Archive for the ‘volunteer stories’ Category

By: Carolina Vergara Lamarre
Bourj el Barajneh

Amidst the chaos that are my classes, full of energetic students who already told me they love ‘Miss Carolina’ as of the first period of class, and the discouraging and depressing reality of the camp, I try and find a balance between overwhelming feelings of happiness at the hospitality and generosity of the families who have welcomed me into their homes, and my feelings of guilt and sadness.

It is already the 11th of July. I have only been in Lebanon a week and a half and have only just started teaching; however I have already noticed how fast time passes while here in the camps.

When I am not teaching, most of my free time is spent enjoying invitations to tea, coffee, dinner and engagement parties. Lesson planning therefore usually occurs late at night or in the wee hours of the morning. I already know how difficult it will be to leave all the wonderful people I have met and have yet to meet.

Amidst the heat, the grime and the mazes that are Bourj al Barajneh and Shatila, I have found such a wonderful energy, strength and warmth among the Palestinians living here in the camps. Sitting on the roof top drinking coffee or tea before bed while eating delicious fruit with my host family, has become a nightly ritual for me. As we chat, I look out at the lights on the mountains and the other houses in the camp and try to come to terms with the fact that I have been welcomed into the homes and the lives of a people and a community who have never enjoyed the same experience themselves for close to 60 years. This summer will prove to be one of the most challenging experiences I have faced as of yet.

While I attempt to make learning English “fun” to classes of 35 students, sweat plastering my clothes to my back and legs, I reevaluate my own priorities in life. I’m not sure how much English I will be able to teach my students over the summer. As long as they laugh and smile while with me, I will be happy. I know this summer will change me permanently. The friendships and lessons I learn while living here will stay with me forever.

By: Mohan Mishra
Bourj el Barajneh

We have just finished our fourth week of teaching here in Bourj el Barajneh, a Palestinian refugee camp near Beirut, Lebanon. I continue to be amazed at the people here and how friendly and welcoming they have been to all of us volunteers. You can hardly walk down the street without someone calling you over to talk or invite you in for tea. After being here for more than a month, the community here really does make you feel at home.

We have now reached the midpoint with the english, french and computer classes. The students here all have such a deep knowledge about their history and community, it really has been an amazing experience to get to know them better.

Despite the unjust restrictions and the harsh reality facing Palestinians living in Lebanon, the kids here still have big dreams. Many want to be doctors, teachers, or journalists, while many also talk about wanting to help their community in someway when they are finished school.

In the classes they have all been eager to learn, although I think they have taught me more than I could ever teach them. The local NGO’s we are working with here have also been great. The different groups are all run by people from the camp and it is inspiring to see so many people working to support their own community. I am also amazed by the strength of the people living here. They have survived so much hardship and injustice, and have had so much taken away from them, yet they are still so generous and welcoming. I feel like I have already learned so much from the people here, about personal strength, about community, about generosity. I am looking forward to the next month of teaching and I sure it will be just as amazing as the last four weeks.

By: Mina Chung

I’m in Wavel camp which is in the Bekaa valley, just outside of the city of Baalbek. Mountains surround us, and there is an easiness and breathing space here that is nonexistent in the congested camps in Beirut. Wavel was a former army base for French soldiers during the French colonial regime so the camp here is less labyrinthine than in Bourj El Barajneh camp where the streets were barely wide enough to pull our suitcases through when we first arrived in Lebanon. The people here call Wavel camp Al-Jaleel, for the home in Galilee they fled from in 1948. When the refugees first arrived, people ran with their belongings to camp buildings to claim living space for their families. I share rented rooms with two other volunteers in what was previously one of the barrack buildings. Teaching is hard work! I don’t have it in me to say anything remotely flip about this. Last week my UNRWA class was setting off firecrackers in class. I love 13-15 year old boys. These days I wake up with pens and gluesticks and holepunchers in my bed, wondering about the present progressive. It seems like between trying to understand life in the camps, preparing for school, and sleeping, time runs short. As for what it means to be a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon… who am I to say? I’ve been here a month, and my Arabic now consists of “Hi!” and “Yes, Lebanon is beautiful”, and “Be quiet! Please sit down! NO FIRECRACKERS!!!!” Through my window of smiles and thank yous I only catch glimpses–the affection the children show each other, the constant invitations for lunch, tea, coffee, a snack, the unbrokenness in the women as they hold hands and dance the dabke. Hamoudi, the brother in the home where I stayed before coming to Wavel, said to us, “The camp is not like houses, the camp is like living together in one home.”

