sabato 5 marzo 2016

Never judge the unknown - a trip to the North

On Monday this week I had the chance and pleasure of joining an NGO called International Humanitarian Relief (IHR) for a distribution of shoes and clothes coming from Norway to Syrian families in the Akaar Region, North of Lebanon. In fact, most the refugees live outside of Beirut and closer to the Syrian border, whether North or East. Hence, the majority of projects which aim at assisting and supporting the refugees are mainly in the Beqaa Valley - Zahle on the East, and in the Akkar region, North of Lebanon. That’s why I wanted to get out of Beirut, to explore unknown landscapes, to meet new people, exchange smiles and be helpful to the people who need it the most. 

It was with curiosity and an open mind that I joined IHR staff on this field visit to Halba, just 20 km away from the Northern Syrian border. 

The day started very early, at 6:30 am. I got picked up by the local staff with a Mitsubishi 4x4 at 7:15ish; the journey was very pleasant and it took approximately two hours. We stopped twice, first to pick up a colleague in Tripoli and second to have breakfast, of course. I had a bite of "lahme b'ajin" with some pomegranate juice  and "knefe", both incredibly tasty.

We reached the IHR Al-Amal Vocational Center on the outskirt of Halba around 10ish. The day was beautiful, sunny and warm. 

Al-Amal Vocational Center IHR

The first thing we did after meeting and chatting with the staff of the center, it was to organize and to carry out the distribution. To my surprise everything was brand new: the shoes looked very nice and stylish, for all ranges, women, men and teenagers. All the boxes were piled in a neat and precise way, exactly like the way you would see them in a shop. Same for the clothes which were very pretty and of good quality like cotton, wool and silk.

Distribution of clothes and shoes from Norway - Photography [Courtesy of IHR]

Donated new shoes 
One by one the beneficiaries arrived; they were holding a ticket which meant they were entitled to receive the aid. Each person could take one pair of shoes and a piece of clothing, usually a jacket or two sweaters. As far as I understood, most of these people were the Syrian refugees students who are currently participating at the professional courses at the center, plus other families living in the Halba area who were identified as particularly vulnerable. 

Project Syria

The good thing was that they got to choose themselves among a variety of clothes and shoes according to their need and taste. I mainly helped with find the right piece of clothing.  Their eyes were looking at me, many with curiosity other with indifference.  I was able to talk to them by using survival words and sentences that I have learnt in Arabic class, and with a little help from the English speaking staff I managed to communicate.  Most of the girls wanted a jacket that was “tawhill” - long. I was struggling to find jackets below the knee, but most of the girls were satisfied with what we found. They walked away with huge smiles and proud of their new piece of clothing. Many wanted a jacket for themselves or for their baba. 

The best part of the day was to visit the vocational center. I didn’t expect it to be so organized and efficient, but yes it was. The Director of the shelter really wanted me to go around as he said “visitors bring motivation to our students”. Everyone was so kind and extremely helpful.
The aim of the project in this center is to train the Syrian refugees of the area for six months in one of the following courses: electrical, electronics and mechanics, sewing, cooking, make-up and hairdressing. Such classes last six months and allow them to learn a job and gain an income from it. Not just humanitarianism, but development.  

So one by one we visited each room on the first floor of the center. I was received with happiness and joy. There was a genuine interest among people to show their piece of work and their products, both from the student and the teacher side.
They were so excited about the class! You could tell they were really enjoying coming to the center. Some of the young women were saying they were traveling for more than one hour by bus to reach the center just to participate at the course.

Sewing class - Photography [Courtesy of IHR]

Life is sweeter with a cake - Photography [Courtesy of IHR]

Sewing trials - Photography [Courtesy of IHR]

Young ladies attending the class

One of the sewing machine

Loving the freshly baked cheesecake - Photography [Courtesy of IHR]

Bakery class - Photography [Courtesy of IHR]

Photography [Courtesy of IHR]

“I teach them a word of French, English and German everyday, everyday”, said the Director of the center - “I want them to learn other languages, it is so important!” he added. In fact one of the problem Syrians face when arriving in Lebanon is the language; even though Arabic is one of the national official languages, ordinary people speak perfect French and English as well, and most of the time classes in public school are taught in these languages.
The Director also proudly shown me the kitchen of the center, which he has converted into a small playground for the kids whose mum participate at the class. In this way they don’t skip it “just” because they have to look after their kids. 

The teacher of the sewing class (picture below) was of Syrian nationality. He wanted to share his story, one similar to many, perhaps… He proudly said he had many years of experience in this sector: he had a successful business in Homs with around sixty employees. However, because of the war he was forced to flee and he had to leave everything behind. “The government took everything from me, everything…” 
But it seemed to me that what it didn’t take was his passion and will to teach others anything he knew about sewing and making clothes. What a spirit!  

The visit finished with an amazing late lunch, Lebanese style, in a local restaurant. And what’s a Lebanese meal without Arghile and coffee? Not a Lebanese meal! 

Lebanese meal with the crew of IHR

The three vices in Lebanon: arghile, coffee and cigarette.
It was a real pleasure meeting such wonderful people. Keep strong!

Much love,
Michi :)

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