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Families flock to safety as a fire rips through a settlement near the town of Qab Elias in Lebanon. Photo shared by Mohamed Hamoud via WhatsApp 

A fleet of heavy machinery worked through the midday heat to continue razing the Syrian refugee settlement Haouch Mandara 001 that caught fire a day prior near the town of Qab Elias.  Amid the bulldozers, Bobcats, and backhoe, piles of charred metal continued to smolder from the blaze that destroyed almost all of the 102 tent homes around noon on Sunday.

One child was killed and around a dozen others were admitted to the hospital where some remain in critical condition.

While the exact cause of the fire has yet to be determined, all signs point to a cooking mishap as the origin. In dry conditions with the aid of whipping wind, the fire spread rapidly between the neighboring structures all built with scrap wood and used plastic canvas wrap from billboard advertisements.  Within twenty minutes, the entire settlement was fully involved.

People onsite reported hearing several explosions during the course of the blaze from the propane cylinders that each family was equipped with.

First responders had a rapid response, but were unable to immediately suppress the fire in part to the cars of residents blocking the dirt road to the incident. The response from a handful of NGOs was impressive and immediate.  Before the end of the night, all families received new mattresses and emergency tent shelters were also set up.

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A volunteer looks out on the settlement area once populated by homes and families.  Photo from Salam LADC Facebook page.

Salam LADC spent Monday at the settlement working with a Lebanese NGO, Beyond Association who specialize in providing psycho-social supports and interventions to children in trauma situations.  At the direction of the organization’s psychologist, we played active games that required concentration, teamwork, and resulted in a lot of joyful screaming, clapping, and singing.

In the evening, we distributed 320 individually packaged bags with a stuffed animal, juice, apple, colored pencils, notebook, biscuits, and candy.  Tomorrow it is likely we will go back to help build more permanent housing structures so families can begin to transition out of the emergency tent shelters.

The heartbreak of a situation like this is easily seen on the distant faces of all the residents and in the urgency of all aid workers on site. After fleeing war in Syria with the small items that could be transported, many families have lost the few possessions they spent the past years in Lebanon acquiring.  Cars, blankets, cookware, pictures, everything is gone again and the entire community must start all over again, with nothing.

As several organizations liaise to plan immediate needs like toilets and bathing, Salam will try to prepare emergency clothing for women and children as absolutely nothing was salvaged.  Even a small donation could purchase a shirt for one of the many kids who ran around and got sweaty playing games in the hot summer sun today as volunteers tried to distract their attention from yet another crisis.

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I can’t entirely recall how I came to find the organization, Salam LADC that I am working with this summer.  It seems that many friends from Greece were connected with volunteer networks in Lebanon and I just stumbled across these guys on Facebook.  After a fourteen hour layover in Moscow, where I was stuck in the airport because Russia makes it extremely difficult to enter their country, I boarded a plane to Beirut.  I was nervous to be landing in the Middle East well past midnight with no idea how to get to my hotel, but now I’m really just embarrassed that I was so struck by preconceived notions and full of fear entirely surrounding the location.

Beirut is not at all what I thought it was going to be.  It was not nearly as hot as the images conjured up in my head by thinking of the “Middle East.” Nor was there much Arabic at all; English billboards and signage surrounded me and mostly everyone spoke English as well!  When I met up with my fabulous tour guide Mohamad who started Beirut Free Walking Tour and set up a personal tour for me on a Sunday morning out of his own kindness, he told me that’s because formal schooling in Lebanon is all done in English.  Arabic is spoken at home and many people also know French (although my cab driver said it was just the rich people) due to the history of French colonization here.

