Archive for the ‘volunteer stories’ Category

By: Jessica Reekie

The plane began its descent in the early hours of the morning. Knowing a little of Lebanon’s troubled history, I craned my neck to catch a glimpse of the sights about which I had read in books and articles, but outside my window the sky was dark, reducing the city of Beirut to many clusters of light in a hazy, black expanse.

It was not until the drive from the airport to Bourj el-Barajneh refugee camp that I got my first real look at Beirut. Images flashed by of decrepit bombed-out buildings and the new modern-looking structures that flanked them. The strange juxtaposition was a reminder of the devastation sustained by Lebanon during the civil war and the current government’s attempts to rebuild Beirut. However, as we approached the perimeter of the refugee camp, any evidence of government plans to restructure and beautify this part of the city was sadly absent.

My stay in Bourj el-Barajneh was going to be brief – a four-day orientation to camp life before beginning my internship in Wavel refugee camp in the Beqa’a Valley where I would live and work for the summer months. Cepal, the NGO that had brought me to Lebanon, had a well-established reputation in Bourj el-Barajneh where they had sent summer volunteers and interns for the past few years to teach English and French language classes. This summer, the small Ottawa-based organization intended to expand its overseas program by sending volunteers to teach conversational English in the oft-neglected rural refugee camps in Lebanon.

My first impressions of Bourj el-Barajneh refugee camp were entirely favorable-so positive, in fact, that a mere four-days-stay made me slightly resentful of my plans to spend the summer in Wavel camp. True, the heat and humidity was pretty unbearable and the stench of garbage lay thick in the air, but the people were so wonderful! Barred from practicing over 75 professions, deprived of sanitary living conditions and continuous electricity (among other things) by the Lebanese government, it never ceases to amaze me how an oppressed and disadvantaged group of people like the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon manages to remain so welcoming and kind-hearted. As Cepal had encouraged us during pre-departure orientation to embrace the culture, the summer volunteers and I began immediately to make visits and meet new friends. The welcome we received was absolutely heart-warming.

Many of Bourj el-Barajneh’s inhabitants were familiar with Cepal and its programs that brought Canadians to work in the camp. This camp was well acquainted with the presence of foreign volunteers, as many different NGOs had supplied aid in various forms over the years. We were expected guests and treated like old friends. The easiness and the familiarity with which we were received in Bourj el-Barajneh made it difficult, at first, to envision a similar happiness in living and working in Wavel. While I was delighted at the prospect of meeting yet more new people, the excitement was tinged with nervousness. With approximately 7,000 registered Palestinian refugees living in Wavel, this relatively small refugee camp was not favored with assistance from foreign NGOs to the degree that larger, urban refugee camps enjoyed. One other Cepal summer volunteer and I were going to be the only foreign presence in a camp that unlike Bourj el-Barajneh, was not used to outsiders. The anxiety proved completely unnecessary. Living and working in Wavel this past summer made me realize that attention-starved communities, like Wavel Camp, react very positively to foreign aid. Far from being suspicious and guarded about an alien presence in the camp, people went out of their way to meet “the foreigners” and invite us into their homes. Their only complaint regarded the number of English teachers, for two were too few. Parents and students were so excited about prospective English summer classes that the day after our arrival adults and children crowded the office of Najdeh, our local NGO partner, with the hopes that they could enroll. Wavel’s Najdeh coordinator spent the next several days trying to accommodate all the families and managed only by restricting enrollment to one member per family. It was a challenge to conduct class in rooms that couldn’t even accommodate desks, as they took up much needed space. Heartbreaking though, was the number of children we had to turn away for want of time and better teaching facilities.

As I look back on this past summer and fall, I have come to accept, as all the other foreign volunteers have, that what I gave to the Palestinian refugee community in Lebanon pales in comparison to what I received from the people I was sent to “help.” Their kindness and hospitality is difficult to repay and I remain in their debt. At the same time, the gratitude they expressed reminds me that my work, no matter how insignificant it may appear to me now, was appreciated by the community.

Cepal considers this past summer’s expansion intoWavel camp a success and I’m happy that the organization has plans to continue sending support in future years. Small communities like Wavel camp both need and appreciate foreign aid and I feel fortunate that I was given the opportunity to help.

