I received a comment on my last blog from Peggy at Middlebury, and she asked me to tell a more upbeat story. I read her comment, and I started thinking for hours about what I could write in reply. What about the success stories? Initially I was a little mixed up since my experience in Lebanon has been generally upbeat punctuated by only a handful of sad stories. It was only after a while that I realized how my world, nestled here in upscale Beirut is what's so pleasant. Far from the squalor of the Palestinian camps, the bombed out houses in the south, and the fields of deadly cluster bombs, my little street in the neighborhood of Gemmayze boasts dozens of bars, food ranging from spaghetti to sushi, and more people speaking French than Arabic. It's only when I remove myself from my little bubble and head into the wilds of Lebanon that I see the massive problems the country faces.
But central Beirut aside, I began thinking about my experiences as a whole in my travels to the south, the Bekka Valley, the southern suburbs, the Chouf, and the Palestinian camps. Clearly my most vivid memories of these trips were of the awful smells of the back alleys of Chatila camp or of the terrified shepherd who was weekly losing sheep to cluster bombs. These are the things that will stick with me for years, but today I began to realize that they are not representative of life throughout Lebanon. There's another force at play out there, tirelessly toiling against the powers of destruction. Lebanese NGO's are carrying the back-breaking burden of a country plagued by decades of strife and riddled with politicians too self-involved to work on fixing things.
The NGO's grab none of the headlines that a Hezbollah sit-in strike does; they make for none of the riveting television that riots do; but there are hundreds, maybe thousands of these groups working relentlessly, but quietly, in the slow march of progress. Over the past two and a half months, I've been privileged enough to spend time with a handful of these groups while working on various stories.
Some of the most impressive NGO work is going on inside the Palestinian camps. Although nearly half a million Palestinians live inside Lebanon, the vast majority of them live inside the dirt poor camps that are scattered across the country. They have a fraction of the rights afforded to Lebanese citizens. Against all these odds, non government groups are flourishing here and are doing the good work that others are not.
I have one friend named Ahmed who works as a science teacher in a school in Sabra camp. He was one of five founders of an NGO they began fifteen years ago. What's amazing about their work is that they aren't focused on only one issue. They change or grow the scope of the organization to recognize needs of the community. Ahmed showed me the maternity clinic his group recently opened. Mothers receive inexpensive medical consults from doctors all because Ahmed's group has managed to tap into the vast amounts of international aid that are available to Lebanese. Ahmed's organization also bought a multi-storey apartment building and has converted it into very low cost housing. In return, Ahmed's staff checks up on the tenants to make sure they're working, the theory being that level of income is less important than simply maintaining steady employment given the low legal status of Palestinians in Lebanon.
I’ve met with mothers who started a campaign to bring quality education to autistic children. I’ve talked with a group that has launched a campaign against eye disease. Intel corporation is pioneering telemedicine in Lebanon to bring quality healthcare to the remote corners of the country. Another group is working on a project in the south to bring high school students of different religions together to engage in inter-faith dialogue. Yet another NGO has created a cooperative of organic farmers as part of a campaign to rehabilitate agriculture in the south of the country. And the list goes on.
I’ve been privileged to do much of my work in Lebanon on these groups because although they’re not headline grabbing, it’s important that the world see the work they’re doing, that group by group and person by person they are the ones building the civil society that is so often threatened here.