The strength of the relationships between the people in the camps is real, as real as the lack of electricity, the stale air and the dirtyness of water. I’m so moved by the resilience in their daily lives that I’m surprised when I’m reminded of the context of their lives–the hardships they face, the war they lived through, the lack of rights they are accorded, and the homes they lost in Palestine.

There are layers and layers and layers here that emerge in pieces and passing comments: when Radha laughs at jumping at a cockroach saying, “Can you believe I carried a machine gun during the war?”, when the boys point to the police station from the classroom window and tell me about how two men were killed when Lebanese soldiers entered the camp in the middle of the night to “clear the camp of weapons”, when Houda tells us how during the war she hid under the bed clutching her children to her chest–Khalid was 6, Fikri, 4, and Samar a baby. To leave to not leave, to change to not change. Without a choice, where do you put your hope after 57 years of exile?

Hamoudi who has foreign friends jokes about starting a REAL exchange program, he says, “You can have the camp, we’ll just take Oslo, no problem.” Then with so much loyalty and irony it hurts, “ah, but we wouldn’t know what to do with it, we’d just end up building camps in the city.” Still, there is dancing and celebrating, and everyone from the 3 year olds to the 70 year olds knows how to shake it like Shakira. And when my students aren’t setting off firecrackers, I see the beauty in the men and the women they will grow up to be and my heart breaks because they deserve so much more than this.

One of my students wrote, “Independence, freedom and all of these words are shown as little words, but in fact they have big meanings. The world should understand these words in order to help us obtain them.” They are still waiting.

01 August, 2005 16:04 Age: 4

By: Lindsey Marchessault
Bourj el Barajneh

It was very difficult for me to choose the subject for this report back to Canada from Bourj el Barajneh. So many things have happened since I have been here and there have been innumerable “defining moments” of the summer so far. To try to describe the entire experience and how it feels to be here, I could write for pages and pages and never find the right words.

So, I have decided to write about an experience that I had visiting with one of my students, and how it made me feel about the situation of the Palestinians here in Lebanon as well as my own role as a visitor here.

I could tell soon after meeting her that she was a very determined and persistent 13 year old, because about 45 seconds after I learned her name she insisted that I come to her house for lunch. Over the course of that lunch, my student gave me a glimpse of her life, and taught me something about real ambition. As soon as we sat down in her home, without me asking any personal questions, she started to open up to me and spoke quite eloquently about her life.

A life that includes being a Palestinian refugee in Sabra, being the victim of structural discrimination, being a young girl with dreams that are very nearly impossible, being Muslim and loving God, and of course the trials and tribulations of being a 13 year old girl in general. Mostly she felt she needed guidance, encouragement and hope. She wants to do so much with her life, for herself and for Palestine , but is afraid she will never be able to do most of it. I felt sad for her, because of the obstacles she will face, and at the same time I felt hope. That somehow if she works hard enough in her pursuits, and if we work hard enough to lift the restrictions barring her way that her ambition will prevail.

The hard part is, I don’t know who the “we” is in the previous sentence, and I doubt that I am even a part of it. I know I want to be, but the solution as to how is illusive. I came out of that meeting feeling very spoiled for the luck of my birth and freedom, and weak because I don’t know how I would be in her place.

As a Canadian student here for only one more month (a virtual stranger) I know that the personal guidance I can give to this girl is very, very limited. But I know that when I go back to Canada my obligation to this girl is to find a way to participate, indirectly at least, in making her goals more achievable.

By: Amal El Masri
Bourj el-Barajneh

“Teacher! Teacher!” Hiba pulls at my shirt while Mohammad clutches at my elbow while Omar pinches my cheek while Sahar, Rayan and Ahmad hug me from behind. “We want to plaayyyyy!” They demand in unison. Its fourteen minutes into class and already my nine-year olds have mutinied. “Get into two rows!” I yell, trying to organize a game of the ever-popular Simon Says. It’s two weeks into teaching and I have gained a whole new appreciation if not reverence for the other teachers at the Woman’s Humanitarian Organization. These kids are bright. They’re bright and they’re loud and they’re burning up with energy that the narrow alleys and the small houses of the camp do not allow them to expend. There are no parks or streets or open spaces to speak of in Bourj el-Barajneh, just a crunch of concrete. Alaa, an 11-year old in my journalism class, writes that “the alleys are full of garbage and smell bad.” “When we play outside the neighbors yell at us and when we play in the house our parents yell at us,” Mahmoud, another student in my journalism class, tells me. So the kids come to class quite nearly bouncing of the walls and I am now remembering in my old age (18 years) what it feels like to want to sing and dance and shout and play at 10 am in the morning. I may have been shell-shocked the first few days, but now the laughter and the hugs at the end of class make me realize that I couldn’t ask for a better start to my day.

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