Tuesday, 5 May 2015

The Feast

A Maronite, A Shiite, A Sunni and a Christian Evangelical walk into a Restaurant…

Sounds like the beginning of a joke, but this is no joke – 9 young people and their leaders from all four religious groups are meeting together over a meal. These people are supposed to be enemies, they are supposed to be so suspicious of each other that this can’t work – but it is.

The Feast is a model of interfaith dialogue for young people. Originally from the UK, it is being trialed here in Beirut, and from what I can see from the genuine friendships between the young men and women around me – there are no barriers here. Two young women, one Evangelical and one Shiite are having a discussion about the different head coverings worn by the two young Shiite women. Patiently and with passion the Shiite is explaining the differences and the part that fashion plays in her selection for tonight. At the same time a Maronite and a Sunni are comparing notes from a lecture on Middle Eastern politics they had earlier today.

These 9 represent 24 other young people, between the ages of 15 – 19, who have been meeting for a couple of months now. They meet over a meal, but not just to eat – although one of the young men assures me (with a wry smile) that’s the important part. They meet to share their lives and to talk about their faith. There are strict guidelines for their engagement, but Ali tells me they are ‘just common sense and decency’.

One of the objectives of The Feast is all members working together toward a common project. At the moment this group is discussing what that will be, but they are thinking about helping a local orphanage or maybe doing something for Syrian refugee children.

This type of dialogue and bridge building is essential. It is one of the best hopes we have for peace and stability in this region, and wider. Imagine if instead of suspicion and hatred there was understanding, respect and celebration. The young people I had dinner with are proof that it can work.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Baalbek and the Celebration of Diversity

Columns of the Temple of Jupiter
 At the foot of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains the Baalbek (“God of Beqaa Valley”) Roman ruins are an awe inspiring complex of three Greco-Roman Temples. The Gods Jupiter, Venus and Mercury were worshipped here, with the Temple of Jupiter being the most prominent with 20m meter high columns still standing.

As I stand here dwarfed by the columns and in awe of the amazingly artistic complex of Royal Palace and Temples, with intricate stone carving and massive stones weighing many tons, it strikes me that all of this predates ‘white’ Australia by over 2,000 years.

This important complex was located on two historic trade routes between the Mediterranean Sea and the Syrian interior and the between northern Syria and northern 
Palestine. It was a fertile plane with water – it was vital for survival. Here people of many cultures came together and did life.

Over the years people have come and gone, religions have established a presence and people of faith have lived together, and still do. In the shadow of the great walls of the Temple of Jupiter there is a Maronite grotto and just a little further away is the unmistakable blue tiles and minarets of an Iranian inspired mosque casting their shadow on an Orthodox Cathedral. This is still a city of people of many cultures and religions doing life – it is a city that celebrates diversity.

Back up the road from this symbol of diversity there are 2,000 children meeting together, some for the first time. These are Syrian children from Informal Tented Settlements, refugee children who with their families have been forced from their homes. Little ‘Achmad’ clutches a small juice box as he tells me that his home is in Homs, (Syria) but he has been living in a shack with his family for 4 years now. Next to him gorgeous little ‘Noor’ with huge eyes shyly cast down to the ground tells me that she was born in a shack here in the Bekaa, 4 years ago.

Today they are joining Lebanese children from the communities that surround the settlements. I’m new to this place, but apart perhaps from the clothes they are wearing I can’t tell the difference between the kids – as they bounce around in the bouncy castle and ‘do the hokey-pokey’ with some scary looking clowns and Tom and Jerry they all laugh and scream together.

Perhaps one thing that marks a difference is the little bags of nuts. Each kid is given a bag of mixed nuts (“Lebanese nuts are the best in the world”, so I’m told by Thomas a 6 year old) and a small juice box. The Lebanese kids are eating and drinking, the Syrian kids are not. They will be taking theirs home to give to Mum to share with the family.

Here, surrounded by loud music and strange “kids entertainment” there is no fear, no animosity and no suspicion – perhaps how it was 2,000 years ago? It’s just kids being kids. As they go from one stall to another led by volunteer youth leaders in a carefully choreographed dance so as to get 500 kids in each session through, they are taught about disaster risk reduction: who to call, how to react in an emergency; health and safety from the Red Cross; road safety from a local transport authority; staying safe on-line and child rights and a number of other community safety concerns. All this happens sandwiched between a bouncy castle and a huge blow up slide.

