Posts Tagged ‘volunteer stories’

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: 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.

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