By:  Andrea Becker
Bourj el-Barajneh

Morning coffee and the full beat of the buena vista social club….far from cuba here in southern lebanon. the air has cooled, and the sea sparkles. we used to sit up at night, and in the distance, watch the puffs of smoke rise from the katushas launched, the echoes of small fire, the gunship that would ominously light the night sea…having found their target, the boat would disappear into the blackness. time would hold still, then red sparks would fly…like fireworks, those small sparks would rise. then fall, no brilliant greens and golds and pretty sky designs, but the sound of smaller boats being rocked, ripped….the splooooosh of water….and silence. sleep would return. no fear…we were always, of course, a few kilometres away from the charade that ended so many civilian lives. The Israelis have withdrawn, the bright yellow flags have been flown. the blue berets have deployed. families have returned to their homes, some after over twenty years, some of the young seeing their southern lebanese villages for the first time. rebuilding homes. Nights are calm. This week i left Beirut, and my home of Bourj el-Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp. Now in the south, i step into Rashadiyyeh camp. There are some trees here. the sea is at the edge of the camp. the pathways are not as narrow, and the air is fresh. Rashadiyyeh is a welcome respite from Beirut. The air is fresher, the problems are the same. no rights to work. no security. checkpoints at the entrance of the camp. the humiliation, daily, slow and subtle, of having your car and your crumpled ID examined as you leave or enter the camp. pride, past, and no future. The old man still sits up on his roof, on his concrete ‘home’, and stares off into the distance, looking towards Palestine. The land that he was forced to leave at age 16, his three year old sister is his arms as they fled. his sister did not cry, keeping her head silently buried into his shoulder. not crying. not understanding, quiet with the fear that radiated from her brother. He sips his Arabic coffee, stares into the still night. That was over fifty years ago. The debates loom, the conferences begin and end, talks resume-fail-are suspended-break down. compromises are made. concessions. words, not people. No justice, and no peace. The lines on the old man’s face have deepened.

By:  Andrea Becker
Bourj el-Barajneh

My back to the burning tires and garbage, the thick black rising into the air….eyes stinging….. Amine is swaying in the crowd, silent in the loud chants, tilting back and forth as she walked, her injured hip displacing her upper body with each step….a ship in a stormy sea. Amine saw me and greeted me warmly, enveloping me in her embrace…she pulled me back, and with her ancient eyes stared into mine. I am her ‘grand-daughter’. Amine used to prevent me from eating my breakfast until I had learnt all of the Arabic words for what was on the table..she insists that I attach her last name to mine.I am family, she says. We have heated discussions about politics, and she laughs endlessly as we debate which northern village in Palestine was the best. Other times we sit in silence. Now we are together, surrounded by the crowds, the children, the chanting..this is the second day of protests in Bourj el-Barajneh refugee camp in Beirut. Hundreds are here, mourning the recent deaths in Palestine, the killings of unarmed Palestinian protestors by Israeli police, ‘security’ forces. Kids with stones. Trained men with tanks and assault rifles. What started with Ariel Sharon’s visit to Jerusalem’s Haram al-Sharif, is now spiraling into a familiar story in Occupied Palestine. Over 30 Palestinians killed. Live ammunition, ‘rubber’ bullets. Rubber-coated steel bullets. And Palestinian stones. The Palestinians here in Lebanon remember Ariel Sharon well. His name is linked to many things here…you can still see where the shells fell and killed during the 1982 Israeli Invasion. You will see pictures, yellow-green and faded, in refugee homes here. Faded, killed. You can stand in the eerie silence of the mass grave in Shatila camp, the red soil littered with garbage. 18 years ago this month, and no markers, no peace for the thousands buried beneath the littered soil. Mothers, children, young men and women. Elders. Unarmed. Unremembered. Massacred by Israel’s Phalangist militia allies. Flares were lit so that the massacre could continue even at night. Amine holds me tight in the crowd. I help her walk. She turns to me now, and raises her voice, staring into me, shouting at me in Arabic, everything loud and clear. “Do you know what is happening, how is this happening? I am here, I am old, and the children in Palestine are being killed. Did you see on the television, the people being killed by Israel? Can you see what is happening?” Her voice has carried, and now there is a crowd gathered around us. Amine, my grandmother, stares into me and waits for answers. I have many, and none. Walking into my flat in Bourj el-Barajneh some time later, my eyes still stinging with smoke.. Kholoud and Samira are there. Samira and I are silent…the weight of injustice felt by our friends, our family, here. Kholoud looks at both of us, and tells us not to be upset, not to cry. “Aren’t you Palestinian?”, she asks us. “Then don’t cry. You must be strong”. But Kholoud’s eyes are red with tears this morning too. She walks towards the door. One of Kholoud’s relatives died this morning. She is on her way to the funeral. “They are dying in Palestine. We are dying too. Here, we die for nothing.” Salaam,

