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SOS Children’s Village – je suis un pamplemousse!

May 29, 2010
Man on a tank

You couldn’t really miss this one.

I can’t believe our trek is over and I’m really not ready to leave Lebanon yet.  I join everyone on the street level terrace for our final breakfast.  Karen and Lamisse are packed for an earlier departure, Joseph and Mustapha have already left, Gemma meeting us later;  just a week ago I was struggling to remember names now they all seem like old friends.  Everyone I’ve met through Gulf for Good has been the same; although different in outlook and interests, the common-denominator is that all have been motivated by doing something for the good of others – a cliché I know – but it means that there is a ‘niceness’ for want of a better word, about every individual; they are kind, warm people.

We loaded the bags on the bus for the last time and set off out of Beirut.  The streets were manic as ever with cars forming six lanes where there should be three then trying to barge into a two lane carriageway.  It was a long, slow journey mainly through small towns, which became less and less prosperous-looking the further we got from Beirut.  The scenery changed to a huge, flat plateau of green, the Bekaa valley – there were lots of brown signs pointing at side roads to ancient and holy sites.  It would have been pretty, but was trumped by the memory of yesterday’s incomparable views.  The election posters were prevalent in this area too and we passed one image that was hard to miss of a man with a tank.  Maybe Gordon Brown would have done better if he’d adopted this tactic.  There was a mix-up with the itinerary.  We arrived in Baalbek, visited the largest stone in the world (the Hajar el Hibla – the stone of the pregnant woman which is supposed to effect a woman’s fecundity if she touches it) and were given a coffee by Abdul Nabi Al-Afi whose life’s work has been to discover it, excavate it from a rubbish dump and save it from being re-engulfed by garbage, but then we were whisked back onto the bus to go to the SOS Children’s Village.

The kindergarten

Some of the children from the kindergarten

Susie and baby

Susie holding a new orphaned baby

One of the house mothers

One of the house mothers, and her adopted children, who welcomed us to her home

The bus was overheating so we limped through the increasingly poor-looking villages and then found the country lane leading to the charity.  Neat red-tiled rooves could be spotted behind immaculate green vineyards.  The SOS Children’s Village was possibly the neatest, cleanest and most finished place we had seen in Lebanon.  We entered an oasis of calm with a warm greeting from the staff and urged to enter the Kindergarten building a.s.a.p. as the children were waiting.  These tiny tots put on a little display in every classroom we entered.  The children in the French and English rooms wore a picture of a fruit on their heads and shouted out the name with great enthusiasm, “Je suis un pamplemousse!”  In the Arabic class there was another particularly confident little girl Zeinab who stood out (note – always a girl) and she went into the puppet theatre and delivered loud, precise instructions from it then led the class in actions.  One little boy had crashed out and was fast asleep – it had all been too much.  We were then welcomed into the garden where tables and chairs were laid out with pretty table-cloths and decorated with flowers.  Some more children emerged and did a little dance to Arabic music.  One girl was not very happy about doing it and after some gentle encouragement was scooped up into the arms of one of the ‘house mothers’.  The house mothers had also made the amazing spread that was laid out under a pagoda and we gratefully loaded our plates.  Sitting under the shade of the trees, with the children milling in and out, getting to know the people at the SOS Children’s Village while tasting some of the most delicious food we’d eaten was an immense pleasure.  SOS Children’s Villages are an Austrian concept and the founding principle is to give orphaned children a family environment.  Eight children live with a house mother in their own building.  Looking at these clean, well-fed, decently clothed children in this fantastic environment it’s easy to think all is well with the world.  Then you listen to the stories.  One happy, little boy was found when he was about 10 months old, living in the car of a street trader with a man who may or may not have been his father.  The child could only crawl with his arms as the muscles of his legs had not been able to develop.  The turbulent recent past that has affected Lebanon has resulted in orphaned children, but so too have economics and social mores.  A tiny baby (who rewarded Susie’s cuddles with a spew of milk down her top) was one of the many children abandoned by their mothers at birth, possibly for fear of violent reprisals if they are unmarried.  Children are brought up in the religion of their birth parents, “but what if you don’t know it?” we asked.  Then the area that they were found dictates it; the Christian and Muslim areas were quite apparent on our travels through Lebanon.

We all wanted to know more about the house mothers.  Obviously a long-continuity of care is ideal, but some do leave to get married or for other reasons.  However many stay for a long time as the pressure on brides to be perfect exclude many from entering the married state – a small deformity for instance, or even just getting past marriageable age.  It must be hard to bring up eight children but the camaraderie of the women, their gentleness, warmth and close relationship to the children and the almost idyllic village setting must make this a good choice for many.

a collage

A collage showing the names of all the children and their mothers

We visited the houses and the women were proud to welcome us as guests in their homes.  These children whose lives could have turned out so differently are truly blessed.  It would be easy to look at the pristine SOS Children’s Village and conclude that other charities need the money more.