Despite the concrete blockhouses stacked with sandbags and barbed wire that were occupied by several soldiers fidgeting with assault rifles, I never felt unsafe walking the barricade covered empty streets of Beirut.  Seriously, there were no people around.  In museums, in parks, at ruins, less than double digit humans were in my sight path at any given time.  Mohamad tells me this happened in a gorgeous central square area because the businesses were starved out two years ago once the government who has its offices in the same square closed it.  Close by, people were protesting garbage piles ups and the government’s inability to clear the mountains of trash from the road and officials got nervous they would overtake the government, so they effectively set up a blockade that led to economic stagnation in the area of Beirut with the richest architecture and archaeology.  Now the businesses cannot survive or are fearful the government will do the same thing in the future, and locals have abandoned the area.  I’ve never been in a city with less foot traffic than Beirut.

While my lack of research led to me expect more primitive business structure, I walked through multi-color apartment complexes in an artsy district to a very bourgeoisie souk filled with the likes of Rolex, Cartier, a Cineplex that charged more than a week of meals cost, and upscale fashion boutiques.  I even stumbled upon a farmers market on the edge of a fancy souk, in the shadow of a war-remnant building.  All I kept thinking my first day in Lebanon was the Aldous Huxley quote, “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”  To travel is to discover that I am wrong about other countries.

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I saw quite easily why some have tried to label Beirut as the Paris of the Middle East, but all the sparkly window fronts still don’t mask the marks of the 1975 Civil War.  Bomb and bullet holes are hard to ignore, especially on towering concrete structures that still stand because tearing them down is cost prohibitive.  The future may involve more pool lounging and yacht clubs but the storied past is not to be ignored.

The one thing that I wasn’t wrong about was how much of a pain in the ass it would be to get to the volunteer house from Beirut which I was to be stationed at for the summer.  I knew from last year’s work that in a small NGO with ever changing situations on the ground, focus sometimes doesn’t channel into prospective volunteer communication.  About 365 days ago, I wandered the streets of Mytilene trying to find the volunteer house only to find no answer at the door when I did turn into Magellan and find it.  Finally the volunteer coordinator who confirmed when I should arrive, woke up with enough knocking, calling, and yelling her name up to the balconies.  The whole process was frustrating and I was determined not to repeat it this year.

I sent several emails ahead of my arrival asking for specific details of how to get to this house, to no avail.  I was told to go to the Cola Intersection in Beirut, ask around to find a bus going to Chtoura, and when it let me off halfway to Damascus, to wait on the street corner where I could call someone from the volunteer house to come pick me up.  Only, no number was given and that plan sounded terrifying.  Despite several emails and facebook posts communicating that I needed someone’s contact info, all I was told was that closer to the date, they would let me know who was around.  It quickly reached two hours before I was going to leave to find this bus to the valley and my Type A personality was on fire from no one responding with a pick-up number I requested in a message earlier that morning… or two days prior…or two weeks prior to that.

Amazingly, it all just somehow worked out.  I got a text at the right moment and stumbled upon two new volunteers on the street who I heard speaking in French and say “Cola” which led me to approach and question them if they were going to the same place as me (turns out in all of Beirut, we had stayed at the same hostel the night prior).  They had not yet heard anything from the organization either, but were put at ease when I told them I had just gotten a text. We grabbed lunch together real quick at one of the many hundreds of restaurants that speckle the streets of Beirut, and then hopped a taxi to catch a bus.

After about forty minutes and at the top of the mountains before we started descending into the Beqaa Valley, a marvelous glow could be seen on the giant rock faces that framed this gigantic, lush, agricultural capital.  Entering the city of Chtoura where I would take up residence for the next month, we passed by a Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, McDonalds, and a couple pizza restaurants…not quite what I was expecting for refugee work, but this is a pretty westernized country after all.

A pickup truck was quick to nab us at the end of the line, and bring us to the volunteer house where we were given a tour that consisted of “so this is the house.”  Any disappointment by the infiltration of western capitalism in an experience I thought would require more roughing it, vanished when I took my first steps into the volunteer house.  The kitchen whose sink was overflowing with dirty dishes even Billy Mays couldn’t clean gave way to the living room where several baby-faced volunteers silently signaled I was a house elder.  Flies were buzzing around relaxed student’s heads, but everyone had a smile on their face. These were people with a sense of purpose.  They may be messier, play louder music, and smoke more than I care to tolerate, but we’re all here for the same cause, and for this I feel great.  I grabbed the only bed left which was a pad on top of two stacked pallets in a partitioned room with no windows.  Dangling an arm off the “bed” in either direction put me in touch with other sleeping volunteers, not that it would matter for that first night as I was destined to stay up all night with diarrhea!

