After two months of mission, it is time for me to leave Lebanon. Lebanon, a ravaged Nation, out of breath, struck from all sides, but struggling to stand on its own feet, proud of its identity and its history.
When I arrived in Beirut on July 17, the situation in the country was already very delicate. The economic crisis was stunning the Lebanese people, the Lebanese Pound was worthless. The inhabitants no longer trusted the government, which is accused of corruption, among other things. The situation was tense, a certain climate of tension was felt in the city. The crisis of Covid-19 does not help things, the country has not been spared by the epidemic.
After three days in the capital, I was sent with Matthew, another volunteer, to Qaa, an almost exclusively Christian village located in the Bekaa valley, between the Anti-Lebanon and Mount Lebanon mountain ranges, 5 kilometres from the Syrian border. SOS Chrétiens d'Orient has been established there since 2017, and is now a major player in the life of the village. I, who hadn't left France for more than ten years, am totally confused by what I see.
As I wandered around, I realised the singularity of Qaa, which, unlike its neighbours, exclusively Shiite, where mosques and minarets stretch as far as the eye can see, has only churches as religious buildings. The crossing of the Bekaa clearly enlightened me on a point that I knew to be true but did not know completely: Lebanon is a multicultural country where multiple religious denominations cohabit together as best they can to make this country unique in the world, small in size but gigantic in cultural richness and identity.
My first days in Qaa were a revelation. I experienced the legendary sense of hospitality of the orientals, which is really not a myth. The Lebanese have no problem inviting young French people they have only known for a short time to their home, to drink a coffee, share a hookah or even a meal. "Tfaddal", "Ahla wa sahla", these words of "welcome", which resonate everywhere, a hundred times a day mark the completion of my rapid integration. Integration which was confirmed later on, with our invitation to parties celebrated in the village such as weddings. In fact, three or four days after my arrival, as we were walking in the evening with the other volunteers in the streets around our house, we were challenged by music. Very quickly we realised that it was a wedding. As we approached, we were accosted by a person, at our biggest surprise, inviting us to take part in the festivities, which is obviously totally surprising for a Frenchman. For at least two hours, we sang (or tried!), learned a few steps of dabké, the traditional Lebanese dance, got to know people we didn't know at all, it was really a great moment. I think that I will keep the memory of this evening in my mind for a long time, it is the perfect illustration of the joy of life of the Lebanese, even if they are experiencing great difficulties. I think that this state of mind is lacking in France, we sometimes give too much importance to the wrong things, forgetting to live simply, in community.
Obviously, our mission in Qaa was not only to discover Eastern customs, like tourists coming for holiday. Our mission is to help the people of the village, which rely on the association to help the town cope with the crises and the current situation. We are therefore carrying out several projects in Qaa, very different from each other: rehabilitation of a car-wash for a family whose father had died the previous winter and who still has no source of income; a project of scholarships for the families of the pupils who attend school in the town, most of them heavily in debt; a project consisting in buying chickens from the house to distribute them to the families who are most in need. We also organised a recital in honour of the Virgin Mary for the Assumption, mainly in cooperation with the town hall.
At the same time, we had three mornings appointment a week with the children of the village, at the CLAC (reading and cultural animation centre). For two hours, we play football or basketball with them, we colour, paint and have fun in the park. It's not always an easy experience, as it could happen that there were more than thirty of them when we were between four and six volunteers, but I will never regret it. I will never forget the smiles of these children, they were incredibly rich, and the hours spent with them were unforgettable moments of sharing.
Unforgettable, perhaps, but a little tiring all the same, I must admit it, because these children, most of whom were under 10 years old, had real energy to spare.
However this did not affect our physical capital, fortunately because it was not the only activity we had. For three days, every week, we changed the scenery by going to Jdeideh, to the home of Father Jean Nasrallah, a Greek-Catholic priest in charge of the local community. More than twenty years ago, he started the construction of a sanctuary comprising a church that he himself built and a grotto dedicated to Saint-Antoine-le-Grand that he dug with his own hands. Today, two football and basketball pitches allow the Christian children of Jdeideh to come and play after 5 pm when the heat begins to subside. We took the opportunity to join them and do some exercise, which is almost impossible in the overwhelming heat of Qaa.
In the morning, we woke up early to work in the vegetable gardens picking tomatoes, aubergines, growing potatoes... We went with the Father to take the sheep and goats to graze, feed them, milk them (after a good run to catch them, it's not always easy!). We also spent some time collecting the rubbish that the children left behind (plastic bottles, candy wrappers, etc.). The Lebanese children don't have the same education as us concerning ecology and the management of rubbish, as soon as they finish a bottle of water, they throw it on the ground, even if it's still half full! We tried to set up a system of dustbins, with selective sorting... it was a bitter failure. But hey, we'll forgive them! It doesn't look like that, but in reality this kind of work is very restful, invigorating, and allows us to breathe a little after our busy days in Qaa. And in the evening, we drank a good tea with Abouna Jean as well as with young people from 16 to 20 years old who came here to meet each other.
