Monthly Archives: May 2016

The Dispensary

Posted By Scott Campbell
May 5, 2016
Grace and Liza

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.

DSCF2081Grace 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.”

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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.

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Conflict, Government and an old Volvo

Posted By Scott Campbell
May 4, 2016
Father Walid

It’s been a long day and we’re not even at dinner yet. I’m sitting in my room overlooking a fairly contemporary but almost completely empty and dirty high rise. We have a couple of hours before we walk a few blocks to have dinner with seminarians from Syrian, Lebanon and a few other countries. It will be the capstone on a day filled with teaching on Lebanese history, government and conflict. It’s also the day I found a sweet old Volvo.

We started our day at the Near East School of Theology (NEST). Dr. Sabra, President of NEST gave us an overview of the geopolitical forces that have been at play in the region over the last 150 years. Casually, almost throwing the comment away, Dr. Sabra introduces our team to two ideas that will emerge as a surprising theme over the course of the day as we visit various partners. I think you will find these themes surprising as well. The ideas introduced to us where 1) Western democracy is not well suited for the Middle East, and 2) it’s important for Christians to remain in the region.

Whether or not you’ve thought deeply about these ideas is really irrelevant because if you’re like me, your views of the Middle East have already been shaped by a Western view of what’s best for these people caught in conflict. If you’re like me, when you hear about conflicts in the Middle East, you think “get out!” I also think things like “if dictators can be overthrown and a true democracy could be established, that would be the foundation for building a better future for countries like Syria.” It seems both these responses of mine are counter to what would be truly helpful. According to those teaching us today, it’s in fact the very opposite of helpful.

Our lesson in Near East geography and history

One of our sessions today was with Father Walid, a Catholic priest from Syria. He and his volunteer crew of 16 have been distributing material resources from MCC and other NGOs to over 2,000 families in rural areas in the western part of Syria. He’s a quiet, unassuming man who doesn’t speak English. Another MCC partner translates for him as he shares with us details of his work. At one point he stops, clearly taken with emotion. He swivels his chair so his back is to us, taking deep breaths and gathering himself in order to continue. When he is ready to begin again, he makes clear that his primary work is not simply material help but rather to “bring hope and be with the people.” When asked to share an illustrative story that demonstrates the impact his work and the resources from MCC are having, he replies “every family is a story.” And I think, “of course they are. Why would l think anything different?”

“When asked to share an illustrative story that demonstrates the impact his work and the resources MCC are having, he replies ‘every family is a story.’ And I think, ‘of course they are. Why would I think anything different?'”

My family has different stories than yours, doesn’t it? Our stories wouldn’t suddenly become homogeneous just because we face the same conflict. The fighting that these families are caught in robs them of many things, but it doesn’t rob them of their story. These families were living their lives in a stable and prospering country. They had plans for the future and they were working hard to build the life they imagined for themselves. This is no different than my own life. I, too, live in a stable country with my family, working hard, with plans for my future. The difference is, a war broke out in Syria, not Canada, and now all that these families had is lost. I play out in my mind a scenario where my life and my family is disrupted by conflict and I’m surprised how hard it is for me to comprehend the idea.

Near the end of Father Walid’s time of sharing, I ask him what one message he’d like our team to carry back to Canada. The answer was again surprising. “Call the governments of the world to act with a conscience.” This is a man dealing daily in the muck and mire of the largest humanitarian crisis since WWII and he still has the capacity to see the big picture.

MCC’s vision statement says that we “envision communities worldwide living in right relationship with God, each other and creation.” I feel that for the first time since I started working at MCC just over three months ago, I got a glimpse of what that vision might look like.

Oh, I almost forgot the old Volvo. I’m a fan of this particular car maker and when our bus pulled up to one of our stops today, I was immediately drawn to the faded blue wagon parked on the corner. Not the most beautiful specimen, but it’s my first Middle Eastern Volvo experience. See below and I think you’ll agree, it doesn’t get much better than Volvo.

The old Volvo

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