Archive for the ‘volunteer stories’ Category

I had been in Lebanon for less than a day when someone said to me, “You’ll have to choose a team, you know.  Everyone’s going to ask you about it.”  This was absolutely true, as it turned out.  I had arrived in mid-June for five months of living and working in a Palestinian refugee camp, and much to my surprise, everyone was seized with World Cup fever.  This was hardly what I had expected.

What I had expected was what I saw at Bourj el Barajneh camp in Beirut, where I stayed during my first week.  The crowded Palestinian camp was a labyrinth of tight little alleys, the housing was stacked high (often looking quite precarious), electrical wires crisscrossed and tangled together in the air wherever you looked, and young children tried to make the best of it, attempting to play in the narrow, airless, sun-deprived passageways.  It was the picture of an underserved population.

It seemed odd at first to see flags for different World Cup soccer teams flying everywhere throughout the camp – flags from Germany, Italy, Argentina, and yes, Brazil, the crowd favourite.  Although I’m not much of a sports fan, I quickly became grateful for the World Cup as I started to meet some of the Palestinians.  As a newcomer, it was a topic of conversation that never let me down, whatever our cultural differences.  Everyone, from children to grandmothers, was engaged in it.  I soon joined the Brazil supporters.

As woman, I wasn’t free to watch soccer games in public places, enjoying the shared energy and rowdy enthusiasm of the crowds of spectators.  Instead, I saw a few games in the homes of Palestinian families, who welcomed me warmly and generously as a new friend.  During a commercial break, the adolescent son of one of my hosts turned to me and said, “In four years, it will be a Palestinian team that wins.”  He punctuated his comment with a wink, and the wink said a lot.  This bright youth knew he’d made a far-fetched statement, but it spoke of his aspirations for his people.

For a while I was baffled by the teams the Palestinians rooted for in the games.  I’d expected them to cheer for the underdogs, but instead they were clapping and shouting for the most powerful teams.  I came to wonder whether their heart-felt support for the best teams was a way of honouring their own strength and abilities, in a time when so many feel diminished and forgotten by the rest of the world.

Lying in bed one night in the camp, trying to get to sleep while a World Cup game played on, I was able to keep score by the sounds that rose up in the dark with each goal.  Shouts, honking horns, fireworks, and perhaps even some celebratory gunfire marked each triumphant moment of a team that was worlds away.  “Yes, we are here,” the Palestinians seemed to declare into the night.  “Even here, in this camp, we are one of you and with you.”

by Julie Davidson

Summer 2009 Volunteer

In the morning when we wake up early for teaching it is one of the most peaceful times in the camp. The heat is bearable and it is quiet. From my window I can see that even the cats are still sleeping, basking in the early morning sun from the corrugated tin roofs.

Soon the camp begins to stir. The UNRWA garbage collectors are making their rounds, collecting trash from the buckets in front of each house. Wearing the bright blue uniforms and pushing their carts they are unmistakable. While they have a job I wouldn’t wish on anyone, they always offer a big smile as we pass. The coffee makers are ready early, clinking together metal cups to ensure that people are aware of their location, just in case the strong smell of Arabic coffee isn’t enough. Arabic pies, pronounced manaeesh, are being made all around the camp. Any quiet morning another recognizable sound is the machines of the manaoushe shops flattening the dough into small round circles, which will be topped with cheese and thyme, a common breakfast for the students and workers on their way out of  the camp.

Soon the women begin to leave their houses. They must walk their young children to school and do the daily grocery shopping- Palestinians always eat fresh food. After these tasks are complete the will commence their cleaning routine. Although the infrastructure and conditions in the camp are less than hygienic, the Palestinian women are meticulous in their cleaning. They use large squeegees to clean the floors, stairs and areas in front of their houses, splashing water around in their bare feet. Many still do their laundry by hand, wringing out their families’ clothes with their bare hands and hanging them from the roof or window to dry. Sometimes families have upwards of 10 children, this cannot be an easy task.

The workers are also out in full force in the morning hours. As the camp alleys are too small for cars or trucks to drive through, they must carry all of their construction materials by hand or with wheelbarrows. When building a new house they will make innumerable trips bringing cement, sand, and blocks, a job not made easy by the 40-degree heat.  Even though building new structures is actually illegal in the camps, new apartments are being built precariously on top of each other in order to keep up with the increasing population of the Palestinians.

At 2pm the children leave school and are now a force to be reckoned with in the camp. At every turn there are boys running around with toy guns, some appearing very real, initially alarming my fellow teachers and me. The young girls sit in groups where they can find enough space to congregate. But whether boy or girl, they will never fail to practice their limited English as we walk by “Hello! My name is Ahmad, Lina, Mohammad, Fatimah…. What is your name?”. Internet cafes will be full with the young adults of the camp chatting with their friends in Arabic and playing war games, until late hours of the night. If you want to get any work done it is best to go early before the sounds of shooting fill the smoky air.

Around 3:30 most Palestinians eat their large meal of the day. Just before that, delectable smells waft from each house. As we walk by, women, preparing the food just inside their homes, beckon us with “Tfafadale” to come in and eat with them, even though we have never met. Such is the generosity of the Palestinians.

At night the camp takes on a completely different feel. Every night in the summer weddings take place, you can tell from the singing, dancing, fireworks and celebratory gunshots into the air. People flock to their roofs to escape the heat and humidity, which is still hovering over the camp even though the sun set hours ago. Men, and sometimes women partake in smoking narguile, or hooka pipes as it is more commonly known in North America. In the camp the new nickname is “Hubbly Bubbly”, which very accurately represents the sound the pipe makes when someone is inhaling the flavored tobacco. At night it is also easier to hear the Call to Prayer, which occurs 5 times throughout the day. The very devout will head to the mosque each time to pray. Initially this would wake us up each night around 3:30, but after a few weeks it began to blend in with the others sounds in the camp and actually became quite soothing.

