This is my second time to Lebanon. It’s always difficult to put into words why one loves certain places with a particular fierceness. Lebanon is one of those places for me. When I left here, 3 years ago, I felt really sad that I might never come back. Despite everyone-who-cares-for-me concerns such as “Is it safe?” Why are you going to Beirut”? Isn’t Lebanon awfully close to Syria”? I couldn’t wait to get on the Middle East Air Liban flight from Paris to Beirut.
I travel a lot, and never feel like I am too far from home. I’m good at traveling—don’t get jet lag, sleep right away on my new schedule, feel pretty energized within 24 hours. I have some very good friends here, and we were visiting the magnificent Cedar forests of northern Lebanon yesterday, and talking about my feeling of connection to this truly ancient place. I don’t know if you’ve ever remembered something long-tucked away in a memory crevasse, but I suddenly realized that one of the first foreign people (if not THE first) I have ever met (or have a recollection of meeting) was a Lebanese man, Sharif. Sharif was a groomsman in my best friend, Susan MacDonald’s, older brothers wedding. This wedding was a big, big deal for me—-and representative of the kinds of kindnesses best friends parents show to the little ones who are important in their kids’ lives. I had never been to a wedding and coming from a small family with most extended family members living far away, would not have a chance to go to many weddings (I have been to less than 10 or 15 in my life) so the dressing up, the fanciments, the ritual and sanctity were all a first for me. So was meeting Sharif, who aside from being one of the handsomest men I have ever seen (yes, to this day) was one of the kindest. On my second trip to Lebanon, I am finding that these are not such unusual attributes here.
Susan and I stared at Sharif a lot, and giggled and probably pointed. His response was to spend time speaking with us, and he told me about Lebanon. His words created an image – a very visceral one—of a land of mountains and sea, of glittering and lively cities and ancient places; I think in my little girl imagination (I was still in grade school) it probably sounded like paradise. So I have always wanted to come to Lebanon, and sitting here now, with dear friend and colleague Dr Rabih El Chamay (who is ultimately responsible for the invitation that brought me here in late 2009), I am really touched to remember the kindness of a once stranger so many years ago that planted the seed to visit not only Lebanon, but also the world. Many years and wars later, I hope Sharif is ok.
Lebanon has many treasures, and on this trip I have been to the north and the south, and must comment on the variety of symbology one encounters while driving Lebanese highways. Headed South, within 30 minutes of Beirut proper, there are Lebanese flags and Hezbollah flags lining the highway; billboards of martyrs appear every so often all the way to Tyr. Headed North, one is soon winding though mountain villages and seeing images of Mother Mary and innumerable saints, everywhere. The canyons and hillsides are dotted with ancient…I mean truly ANCIENT—monasteries. It’s like being inside a quaint, old-fashioned Christian history lesson.
A primary reason for my travel here was to present a dance movement therapy workshop at the NISCVT annual conference. NICSVT is an organization that works with the many Palestinians refugees who have been warehoused here (yes, that’s really the term) since the 1940’s. The focus of this years conference was on education for refugee children—as I am sure you, the reader, can imagine, there are many issues with education for people who have been living in a stateless condition in a country that will not grant them full status to study, work, or participate in daily society. The relationship between the Palestinians and their Lebanese hosts is a long and complex one, and I won’t elaborate here. I learned a lot on this trip; about Palestinian involvement in (and instigation of) some of the horrible conflicts that have plagued Lebanon since the 1970’s. Having visited at least 4 camps in Beirut and Tyr, I have seen the conditions that the Palestinians are forced to live in; in self constructed mini cities with dangerous wires dangling thickly over every alleyway and blocking the sky. Buildings and alleys through these mini cities are cramped, crowded and dirty just from the sheer impossibility of squeezing anything else in. People are literally living on top of one another in a city planners unplanned haphazard nightmare.
I was part of a panel of co-presenters who spoke of dance, music and arts therapies. We were asked to summarize creativity in the learning process, and one statement really stuck out to me: a rationale for limiting the numbers of children in school (many children here do not have any access to school) because there are not enough seats. Both Deborah (the music therapist) and I spoke to the issue of learning as a process of creativity and development…and my comment was simple: Kids don’t need seats. They need space. And it doesn’t have to be a lot of space. Those of us who enjoyed liberal childhoods exploring safe landscapes are blessed to have known space. The space I am referring to is the space to have a place, to exist, to belong. Giving each child a place is more important than a seat. Children learn (the younger, more so) through exploration in sensation, movement and creative expression. A balance in structure and freedom is essential to healthy development. Refugee children, by definition, do not have this balance. These refugee communities who have been defined by their refugee status for as many years as the Palestinians have, deserve the right to, space for, place in, education. If there are no literal seats, the children can sit on a mat, stand up, move and play as they do in many experiential educational settings. Of course, this requires resources, and resources are scarce for the Palestinians, and also for the local Lebanese NGO’s who support them. There are many remarkable, highly educated, very intuitive, courageous people working with the Palestinians in Lebanon.
In addition to the many Palestinian communities, there are estimated to be a million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Most of them live with host families or, if they have the resources, are renting homes. Many are living in the Palestinian camps. Lebanon is a tiny country; in March I wrote about the impact of increasing umbers of Syrian refugees into Jordan, which is buckling under the pressure. The same can be said for Lebanon. UNHCR is trying to meet the many needs (complex health care needs, mental health needs, basic needs), but the needs outweigh the abilities or resources of any single agency or country. Bluntly, its time for the West to ease the burden of the humanitarian crisis that is growing on a daily basis in the Middle East. I recently read that many Syrians are being denied asylum status in the European Union; there doesn’t appear to be any movement to resettle the Syrians yet. I do know there are practical considerations in any countries resettlement numbers and demographics, and, I also think there is a lot of politics and fear that determines who gets refugee status, where, and when.
Many of the Syrians prefer to go home, and are waiting to go home. But until there is a sincere and concerted effort by the global community to intervene (which I do not condone on a consistent basis) in this clearly long-term and horrific conflict, there is no home for the Syrian people to return to.