Fritz and I came to Beirut on a plane from the south of Turkey. We learned in the taxi that after two years of negotiations, Lebanon finally had a new president. Later, as we made our walk to the bus station, a row of honking cars with flags waving out of the windows passed us by. Apart from that the streets were strangely quiet. We started to wonder if we should get worried about political violence, when Fritz realized it was the day before a holiday, so most people would already be enjoying their free time somewhere else. All Saints Day is a Christian holiday, but in Lebanon everybody gets the day off for important religious days. By the time we made it to the bus station, it was already dark. We took the last bus to Tripoli, from where we were picked up by Josh, another volunteer. Seeing the Peace Center for the first time in real life gave me such a happy feeling. Then it got even better when I got to meet the other volunteers – Nadya, Abby and Samer – and we drank some tea together before going to bed.
A stormy and rainy day: perfect to stay inside and receive instructions from Fritz about safety and politics (with some side track lecturing on the history of the Lebanese Christians). Spend the afternoon sorting out the teaching resources cabinet: all the books for English, French and Arabic classes, plus the crayons and coloring books for the little ones. I felt more and more excited with the idea of teaching French class to children. In the evening, Josh cooked us a restaurant-worthy dinner and I was happy to get to know the others a little better while we sat around the table.
In the morning, I went with Josh and Abby to an informal refugee camp in Tel Abbas. On the way there, I could not stop looking at the beautiful landscape of hills covered with olive trees and the Mediterranean sea in the distance. The weather was now sunny and clear and we could see far away. In the camp, we were greeted by the men, who gave us hot tea in small glasses. The children were starting to gather around us, excited for their daily class. Most of them are going to a Lebanese public school in the afternoon, but we are giving them extra practice.
We went into the classroom, a newly build wooden cabin and tried to have the children sit down, which was already a challenge. One of the boys had brought in a kitten, which managed to distract everyone’s attention with the magic force of cuteness. But some children seemed to think that the kitten was a ferocious lion, because when it started running around through the classroom, their jumped up their seats and started yelling like the poor baby cat was trying to attack them.
Once we got the cat out of the classroom we could finally start our lesson. We wrote sentences on the blackboard with the phrase “Je voudrais” (I want) in front of it. We asked the children to repeat them and afterwards to write them down. But the class was mixed with the younger and older children together, and some could not read or write yet. So we had them practice the alphabet, while we taught more sentences to the older ones.
When the class was over, some children wanted to stay to practice more. But their parents were calling them for lunch and we also had to go. Back at the Peace Center, we also had lunch and then I went to help with the homework class of Miss Pauline, a Lebanese teacher who gives extra support to the Syrian children in Bkarzla, our village. That evening, Josh and I were looking through the French books for exercises that would fit the different levels of our Tel Abbas class. It was quite a challenge, because even the books for the younger children assumed that they were already speaking French at home. In Lebanon, French is used almost interchangeably with Arabic and a good command of French is essential to enroll in the government’s education system. After much searching and copying of pages, we decided it was enough for the day and we also needed our sleep.
Back to the Tel Abbas camp, where Josh and I got to try out our educational master plan. Of course everything went different than expected, but the class itself was really successful. By the end, everybody could recite the names of the body parts, with some of the more advanced students in front of the class reading them from the board and pointing them out on their own body. Everybody joined in and we almost had a French ‘head-shoulders-knees-and-toes’. We made the smaller ones continue their ABC writing practices, while the older ones copied from the board into their notebooks. When the class ended, half of the children did not want to leave again, so we staid a bit longer to let them finish their exercises and ask their questions. Then we went into town to find a Lebanese SIM-card for my phone, which proved to be very difficult, so we had to return home without. The internet had been failing us a bit and we had frequent electricity fall-outs, so electronic communication went down to a minimum. Actually I thought that was quite enjoyable, since it reminded me to look outside at the beautiful sunset and take in the fresh air and sounds of birds and crickets.
Friday is the holy day for Muslims, so consequently everybody gets the day off in Lebanon. The same thing goes for Sunday, because of the Christian population. So the Lebanese do not have a real weekend, since most of them still have to work or go to school on Saturday. But for the volunteers at R&R, Friday is a day for other activities. In the morning, we had the weekly meeting to discuss practical issues and come up with new plans to continue our work. Our Lebanese friend Carlos joined in to explain his role in our plan to provide vocational training to Syrian youth. We made a new division of tasks and I got appointed the new House Coordinator, which means I will remind everyone to clean up and help with the daily chores, but I will for sure get a lot of help from Josh, who has been doing many repairs around the house and keeps track of the shopping list.
When the weekly meeting was finished, we just had a little time to prepare for the arrival of a bunch of Syrian children who come for a few hours to enjoy the weekly play time at the Peace Center. A moment later, Nadya was watching over toddlers building towers with Lego and pointing at the pictures in the children’s books while saying both the Arabic and the French names out loud. Samer supervised the older children, who were making drawings in the classroom and singing songs on the stage. Abby and Josh prepared the games outside. A bit later, we had all the children playing in the garden, standing in line for the slide and eating mandarins from our tree. It was sunny weather and the children were beaming.
At the end they all got a glass of apricot juice and went on their way home: a street full of children, shouting at each other, holding hands, carrying the small ones. It put a big smile on my face. Abby and I went to visit one of the families that live in a tent, five minutes from the Peace Center. We drank tea and the parents invited us to join in the olive harvest on Saturday morning. We went to bed early because we knew we would have to get up early.
In the cold morning Abby and I walked to the house of the family that we would help with the olive harvest. We had to fit three people on one motorbike to drive into the hills. It was a bit scary, with all the holes and sharp bends in the road, but the father of the family drove us gracefully. We got to the fields and were greeted by the rest of the family and the other seasonal workers, both Lebanese and Syrian. The olive trees were standing there full with black and green olives, waiting to be picked. So we just went ahead, even though neither of us had done it before.
Quickly enough we got the hang of it and it became a great meditative exercise to go through the tree branch by branch, twig by twig, while hearing the olives fall of the plastic screens beneath us. We learned that olive trees are really strong and that you can climb them, which brought back many childhood memories. After a few hours of picking, we rested with some tea and a biscuit.
The sugar levels were up again, and we continued, as the sun got higher and the day hotter. More flies started to swarm around us and we had to take of more layers of clothing. Still, the work was less hard than expected and we had good company. Around noon, we returned to the village with several big bags full of olives, ready to be pressed into olive oil in one of the local presses. Back at the family’s tent, they insisted that we should stay for lunch, even though we had another lunch coming at home. But there is no way of refusing Syrian hospitality and it was nice to wind down a bit after all the hours of hard work.
When we got home, I just had five minutes to Skype with my mother before another Syrian family of eleven persons arrived and it was our chance to be perfect hosts while serving them a big lunch in the garden. Thanks to the days of preparations from the other volunteers it was a great meal and we followed all the hospitality etiquette (such as serving drinks in small glasses and refilling them continuously). The children played with the dog and climbed the walnut tree to do some more harvesting. At the end, Nadya said her beautiful goodbye wishes, as she would be leaving the next day. I was also feeling emotional.
Even though I have only been here one week, it feels like much longer: it is like I have found a new family and a new home.
Today I am writing all of this down and reflecting on the past week. It is sunny weather again and we are planning to go hiking. Let’s explore the beauty of Akkar! I hope I can continue to write blogs and share my experiences. It is just the first week and there is much more to come… I am looking forward to it!
French teaching volunteer – October 2016