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.

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