But not all of the sounds at night are that of celebration or relaxation. At night, the creatures come out. Rats scavenge through the trash bins and scurry away when a flashlight catches sight of them. And even worse, the cockroaches in the camp are large enough that you can actually hear them as they dash and dart under foot. The night is also a time when tempers flare. In a camp with over 20,000 people living in less than one square kilometer, situations escalate quickly, especially in the summer with the oppressive heat and if the power has been off for days. The voices involved in shouting matches easily travel between houses ensuring that the whole neighborhood will know about the situation in no time.

By far, my favorite sights in the camp are the large smiles, which each passerby offers to us as we cross paths. While we may not speak the same language, I know that we are welcome here, that people appreciate that we have come to live with them and tell their stories to the outside world. Most in the outside world have forgotten about them. They have now been here for 61 years, and conditions are deteriorating not getting any better. Even though they are legally termed “refugees” they must continue on with this life that they were born into, it was not a choice for them. And as such, the sounds and sights from the camp are created.

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.”

By: Michelle Turner
Wavel Camp

Nour walks through the door to the home Amélie and I have just rented for the Wavel volunteers, mop, broom and dustpan in hand.

A couple of 10-year-old boys from the neighbourhood stand in the doorway asking us what team Amélie and I support in the worldcup. Italia? Brasil? Allemania?

The apartment is bare. Nour looks at us, then looks at the boys. “La,” she says. And she closes the door in front of them. “Much better.” She smiles and thrusts the dustpan into my hands, and begins to sweep, bent over, forming a pile in the centre of the concrete floor. “Yalla.” She instructs me to put the dustpan in its place. The home is being transformed. “La, Amélie. The towels must be folded like this.” She places them on the metal shelves that we have just covered with newspaper to hide the rust underneath. “La, Michelle. The garbage bin goes over here.” “At night, you must close this.” She points to the little window in the kitchen with the broken screen. “Michelle, the carpet.” We move the carpet so the mattresses line up with the carpet’s edge. Just right. Nour smiles at her accomplishments. “Adey Ahmrik?” I ask.

“Ten years old,” Mama replies.By: Michelle Turner
Wavel Camp

Nour walks through the door to the home Amélie and I have just rented for the Wavel volunteers, mop, broom and dustpan in hand.

A couple of 10-year-old boys from the neighbourhood stand in the doorway asking us what team Amélie and I support in the worldcup. Italia? Brasil? Allemania?

The apartment is bare. Nour looks at us, then looks at the boys. “La,” she says. And she closes the door in front of them. “Much better.” She smiles and thrusts the dustpan into my hands, and begins to sweep, bent over, forming a pile in the centre of the concrete floor. “Yalla.” She instructs me to put the dustpan in its place. The home is being transformed. “La, Amélie. The towels must be folded like this.” She places them on the metal shelves that we have just covered with newspaper to hide the rust underneath. “La, Michelle. The garbage bin goes over here.” “At night, you must close this.” She points to the little window in the kitchen with the broken screen. “Michelle, the carpet.” We move the carpet so the mattresses line up with the carpet’s edge. Just right. Nour smiles at her accomplishments. “Adey Ahmrik?” I ask.

“Ten years old,” Mama replies.

By: Gus Constantinou

You knew something out of the ordinary was occurring by the quartet of young boys posing as musicians milling about the street below. Three of the boys were holding durbakehs (Arabic drums) and one was cradling what looked to me to be bagpipes. The musicians’ hair was carefully slicked back, their jeans carefully ironed, their shirts impeccably pressed. A small group of women and children had begun to gather round the band, seemingly confirming our suspicions that something exciting was underway. Quite suddenly a cue was given and the boys began to drum in a frantic, yet unified rhythm.

No sooner had the high-pitched bagpipe played its first note than the women began to ululate in unison with the drums, throwing their hands into the air, and beginning to dance. From a room just below our balcony a woman in a white hijab emerged with one hand in the air, the other holding the hand of the man in a dark suit that followed her. Yet another woman emerged to going the group, this one in a green hijab. The trio danced in a circle to the cheers of the gathering that was growing by the second. As the music swelled, the trio went around the circle a few more times and then led the procession to awaiting automobiles. We ran to the back of the small apartment whose rear balcony provided us a perfect view of the ongoing ceremony. It was in this rear area where we had waited on several occasions for taxis to pick us up. It was also from this aerial perspective that I tried to compare this wedding scene with those back in Canada.

In Canada there isn’t water and sewage running through the streets. In Canada, there aren’t a myriad of electrical wires hanging from the roofs of crumbling and crowded buildings, pock-marked with shells from a not-too-distant war. In Canada, the bride and groom do not await their automobile by the camp garage dump. And in Canada, there isn’t a highway being constructed directly, almost as to appear inside, my family’s home and neighbourhood.

And yet in Canada, we do not celebrate this heartily.

Our neighbours do not take the time out of their busy lives to throw rice down on dancing brides and grooms and proclaim ‘Mabrouk!’ Our whole community and neighbourhood do not get excited and involved when a wedding procession noisily appears. Of all the places in the world that I have been, it has only been here, in this camp where people have allowed me to live and teach, that people resist by refusing to let their surroundings get the best of them. Just like in my Canadian home, despite its differences with the camp, a wedding is going on. And just like back home, perhaps even more so, there is much celebrating to be had!

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