When the French volunteers approached me about two weeks ago saying they had a crazy yet very important idea they wanted to pursue, I don’t think I could have foreseen what exactly they meant in that moment…
They wanted to go to a Syrian refugee camp. For them, the Syrian cause was something they truly cared about and wanted to see firsthand. Honestly, I knew the idea would not be well-received by other Lebanese people who do not sympathize with the Syrian struggle. But I had the contact. I had a group of willing people. I had two weeks left in Lebanon. This is a freaking brilliant idea.
I contacted Caritas Lebanon, the organization I worked with during the month of June, to explain what our group wanted to do and to ask how we could accomplish said goal. While on my death bed Monday afternoon, the French volunteers went to the Caritas MONA (Moyen-Orient et Afrique du Nord/Middle East and North Africa) headquarters in Beirut to meet with the head of the organization’s operations. Caritas MONA explained what their refugee camp had need for and then assigned us our task — entertain the kids at a Syrian refugee camp for as long as possible.
Saturday was D-day; Friday was running-around-like-chickens-with-heads-cut-off day. We had no guidance as to what we were supposed to do with the children. We did not know how long they expected us to entertain said amount of children. We were a group of volunteers who spoke French, English, and very bad Lebanese Arabic. How are we going to do this?
Once we started getting into crunch time Friday, it was clear that all of us volunteers were getting frustrated as ideas were shot down due to language barriers, possible time constraints, or unknown amounts of play area. But as we ploughed through idea after idea, we paused to look back on our experience at SeSoBEL. What did our kids need most from us everyday? They needed our energy. They needed our support. They needed our love.
We could definitely give that to each child in the refugee.
That Friday night, we scribbled a couple of common games onto a sheet of paper, bought basic items from a nearby convenience store, and planned on getting a good night’s rest — realizing that the last portion would probably be the best thing we could give to those kids.
Saturday we were all awake about an hour earlier than we needed to be. We grabbed our materials and the address to meet the social worker and headed out by taxi. After a bit of confusion on the road (we were given two separate addresses for one place…), we found our social worker and drove up the mountainous country side to the very secluded refugee camp.
We arrived to surprised faces still in pajamas. The kids all stared at us in awe as we began to start conversations in misunderstood French and Arabic. But it is amazing how simple gestures can cross any language barriers. Smiles. Tickles. Hugs. They all translated into a bond that formed before the first game began. But once that first game hit the ground, the fun did not end. We worked our way through ring toss, coloring books, jump rope, modeling clay, stickers, basketballs, hopscotch, etc. None of it was planned. None of it was anticipated. But none of it needed to be. We came in with energy, with spirit, and with love. And when you are trapped in a camp, that is the most you could ever ask for. Watching how a monotonous game of ring toss or a couple of stickers absolutely enthralled one child was magnificent. It turned out that our lack of planning was all of the planning we could have ever needed.
And it is easy to get bogged down in the details of how wonderful the children are. It is magnificent to play with a child who appreciates you for everything you have to offer. But I cannot neglect the realities of the shelter while describing what was a spectacular day. Several of the children were asleep on the floor with simple cots as their only cushioning when we arrived at the refugee. Many of the women in the refugee watched our male volunteers with the utmost caution or even refused to approach them. The kitchen was bare to prevent people from stealing food or creating a blame game between needy families. The refugee may have seemed united — cooking together, caring for one another’s children, gossiping like old pals on the outdoor benches. But that one thing that unites them is the tragedy. Something or someone took everything from them. Something or someone abused them beyond recovery. Something or someone is still an active threat in their lives today. What Caritas is able to provide for these people is wonderful, but unfortunately they can never remove that terror, that despair, that hopelessness. That is why our work today was so meaningful. We, like Caritas, could never remove all of the horrors these people face every day. But today in what little time and preparation we had, we removed the refugee from those horrors.