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Beginning in Beirut

May 17, 2010
Suitcase and backpack

Packed and ready to go.

All my kit packed.  Check.  Currency exchanged. Check.  Day by day itinerary written for my husband and children.  Check.  100% fit.  Well I hope so.  The day finally arrived, the taxi took me to the airport in the early hours and I joined my merry band of Gulf for Good trekkers; some I knew from the training sessions but many were strangers.  We were all introduced – argh, how would I remember all those new names?  My window seat gave me a great view and as we flew over Syria I looked down on the road that ran along the bare, sand-coloured mountain range and remembered driving along that dusty road and looking at their inhospitable barren splendour.  Then suddenly we were over the mountains and staring down at verdant countryside with pretty dwellings clinging onto the sides of a magnificent gorge.  Lebanon, after Dubai city-life, was a sight for sore eyes; and just as suddenly there was the aqua blue of the Mediterranean lapping along coves and harbours.  As we made our descent we flew parallel to the coast and the beach front housing was slum-like, crumbling and crowded.

Chamoun Mouannes and Brian Wilkie

Chamoun meets us at the airport

Chamoun Mouannes, our guide for the week, was there to meet us and we clambered onto the coach to go straight to the Shatila refugee camp.  Parking was difficult at the airport so we pulled over to get out the gifts we’d brought for the children.  Reema quipped that we could’ve set up a street-side stall.  We went past the Kuwaiti embassy, heavily guarded with rolls of razor-wire on its walls and very soon we were getting out in a chaotic street to be greeted by the ladies from the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund.  After a severe warning to be extra careful when crossing the road and to leave all valuables on the bus we scuttled across the kamikaze traffic and gingerly entered the Shatila area, eyes wide at the stalls lining the streets, the signs, sights and sounds.  Picking our way through blankets spread on the ground covered with, frankly, ancient junk for sale, we entered a bare piece of ground behind a fence with a small memorial in its centre.  It was strangely peaceful in contrast to the street behind us.  The marble epitaph remembers at least 2000 men, women and children brutally killed during the Sabra-Shatila massacres in 1982.   We would discover that the people who live in the camp have learned to live with violence repeatedly delivered against them throughout their lives.

The alleyway leading to Beit Atfal Assumoud

The alleyway leading to Beit Atfal Assumoud

We made our way to the Beit Atfal Assumoud by ducking down a tiny alleyway, power cables and washing hanging above our heads, crumbling masonry to both sides.  We were welcomed by the General Manager, Kassem Aina who founded the centre in 1976 after the Tal El Zaatar seige which resulted in many orphans.  I noticed a boy had just gone into the dentist’s room and we were encouraged to go in.  He was already in the dentist’s chair and gave a huge smile, not fazed at all by the sudden audience of strangers.  The money we have raised will buy portable x-ray equipment so that disabled children who need an anaesthetic for dental work can be treated.  It’s difficult not to get into politics about why these people are in the camp and find life so hard but Mr Aina went out of his way to talk about the humanitarian efforts and their inclusion of all nationalities and religions.  The people who live in Shatila are stateless, cannot own land where they are, have no land to return to, are prevented from entering many qualified professions and have limited access to state education and health care.  While there may be a debate about the causes, there is no doubt that women and children have particularly borne the brunt and just want to live a decent life.  As Fema, one of the teachers said with a smile, “My house was bombed seven times, but we build again.” She also told the tale of hiding her 12-year-old brother in a cupboard so he wasn’t taken away with the rest of the men – it saved his life.”

Amal on her balcony

Amal (which means Hope) on her balcony

We split into groups and were invited into people’s homes.  Amal showed us her apartment (her kitchen did not have any glass windows and was open to the street.  She had lost her husband to cancer and is raising money working as a seamstress to support herself and her son as well as pay off a loan she took out for chemotherapy as she had breast cancer.  She urged us to stay longer and have food and drink but we had to return to the centre.  We passed a sort of cupboard in one tiny corner of an alleyway.  Iman, laughed and chatted with a girl who stood by it.  She had written “supermarket” on the door of her tiny shop.

Beit Atfal Assumoud provides services for orphaned children and those from families classed as hardship cases (often without a main breadwinner).   The children treated us to a lovely display of dancing and then we all painted our hands,  printed them on paper and signed our names.  I noticed one little girl who stood out as a very forceful character – she knew all the moves and sang all the words very loudly.  Her name was Mariam.   A huge spread of food, prepared by the staff of the centre, was laid out on a table.  I felt very humbled and guilty to take it from people with so little, but it was really welcome as we were all very hungry and the food was delicious.  We were given gifts embroidered by ladies of the camp.  Time was running short, but we had promised to contribute our collective labour in some useful way.  We were asked to help put a fresh coat of paint on the wall outside and we all pitched in with scrapers and rollers.

Waing a flag

The children's enthusiasm was infectious

Several boys suddenly appeared and were keen to join in and we had a great time together, even though there was a language barrier for the non-Arab speakers.

We said our farewells and were given goodbye hugs from several of the staff.  We strolled back along the road through the Shatila camp (Susie stopped to buy a pair of ‘Raydan’ sunglasses) relaxed and happy not apprehensive and wary the way we entered.  What a difference a couple of hours there had made – we had been given such a warm and genuine welcome by the community.  And what great motivation for our trek…details of which I will post day by day.

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11 Comments
  1. Michelle permalink
    May 17, 2010 10:45 pm

    Sally – love it you have really captured the day perfectly x

  2. May 17, 2010 10:59 pm

    Hi Sally,
    Wow, what a fabulous start to your trip. I am looking forward to learning more of your trip day by day.
    Take care, Love,
    Petra and Brian
    x

  3. May 18, 2010 9:32 am

    Thanks Sally, that’s a wonderful introduction to your challenge. I think we’re all waiting with baited breath for the next installment! Thanks, Px

  4. May 18, 2010 9:55 am

    Thank you P, M & P – expect most of the next pictures to be very green!

  5. Anna permalink
    May 18, 2010 11:02 am

    Very informative, thanks.

  6. Helen lambert permalink
    May 18, 2010 11:08 am

    Wow, Sally – Wot an experience so far!! Well done you and everyone with you. Good luck for the walk. xxx

    • May 18, 2010 11:50 am

      Cheers Helen. I’m back and have completed the trek – please revisit to hear how the challenge went. Impossible to blog from the mountains as no access to wireless plus very little time (plus Keith left his little notebook at work!). Trying to post a bit everyday as so much to record – have very scribbled notes to decifer and 900 pics to sort.

  7. Rasha permalink
    May 24, 2010 2:22 am

    Hello Sally

    how r u? i am so proud of what you are doing …lebanon is my second country and runs in my veins…..God bless all the children in lebanon and around the world…and God bless u for all what you are doing!!

    Be sure me and million others are right there besides u in support,,,,,keep it up
    Love n Light to u
    Rasha

    • May 24, 2010 7:25 am

      Thanks Rasha. I meant to visit for such a long time and have loved every minute of exploring the country and getting to know the people.

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