in the south (between Saida and Sur/ Tire and Sidon) and some major ‘tweaks’ to the current project plan. Feeling positive and excited to start workshops this Monday, though with bouts of on-the-ground reality, I’ve had moments of doubt. Recalling historian Lesley Hazelton‘s TED talk, on the doubt essential to faith (be it a different context!), and I plough on.
Below is edited extracts from my project notes of the first site visit, with photographs by Hussein Soueidan, our Project Assistant on IamResilience.
First impressions of the camp site is small with a familial atmosphere. There is laundry hanging, and the kids were energetically charged (read that as hyper) and largely chasing workers from another NGO, which had arrived shortly after we did. I was glad to walk around, take the camp in and meet some of the adults there. The available workshop space (essentially a small bedroom in a semi-built house) is very small, which worries me as a lot of the initial activities I had in mind involve games. No idea how I’ll go about choosing the kids, as I can work with 8-10 per session… baby steps.
Muslih Shaboot, our contact inside the camp, seems bright, resourceful and fully willing to help. I asked him to help me select and screen the children according to their age, and he took me to meet Umm Mohammed (mother-of Mohammed) and her daughters Amina (15) and Zainab (13), and later an Umm Khalid joined us too. Umm M and her children live in a clean, cool and homely make-shift tent, where we all sat and chatted. I introduced myself and the (male) team, who were waiting outside, and what we plan to do. Did this as well as I could, with my rusty Iraqi Arabic dialect, and they patiently listened. I felt very welcomed and humbled by these women’s ease and dignified presence.
My being Iraqi seems to work to my advantage. Umm M related how she had housed Iraqi refugees in her home in Syria, during the first Gulf War in 1990 and second 2003. She told me a little about how they had previously lived, in rural farmland area (reef) near Homms: ‘We are just Arabs, and uninterested in politics. We were happy before the troubles began. We tended to our livestock, kept busy and stayed out of trouble. It’s those in the towns that began things, and now we are paying like everyone else ’. I sincerely don’t know enough to comment, and am just translating what I heard.
Umm M lost her husband, Amina and Zainab’s father, during the Syrian troubles. Working in Lebanon as a builder for many years, he had sent for them to join him, while he had gone up Aleppo way to fetch his elderly parents. On the road, he was hit and struck dead. I cannot begin to image the devastation Umm M and her children felt, finding this out upon arrival to their refuge.
I asked the three women if they would be interested in a women-only group- ‘to chat, listen to music.. I’d like to learn about your life before the troubles in Syria, and maybe try out some meditation to relax’ – and they said, yes. They joked about my use of ‘physical and breathing exercises’, Umm M said: ‘I’d be happy to lose this excess weight, we lead such stagnant lives here’ and Umm K breathed heavily and laughed saying, ‘I’m interested to see what your breathing exercises will be like!’. We drank sweet dark tea, and they insisted I stay for lunch- the usual Arab hospitality- but I wanted to join Ali and Hussein waiting outside, to make our journey back to Beirut. It’s about an hour’s drive back, without traffic.
Outside the camp, I’ve heard talk about the simple background of these people, and how living conditions may even be better than what they might have had at home. This I find ridiculous. I am a Johnny-come-lately to this situation, and still: people are displaced, confined and in a state of flux, regardless of how simple their lives might have seemed before. To say that materialistically the change to their living conditions is minimal undermines the danger, loss and traumatic events they have since experienced.
In any case, I arrived into Beirut with mix of emotions: the usual sad-angry feeling at the unfairness of life, and a very pragmatic sense of: how are we going to run this project?!
Our budget isn’t what I thought it was- communicating with partner organisations by email and Skype can leave room for miscommunication!- so I may need to do without my Project Assistant, which will be difficult practically (in terms of running the sessions, taking photo’s, debriefing) and administratively (transcribing notes in Arabic and English etc). The challenge for the next few months feels a little overwhelming right now.
The next day, meeting Rabih Shibli and Ali Basma, Meryna’s partners at AUB’s CCECS, Rabih said: ‘Tara, you need to be adaptable and find ways of accommodating what is on the ground. This is you developing your own resilience, not just those you’re working with’.
Touché, and very right.