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 :: 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.