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.

LIFE IN LEBANON :: I.

“Give them a book and they will hold books; give them a weapon and they will hold weapons.”

Lost in Lebanon

Lebanon. People with heartbreaking stories, living in places with breathtaking views. Sunni, Alawite, Orthodox, Maronite villages scattered across Akkar. A country in mourning following a catastrophic explosion, a revolution ongoing to demand a functioning democracy. French, the language of the colonizer, spoken in public schools; Arabic, the language of home, in more dialects than you could count, spoken everywhere else. Students and teachers, refugees and Lebanese, homes in houses, apartments, garages, tents.

This has been life for the past month and a half.

And I absolutely love it.

In case you didn’t know, I’m currently living and working in Akkar, Lebanon, as a volunteer assistant with Relief & Reconciliation for Syria. This organization combines peace-building and humanitarian aid in response to the Syrian crisis. I’ve gotten to help with educational, psychosocial, and emergency assistance programs for both Syrian refugees and Lebanese host communities in Akkar, the poorest region of Lebanon. I’ve been living at the Peace Center in Bkarzla since early July, and now, I want to share a little bit about what I’ve been up to!

We started off with two weeks of training/quarantine for the newly arrived volunteers. There are four of us, all in our twenties: Lea from Switzerland, Livia from Italy, Clément from France, and me. R&R staff members Friedrich and Mohamad taught us about various topics, such as the work of R&R, orientalism, the conflicts of the Levantine coast, decolonizing humanitarian aid, and education in emergencies—just to name a few! It was definitely information overload, but I’m immensely grateful to serve with an organization that really tries to get it right, not just show up with good intentions and hope everything goes well.

After training, we had two main projects: a music workshop and a summer camp. The music workshop brought together musicians from around north Lebanon to learn from each other, jam together, and compose pieces for the summer camp. Then, we put on the fifth annual summer mountain camp for kids from all four communities we serve. Although corona threw some wrenches in our plans, we were able to have four summer camp days, one for each community. I was unfortunately sick for most of the summer camp, but I did get to participate in the last day. We played games, danced and sang, swam, and went on a scavenger hunt themed after the four elements and saving the environment. The kids really enjoyed it, and I’d say the volunteers did, too!

Once summer camp was over, we jumped right in to classes and educational activities. Right now, I’m teaching one beginner’s English class to adult women from one of the camps, and one conversational English class to young adults, mostly from Mishmish, Akkar. I adore teaching! The students are resilient, determined, and enthusiastic about learning. The women in the beginner class truly don’t speak a word of English, so it turned out to be good Arabic practice for me, too. The Mishmish students already speak a basic level, so we can do fun activities with them, like setting up a “shop” so they can practice vocabulary and expressions related to buying and selling. We’re hoping to continue these classes for the next few weeks leading up to the school year.

The main challenge right now is adapting to ever-changing coronavirus conditions. In the time since I’ve arrived, the country has bounced back and forth twice between lockdown and open for business. I had to take a COVID test at the airport and another when I was sick; both were thankfully negative. The pandemic is being handled very differently here than in the States, with much less mask-wearing and lockdown measures that aren’t nearly as strict. R&R is trying all sorts of new things to continue classes and other activities, but safely and responsibly. I’m grateful to be here during this time and help the organization rise to the challenge.

I appreciate everyone’s support, prayers, and encouragement from back home. I definitely feel them; whether it’s a moment of peace after a stressful day, healing from whatever strange sickness I had, or daily activities running smoothly, I can absolutely tell that I am being prayed for and thought of. Thank you to everyone who’s a part of my incredible support system! I dearly miss and love you all. And thanks to everyone for reading this post! Stay tuned for more updates about life in Lebanon.