Today is a celebration of difference. It is an opportunity to share life, and to say that we can exist together. And the kids are showing us the way. We need to provide opportunities to confront the prejudices and the lies of political and religious expediency and allow people to hear one another, to do the hokey-pokey, to laugh, to cry, to scream, together.

[One thing of which I am constantly reminded in my work is that all too often we talk about ‘them’ and ‘they’! We refer to “Muslims” or “Christians”, or “Australians” as if every single one of them is the same – ‘they’ are not. My natural inclination to prejudice, my opinions about you and my actions towards others are ultimately not a result of my religious affinity, my cultural heritage or my race category – the way I treat you is all down to me – alone.]

In the Shadow of Anti-Lebanon

The winter snow melt has left the pine clad mountains surrounding the city green and lush under a clear blue sky on this beautiful spring morning as we head east away from Beirut and the Mediterranean and over the Lebanon mountain range toward the Syrian border. Once through the mountain pass we look down into a stunningly beautiful green valley. This is the Bekaa Valley and it is here, at the foot of the Anti-Lebanon mountains (the border between Syria and Lebanon) about as close to the Syrian border as you can get, that hundreds of Informal Tented Settlements (ITS) have appeared over the past four years.

Since the Syrian civil war started in March 2011 over 1.5 million Syrians have fled from the bombs, the bullets and the death to settle in Lebanon. Around 420,000[1] of these people live in ‘tents’ in the agricultural communities of the valley.[2]

I arrived in one of these ITSs yesterday morning as a van load of children returned home from school. As they poured from the back of the van they were laughing, shouting and teasing one another – they seemed liked kids anywhere, they were happy! But as I looked around and as one of these families shared their story with me, I wondered why.

Omar and Anila[3] and their 9 children came across the border from Syria 15 months ago. For over three years they lived with the uncertainty of the war in their homeland, but then “the bombs began to be too many and too close” (Omar). Arriving in the Bekaa, Omar and Anila joined 67 other families, (a community of 428 adults and children) on a 1 acre property and built a 2 room shelter from wood, cardboard and tarpaulin for which they pay a rent of $400[4] a year.

Today, as I sit in their lounge room with clean straw mats and cushions bordering the tarpaulin walls, it is cool and quite comfortable. They serve me a cup of Arabic coffee - strong, thick and black it will keep me buzzing for a while. But only a month ago there were floods here from the snow melt, and in the weeks before that most tents were buckling under the weight of heavy snow. It must have been unbearably cold and wet.

They have electricity, some of the time, but they pay $45 a month for that. Each tent is supplied with a 1,000 liter water tank and 1 voucher a week to refill it. (That's about 3.5l a day, per person for Omar and his family). They have access to a toilet for every 15 people, and 2 vouchers per month to have the septic tank emptied.

The oldest son is the sole income earner for the family, working for about 6 months of the year in the surrounding farms he will make about $25 a week. This, together with a World Food Program allowance of $19 per person per month and a small allowance from the UNHCR is the entire income. Omar tells me that due to visa issues (costing $2,000 per person per year) he is unable to work. He is frightened that if he leaves the property he could be detained and returned to Syria.

The four middle children are picked up with other children to attend a UN school a little way from the settlement and the three youngest children attend a child friendly space on the property. The oldest boys, all who were studying back home, now cannot attend school and have nothing to do.

One of her youngest uses her as a climbing frame whilst keeping a wary eye on this strange man in her house, as Anila tells me that she fears for her children; if one of them becomes ill there is no care available, even if she could afford it. Often there is not enough food and so they have to purchase food to credit. 

Omar dreams of the day that he can take his family home, “even if our house is gone, I will build a tent like this and we will be home – but for now what choice do I have? Inshalllah, one day soon, it will be safe to go home, but at the moment, even if I could go home I wouldn't because my boys would be forced to join the Army."

[1] http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/country.php?id=122)
[2] An estimated 9 million Syrians have fled their homes since March 2011. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), almost 4 million have fled to Syria's immediate neighbours Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. 6.5 million are internally displaced within Syria. (http://syrianrefugees.eu)
[3] Names changed.
[4] All dollars are USD.