By: Mandelena Santos
Bourj el-Barajneh

Even before I walked into the camp I recalled what I had read in last year’s newsletter about the first impressions of a former CEPAL intern. To paraphrase, she stated that she felt comfortably at home in Bourj el Barajneh but that still she was aware that her experience was not like those who lived in the camp since she knew always that she had the luxury to leave should she so desire. I held these thoughts close to me, as I believed that they would be significant to my experience in Bourj. Throughout my time here I have often deliberated upon what my luxury to retreat from my surroundings without losing my ability to return means to me and to those who have been deprived of this opportunity. It is difficult to believe that people who have experienced and continue to experience so much pain and have had so much taken away from them can be so giving. And it is because of this that, at times, it is easy to forget that they have lived through so much unrest. The bullet-ridden structures in which they live are a constant reminder of their affliction, however, as are the photos of the family members who were killed which hang ominously on the nearly identical paint-peeled walls of their various meticulously clean homes. The proximity of their surroundings adds to the close and warm feeling of the camp but it also can feel equally suffocating. With no parks to stroll in or play grounds for children to run and play the tiny concrete alleyways hardly suffice for the human necessity for the physical release of energy through exercise. Before I arrived at Bourj el Barajneh I remember telling people that the children had no where to play. They could hardly believe me and I also had difficulty conceiving it. I thought that there had to be somewhere that they could run around freely. But the only open space is filled with debris and thus the small passage-ways are what the children use to make do. Daily, as I walked to my classes the children and adults smiled and said hello. Their strength of spirit moved me. I found myself thinking of my luxury and how it could be so easy for them to resent me yet how they embraced me instead. The hospitality and warmth of the people I have met has awakened a new consciousness in me. I am now more aware of the life that the Palestinians here face and also more cognizant of the world’s obliviousness to their plight. I hope that my time here has enhanced their ability to acquire their own voice in the ever-increasing English dominated world.

By: Agnes Czajka

On Fridays, the UNRWA boys play sports. As most 14 and 15 years old boys, they wait with anticipation for these weekly games of basketball and football. The boys don’t seem to mind that both games must be played on the small, cement basketball court next to the UNRWA school. (Strategically placed garbage bins serve as football goalposts.)

This Friday, however, the excitement of basketball and football were superseded by another activity. This Friday, the boys were taking pictures of the camp for the newspaper that we have been working on for the past two weeks. The boys have been working on a newspaper that I will bring back to Canada. They have already written some of the articles. Of course, the sports section was the first one to be written, and it is already finished. There is also a section on Palestine, and soon, the section on education will also be completed. I instructed the boys to take pictures of the most important places in the camp. I told them that this was their opportunity to show Canadians what Wavel camp was like, and how the lives of their friends and families in the camp unfold. I handed them a disposable camera, and we were off. The boys wanted to take pictures of the mosque first, but the gates were closed, and they were not satisfied with the view afforded through the gate. Before I realised what was happening, they were knocking on the door of a house adjacent to the mosque, and we were climbing to the roof to get a better view. The second picture we took was that of the UNRWA school. The boys then led me through the maze of alleyways out of the camp, to take pictures of, what else, but the recently constructed football field, where teams from the camp play against teams from the neighbouring towns. Of course, all of the boys wanted their picture taken on the field. We then took photos of the health clinic, the cemetery, and climbed onto another roof to take bird’s-eye view pictures of the entire camp. Nabil wanted to take a photo of his house, and soon enough, we were stopping by everyone’s house to take a picture. Everyone was surprised and saddened by how quickly the film ran out. They boys brought me to a photo shop where the film could be developed, and I dropped it off. The boys were disappointed that they would have to wait a few days before seeing the pictures. They enjoyed the experience, and were exited that people in Canada would see their camp, their mosque, their school, and of course, their football field. I was grateful for the tour of the camp that I unintentionally received!

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