I was just beginning to get used to the city and to understand the stakes of my presence here; in short, to make a place for myself among Lebanese adults and children. But while I have been in Qaa for 3 weeks, an event has definitely disturbed the relative calm of my mission. On August 4th, the explosion of 2750 tons of ammonium nitrate devastated the port of Beirut. In a hurry, I packed my bags and head for the capital to bring help to the devastated families.
But before that, I think I had the most striking but at the same time the saddest memory of my mission. Indeed, we participated in the funeral of Sahar Fares, a 24-year-old female volunteer fireman from Qaa who died in the explosion while doing her duty. We were in charge of putting hydroalcoholic gel on the hands of the people who came to pay tribute to Sahar, checking that everyone was wearing a mask. It was very impressive. The whole village came, almost 5000 people. The procession in her honour went through the whole village, there were fireworks and kalashnikovs shooting in the air everywhere, for at least half an hour. The coffin was visible to all, almost shaking in all directions, with Sahar's tearful young fiancé, Gilbert, also being lifted by the crowd. We learned later that their wedding was planned for the following summer, and Gilbert decided in honour of his fiancée to do the procession like when one celebrates a wedding in Lebanon, with the two new spouses being raised by family and friends and dancing. In France, one sometimes tends to contain one's emotion when one is in public, even for a funeral. Here in Lebanon, this is not at all the case. I have seen many tears, heard cries of distress. The hardest part was leaving the church, before going to the cemetery. I had to put some gel on everyone's hands, especially Sahar's family and friends. Many were crying their eyes out and could barely move forward, I felt really ridiculous with my bottle. What is admirable, and what I will remember most of all, is that the family invited us to join them for a snack after the burial, and thanked us warmly for our service. I think I will have this memory engraved forever in my mind.
The next two weeks were the most intense I experienced on mission. Half of the city is affected, the damage is unimaginable, both in terms of people and infrastructure. The destruction responds to anger. For the Beirutans, it is the last straw.
Every day, the Martyrs Square was invaded by a crowd of angry Lebanese. We watched helplessly as the demonstrators stormed the ministries. I am astonished to learn that many are calling for a return of the French mandate in the country to put an end to corruption and poverty. I don't know what to say.
The city was really under stress. In addition to the urgent need to search for potential survivors under the rubble, there was also the need to clear the affected neighbourhoods to avoid further injury.
I will always remember what I saw in Beirut. The distress in the eyes of the Lebanese people I met, but also a form of determination to finally make a difference, to get involved. So young people get involved and get off the couch to take action. This is the case of the volunteers at the "Nation Station", whom we now know well and with whom we work hand in hand for the most vulnerable people.
During the day, we gave our all by clearing out hospitals, schools, flats, or by putting together 1500 food parcels (19 tons!) to distribute in the neighbourhoods of Mar Mikhail and Geymazé, which were hit very hard by the blast of the explosion.
Sometimes, during these operations, we were overwhelmed by the situation. Thus, in Geymazé, while we had prepared for all eventualities, we were overwhelmed by a flood of starving Lebanese and Syrian exiles. In a few moments, we were surrounded. For obvious security reasons, we were forced to leave the area.
It is during these moments that we really realised the complexity of the situation and the scale of the humanitarian disaster. We, young French volunteers who were out of our comfort zone, were really facing misery, poverty. I seriously think that you have to have been in the field, in front of these people, to really understand what Lebanon is going through today.
After two weeks in Beirut, I was back in Qaa. With the arrival of the big associations and the emergency operation having been completed, the presence of all the French volunteers in the capital is no longer necessary. Leaving Beirut was very heartwarming because I have forged new and very strong relationships there and I have greatly appreciated supporting the Lebanese in this new ordeal.
But going back to the Bekaa did me a lot of good, because I was able to recharge my batteries after those fifteen days spent in the incessant buzz of Beirut. I was reunited with my classmates as well as the children of CLAC and my dear friends, including our Arabic teacher, Lena, an extraordinary woman who gives us two classes a week for free. Always very smiling and welcoming, she regularly invited us to her home to share good manouchés or home-made pancakes (yes, pancakes! my native Brittany had followed me a little!). I am also thinking of the owners of our flat, Samia and Marwan, and their daughter Rouba, with whom we often play cards after a hearty meal.
I don't forget the Kurdish family who fled Syria six years ago. The first four children are regulars at CLAC, and their parents regularly invite us for coffee and food, despite their great poverty. In a country which is not their own, and in a village which is mainly Christian, even though they are Muslims, they have nevertheless succeeded in settling in, integrating, building a new home, and are always ready to welcome us with open arms.
After two months, my mission is over. This experience has been a great adventure for me, especially on a human level.
I am convinced that the Lebanese gave me as much as I gave them, if not more. On the spot, we are of little use; we are not going to save the country, far from it.
Our importance lies in setting an example. We are there to show our Lebanese brothers that we, French Christians, think strongly of them, and that we want to maintain the strong bond that unites our two countries.
If Lebanon falls or loses its identity, the consequences could be very serious, not only for the Middle East, but undoubtedly for us in Europe, and the rest of the world in general. So, let us maintain the link, and let us commit ourselves to the Lebanese people, who are so much in need of the support of their brothers today!
Louis-Marie, volunteer in Lebanon.