May 5, 2016
You haven’t lived until you’ve started your day with a game of pickle ball next to the Mediterranean Sea at 7 AM. Okay, I’m sure your life could feel quite complete without this unique experience, but that’s how I started my day today. The Lebanese man who wrangled us into to playing was eager to show us how to play this Lebanese version of an elementary school game. It seems it’s quite the social activity for some living in Beirut, as is backgammon and smoking a hookah. I did alright. And I’d know if I wasn’t because our “coach” was in the habit of yelling “no, no, no, no” every time any of us missed a shot. Pink sunrise, warm Mediterranean breeze, and only a little understanding of what my day will look like once I’m finished my game of pickle ball.
What I know is that today we are visiting Our Lady Dispensary (OLD). It is a project run by the Middle East Council of Churches, one of MCC’s partner organizations. We travel by minibus to the neighborhood of Sabtieh. Here, on the second floor of yet another non-descript concrete building, is a small clinic run by two women: Grace, a trained Lebanese social worker who spent much of her adolescence in Montreal, and Liza, a nurse. MCC is an important partner for OLD. This neighbourhood clinic focuses on providing trauma care, simple medical services and health education to Iraqi and Syrian refugees as well as Lebanese citizens who cannot otherwise access similar care.
Grace is radiant. She obviously loves her work and the people who count on her for help. Over the next several hours, Grace is our doorway into stories of despair, hurt and fear but also stories of redemption and hope. This particular neighbourhood is filled with Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Renting a flat is less expensive than in other areas of the city. The Dispensary works with 1,000 refugee families each month. There is another 700 on their waitlist. And these are only those that receive regular, scheduled care. The Dispensary also treats walk ins. They “punch above their weight” as they say. MCC donors across North America, including those in BC, are financing much of the work at OLD. Donors help provide health programming, hygiene kits, and have allowed Grace and Liza to increase their support staff. Now assisting them is a Syrian refugee woman who has years of experience doing similar support work back in Syria. Grace loves MCC and knows it’s the donors, people like you, who keep her clinic open.
Grace has invited a mother of five to visit with us. She is an Iraqi refugee and she brings three of her five kids with her. The other two are older and out and about today. Sharing her story, we learn of the fear she experienced as she and her family were forced to flee their home as the Islamic State group pushed into their town. She shares stories of hardship as she and her family exist is limbo in Lebanon, surviving day by day in a single room apartment they can’t afford in another non-descript building up the street. Her husband finds work where he can. Her kids attend a special school for Syrian refugees that is more informal than it is focused on advancing education. She is tired. You can see it on her face. What’s confounding to me is that other than the weight of her experience that is visible in how she holds herself, she could be walking down the street with her kids in any suburb in BC and you wouldn’t think twice about her situation.
And that’s just it. A refugee is nothing more than a person forced to flee. Some of the people that got out of Syria and Iraq were the middle class, the people with money to buy their way to Lebanon. They had middle class lives, with middle class dreams, both of which were uprooted completely when the Islamic State group stole everything from them. So now they are displaced. Still entirely middle class, but with nowhere to go.
“And that’s just it. A refugee is nothing more than a person forced to flee.”
Her three kids steal the spotlight. Her eldest says she wants to be a singer when she grows up. Grace encourages her to sing a song for us. Reluctantly she agrees. When she’s finished, she breaks down in heaving sobs. She’s one of the kids that Grace works with in the Dispensary’s trauma care program funded by MCC. Emotions are tender for this family and are concealed just below the surface of friendly interactions. Singing this song is too much. Mom is crying. Daughter is crying. Grace places a gentle hand on her shoulder as if to say “I see you and you are safe here.”
Later, when we are having lunch together at the Dispensary, I quietly point out to the aspiring pop singer that we have the same shoes on – Converse All-Stars. Hers are red and mine are blue, but it reminds both of us that we have more in common than either of us realized at the start of the day. She must be just a little younger than my son and I wanted to make her laugh.
The rest of the day was spent visiting Beirut’s famous Blue Mosque as well as some very old churches. We had lemonade with mint (a Lebanese tradition) and discovered roman ruins. We ended the day having dinner overlooking the sea at a restaurant that felt very western but served delicious Lebanese food. I can’t get enough of the fried cheese.