LIFE IN LEBANON :: III.

(Written on December 19, 2020)

I’m somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean right now, 10 hours in to a 22-ish hour journey home. I sprinted through Heathrow Airport to make it on this connecting flight, guilty with a vegan smoothie in hand. (It was worth it.) Earlier today, my feet were touching Lebanese soil for the last time in who knows how long. I’m in that weird space of traveling where nothing feels real; my time in Lebanon seems like a dream and Atlanta might as well be a lifetime away.

How can I possibly put this experience into words?

The final few months of my volunteer service with Relief & Reconciliation were rewarding, challenging, amazing, and certainly life-changing. I continued to teaching English to Arabic-speaking children and youth in our Kousha camp school and up in Mishmish. I also got to help out with a women’s sewing workshop, teaching them how to knit, which was pretty much everything I’ve ever wanted. The team and I did outreach with local Syrian families, drinking lots of chai with lots of sugar. Despite more coronavirus lockdowns, we continued activities as fully, but also as safely, as possible. I even got to see some of the famous cedar trees, harvest more olives, make friends with some local Lebanese shebab, and explore a place called Fnaidek. Fnaidek! What a fun name! But Fnaidek and all the other fun had to come to a close, with a few tearful goodbyes, trying to get rid of my last Lebanese liras, and saying peace out to the Peace Center.

Now, as I pause to reflect on the past six months and all they’ve meant to me, the first feeling that comes up is gratitude. Who am I to promote and provide education for Syrian refugee children? To implement peace-building programs between groups of diverse religions and nationalities? To practice my Arabic in the most authentic way possible, while using my growing language skills to help those in need? To play even the tiniest, most minuscule role in the lives of these beautiful, resilient people? I am thankful, so thankful, for this opportunity that only God could have provided. I am grateful, so grateful, for each and every student who trusted me, laughed with me, built Lego houses with me. I’ve kept a gratitude journal beside my bed throughout this whole journey, writing down at least three things I’m grateful for every night. I can’t wait to read through it and see the faithfulness of God in each day, and then thank Him all over again.

Other than gratitude, one of my biggest takeaways is hospitality. You pass by a family’s tent and they invite you in; you sit inside and they instantly offer coffee or tea; they make you feel like family before you’ve taken your first sip. We talk a big game about Southern hospitality, but y’all, we’ve got nothing on Arabs.

I want to live my life with this radical hospitality. It’s not just quick visits over chai; it’s a spirit of welcome toward everyone you encounter. It’s prioritizing community and relationships more than anything else. Sure, sometimes you need to finish projects, meet deadlines, go on a business trip. But when those times are more the rule than the exception, we’ve got to reevaluate. I think that reevaluation needs to happen on a cultural level, not just an individual or family one. But by our little choices—by making the extra effort to visit or call a family member, by organizing dinners with old groups of friends, by actually FaceTiming instead of saying “we should FaceTime soon!”—we can start treating people like they are the most important thing in our lives. Like when they walk into the room, they have our attention, loyalty, and of course, a good cup of coffee or tea.

There’s so much more I’ve learned, gained, and grown in throughout my time in Lebanon: the meaning and importance of spiritual solidarity, what Christians can learn from Muslims, values in international humanitarian work, ideas and opportunities for my future career advancing global justice—the list goes on. I’m sure I’ll be unpacking everything, both literally and figuratively, for a while. Until then, I’m excited to get home, hug my family, pet my dog, and eat a good sweet potato. I want to invite you, whoever you are reading this, to add a little extra dose of gratitude or hospitality into your day today. I hope that, in doing so, you’ll experience the same spark of joy that I’ve come to know amidst the olive groves and northern hills of Lebanon.

LIFE IN LEBANON :: II.

Yep, I’m still in Lebanon. And still loving it!

I can’t believe I’ve been here for four months. It simultaneously feels like I just stepped off the plane yesterday, and like I’ve lived at the R&R Peace Center forever. There have been highs and lows, smooth sailing and rough waters, but I’m continually grateful for the simple opportunity to be here.

Since my last post, I’ve transitioned from one volunteer term to the next. At the end of last term, we took a break from normal activities, like language and music classes. I took advantage of the time off to spend a week in Mishmish, one of the towns that the organization works in. Up in the mountains, surrounded by beautiful nature and a whole lot of Arabic, it was an immersion experience for sure! I learned so much about Lebanese culture, practiced my Arabic, and grew closer to some Lebanese and Syrian friends. My week in Mishmish was certainly outside my comfort zone in many ways—as evidenced by the difficulty of politely refusing to eat meat or drink coffee, over and over and over again—but it just goes to show how the best experiences often happen outside your comfort zone. The confidence and spirit of adventure I gained from that week in Mishmish, as well as from my entire time in Lebanon, are some of the greatest gifts.

After I returned from Mishmish, we jumped pretty quickly into the next volunteer term! We have two additional volunteers: Mathilde, 24, from Belgium, and Janusz, 37, from Poland. Mathilde has previous experience in social work, and Janusz used to own a restaurant in the UK, so they both bring immensely valuable gifts to the table (figuratively and literally!). We’ve become fast friends and are supporting one another through all the stresses and victories of daily activities with R&R.

And wow, how many activities there are! The Lebanese school year has officially started, though it’s still a bit crazy because of corona. With that, R&R has ramped up its programming, especially in Bkarzla and Kousha. Our local teachers offer homework help for students in the morning and afternoon. We’re continuing Basic Literacy and Numeracy classes in Bkarzla for kids who have been out of school for a long time, and we’ve also resumed conversational language classes in Mishmish. I absolutely love the opportunity to help with educational activities. I believe so strongly that education is vital for a brighter future, especially for children and youth who have been affected by violence, displacement, and trauma. To hold this belief, and then have the opportunity to put it into action, is such an honor. The fall brings along non-educational events as well, like the Solidarity Olive Harvest, which is coming up soon. Needless to say, the Peace Center may be peaceful, but it certainly is full, loud, and busy these days!

To find some rest and relaxation, the other volunteers and I have gone several times to the nearby river, and last weekend, we took a trip to Tyre (which is pronounced Sur in Arabic, for some reason). It was amazing! We walked around the ruins, swam in the Mediterranean, and the best part: I FINALLY FOUND SWEET POTATOES! I’m glad we got to explore somewhere new, while also getting some space from the hard work at the Center.

I’ll keep working hard, especially now that the school year is in full swing and I’m the education coordinator for the volunteers. Alongside staff, local teachers, and other volunteers, I’ve been able to meet public school directors, host families for teacher-parent meetings, keep track of attendance, and teach my own English classes. Like I said before, it’s a lot, but it’s also only for eight more weeks. I can’t decide what’s crazier: that I’ve already been here for four months, or that I only have two months left. I keep a daily countdown on my mirror for three reasons:

  1. To practice my Arabic numbers (which are surprisingly quite different from what we English speakers call Arabic numerals)
  2. To encourage me on days when I feel extra homesick
  3. To remind me to make the most of my time left here—to give it my all, because when I get home, I’ll be glad I did

I’m so thankful for the opportunity to serve with R&R here in Lebanon, and also for the prayers, support, and encouragement from family and friends back home. I miss y’all (even more than I miss hearing the word y’all)! I’m excited to be home for Christmas, but until then, I’ll be savoring every drop of olive oil, every morning run in the mountains, and every person I get to interact with. All these things, but most importantly the people, are such a blessing to me, and I just hope I’m a blessing back.