By: Elizabeth Cooper

Summer 2009 Volunteer

“This past summer, I worked for the Women’s Humanitarian Organization (WHO) in Bourj and the Children and Youth Centre (CYC) in Shatila.  These organizations promote fun, informal activities for large groups of children.  The result is rather chaotic, energy filled sessions of running, screaming, and having fun.  Always interesting and productive, my time at these centres taught me many things.  I learned the  importance of creativity when working with young minds and allowing opportunities for independent play.  The large groups of children and the full schedule left little time for calm, quiet moments at either centre.   Undoubtedly this is one reason why the experience remains so vivid to me.

Towards the end of my stay, a group of Italian volunteers came to WHO to run activities for the students.  With a little free time on my hands, I took the opportunity to photograph the children and help out other volunteers.  It was wonderful to watch the children play and interact with each other and the volunteers.  At one point I was watching the children play a drama game with the Italians, when I heard a small voice exclaim something, but I couldn’t understand what was said (not unusual for me in Lebanon!).  The noise came from an empty classroom, so I went in to investigate.

A small boy was sitting in a high window, arms dangling through the bars, fingers grasping some small piece of garbage picked up from the street, yelling things at the children he could see in the front room.   I went over to him to say hello, and he very calmly looked at me. I asked him his name, he said “Khalil”.  He was about 6 years old and spoke no English. Via some rather silly pantomime, I asked him if he wanted to come inside and join. He said nothing.  I tried again; he just levelled his steady gaze at me and said nothing. He was content to sit there and watch the students and me as well. I asked to take his picture, he said no, with an ever so slight raise of the eyebrows. Again I asked him to come inside, and again he refused. His eyes were tired and experienced and they betrayed an age much older than that of his body. It was difficult for me to get any sort of reaction out of him, regardless of what I did. So I left him on his own, staring into the centre, and I returned to the ongoing activities.

The incident left me feeling strange, because here I was, working within a centre that was supposed to be a place for children to come, to socialize and to learn, and here was a child being excluded. Perhaps not intentionally, but he was left out, that was clear for anyone to see. Who knows for what reason he was not involved in our program, but he was not involved. We finished for the day and I went home.  The next day was similar to the one that came before it and I was milling amongst the children giving help where help was needed. Again the children were involved in a game with the other volunteers and they were thoroughly enjoying themselves. As I wandered through the crowd of people, I found myself standing at the door of the same classroom I had been in the day before. And again I heard a small voice. Sure enough, there was Khalil. Long and gangly, he hung through the bars of the window, as though he was attempting to pour himself through the bars into the classroom. He seemed utterly fixated on the activities that were happening around me and I was sure this time I could convince him to come in. Over I went to the window, to say hello and work my ‘magic.’ My attempts at getting him into the centre went unnoticed and he stayed, lodged on the stairs, dangling through the window, simply staring. As a last shot, I asked him if it was all right to take his picture. By this point in our relationship, no real words had passed between us. He had continued to gaze at me with the eyes of an elder and I had continued to make my meaning known through various forms of sign language.  He said yes. And so, I took his picture. This one exposure is all I have to remind me of this brief encounter, and I am lucky to have it. It is important for me to remember that no matter what anyone feels they have accomplished, there is always so much more to do, so many more people left waiting indefinitely.”

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