I set up my bed, which I found out later when all my things were moved was actually taken by someone else, and I waited in line for the sole shower that twenty-two people share, as day turned to night and flies changed to mosquitoes.  It wasn’t lost on me that the conditions I found myself in were still leaps and bounds above what many people in refugee settlements right down the street traded in everything for.  I am humbled and excited to be here and can’t wait to figure out all the good that I can help spread this summer.  But first, some Pepto.

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Children drowning, smugglers abandoning those who had abandoned everything, traversing continents to seek refuge; all of these were the life-shattering realities I heard on a daily basis while volunteering in Kara Tepe Refugee Camp last summer on the island of Lesvos, Greece.  The emotional weight of working with displaced persons is heavy, but certainly not even close to the same level of being a displaced person.  Close friends can tell you I was a little bit jarred and distant when I returned.  As my brain struggled to process all the horror stories I heard and saw the entire summer to understand how such cruelty and injustice could exist in this world, I knew the struggle would be eternal.  I wanted to continue helping people who were fleeing situations I previously couldn’t imagine, but I wanted to see a different perspective to more fully understand the complete situation.

My first attempt to work with refugees was a tiresome Google search years ago to go to Jordan or Lebanon.  Both were countries bordering Syria and taking in large numbers of Syrian refugees, but beyond that I didn’t know too much.  I found a UNHCR posting for a manual laborer to dig irrigation trenches, and the idea of turning my brain off after a stressful school year of teaching and just digging a hole in the heat for a good cause sounded appealing.  Unfortunately, the minimum 6 month requirement did not fit in well with my plan to keep my teaching job and that plan fizzled.

As anti-refugee sentiments flared up across Europe and especially with the election of Donald Trump in the US, I began to see hate displayed more openly and advocacy to close borders gain more steam.  Last year, I wrote about the accepting nature of Greeks to extend their resources to their neighbors in need and I had to wonder what the scale of the rest of the world was doing.  My country with so many resources and potential for good had done embarrassingly little, but come to find out, little ol’ Lebanon had done a ton! According to the UNHCR, 1 in 5 people in Lebanon is a registered refugee, but the actual number is likely closer to 1 in 4.  In fact, the number of registered refugees from Syria is greater than the entire population of Lebanon.

Syrian Refugees in LebanonImagine that in America; if in our giant landscape, 90 million people were refugees.  It seems unfathomable, but that’s what Lebanon has effectively done.  Even under Obama, the plan was to let in 10,000 refugees a year, and progress on that target fell way behind schedule from the day the plan was agreed upon.  To take on such a large number of new inhabitants has caused tension and problems for sure, but it has also save lives and offered countless opportunities to families with nowhere else to turn.

I used to have a Doctors Without Borders world map behind the desk in my old classroom that had their slogan, “We go to where conditions are the worst, because that’s where we’re needed most.”  I saw this video detailing the trash problems in refugee settlements in the Beqaa Valley and I looked at the numbers on the UNCHR data chart.

Greece was the sexy focus of the refugee crisis in Europe.  They got the mainstream news coverage, the celebrity visits, the EU funding, but Lebanon doesn’t have any of those things and they have let in more refugees than all of Europe combined.  The Beqaa Valley was a former Hezbollah HQ and currently maintains status as a drug growing region, but the dangers associated with either are minimal now.  Sitting in an office area with a view of the mountains 23km away that form the border with Syria, I know this experience will open my eyes to the problems of the word in a different way and hopefully help me be a part of better solutions.

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