Certainly it was miles away from the crumbling slums of the refugee camp in Beirut.  However, this charity is using the money so well to create a model that would be enviable in any country let alone one where the people (especially children) have seen so much conflict.  It deserves to be supported so it can extend this fantastic care to more children.  The charity looks after them through to adult hood, helping them with education and putting them together with sponsors to help them set up in business.  Often the children grow up and give back by joining the staff.  We visited the two new houses that our money would furnish and planted some trees. Ehab brought a tiny cedar sapling he had bought at The Cedars.  The school bus drew up and the older children got down carrying their school bags on their bags and all dispersed going into their individual homes – it was an everyday scene but the ordinariness of it was poignant.

Ehab planting his cedar sapling

Ehab planting his cedar sapling with audience

We chatted with some of the teachers for a while then it was time for us to go.  Charbel had taken the bus for a quick check at a local garage and it sounded much better as we drove back to Baalbek, through towns with signs solely in Arabic and pictures of Muslim clerics adorning the streets.  Many of the group were keen to get back home and felt that we had done what we had come to do by visiting the charities and successfully completing our trek.  I was pleased that we were able to squeeze in a quick visit to the Roman ruins as I’ve grown to love them since being in the Middle East and had been told many times that the ones at Baalbek were unmissable.  The catalyst for this interest was Jerash in Jordan which had me captivated by its scale and grandeur.  This inspired me to drive into the desert in Syria to the remote and beautiful Palmyra. A privileged visit to Libya in 2009 took in Sabratha (and the extraordinary museum of mosaics), Leptis Magna and Villa Celine (which is closed to the general public and we explored by torchlight).  Baalbek is the largest Roman site dedicated to religious worship originally founded by the Phoenecians in the 1st Millenium BC when they built a temple dedicated to the God Baal.

Views of Baalbek

Views of Baalbek

As we arrived quite late in the afternoon the lowering sunlight on the stones was particularly beautiful and we were practically the only visitors.  There were lots of little stalls on the approach road and a man asked if we would like to buy a Hezbollah t-shirt or cap (how many tourists actually say yes?).  I think the beauty of the place and the unaccustomed inactivity of sitting down for most of the day had an effect on Susie and me and we went into overdrive eager to see as much as we could as quickly as possible, scaling the steps up into the central area as if we were following Chamoun up a slope.  It’s not a large site but the restoration seems well done and the assembled parts demonstrate very clearly the intricacies of the carvings and the elegance that was dedicated to praising pagan gods and then the Christian one – the Temple of Jupiter took over 120 years to complete.  As always when admiring the achievements of the Romans I reminded myself that it was all built with slave labour and the human cost of this beauty would have been in lives.  It was soon time to go and as we walked back to the bus a man approached us trying to sell worry beads.  When I politely refused he dug into his pocket and brought out a handful of real Roman coins.  I was quite taken backm “they should be in a museum”.  He looked at me wryly and shrugged, “no jobs madam.”  We walked on but it’s an awful dilemma.  Secretly I would love to have a Roman coin and the money would help support the man and his family.  We took the road back to Beirut and said goodbye to Chamoun when we reached his village.  He had helped us, through his unconventional approach and love of the countryside, to witness a really different perspective.  I felt we were honoured to have had him as our guide.

Refugee camp

At the edge of the Palestinian camp near the airport

We passed another Palestinian refugee camp of appalling decrepitude near the airport.  I looked into the tiny alleyways and imagined all the lives being played out there.  We found a nice restaurant in the airport and I had an excellent roast beef sandwich – the food in Lebanon had been fresh and delicious but none of us wanted to eat humous for a while!  Meeting up at the departure gate Ehab and Iman showed us their purchases of fruit and vegetables from Goodies in duty-free.  Where else in the world could you buy cherries inside the airport?  Joseph, who is an expert shopper, had found some interesting books and I doubled back to by a copy of a Million Steps by Hana El-Hieri which documents her exploration of the entire Lebanon Mountain Trail. It has some beautiful photography of the trail (to supplement over 900 photographs that I had taken during the week) and one of the guides featured in the book is our own Chamoun (he’s also in pictures of the book signing on their Facebook page).  Joseph and Mustapha are planning to follow in their footsteps.  The book is a great momento of a rewarding, educational, eye-opening, challenging  and life-enhancing trip.

Click on an image to view the images in the gallery larger.

PS A great article published in Emirates Business where Ehab, Naghma and Mustapha express their feelings about visiting the charities.

  1. May 30, 2010 1:17 am

    Hi Sally,

    You must feel sad that your adventure has drawn to an end. I am looking forward to catching up with you on your return and viewing your many photos.

    Safe trip back.

    P & B

  2. May 30, 2010 6:48 am

    Well done Sally – a wonderful account and a fascinating read. What fabulous memories you shall all have of this challenge 🙂 Px

  3. May 30, 2010 8:27 am

    This is the last regular post but I hope it will leave some useful reference for anyone training for a similar type of trek, raising funds for charity or going to Lebanon. I do plan to put some information about kit at some point. It would be so interesting to hear how the Emirati group got on. And I hope this visit to the Lebanon Mountain Trail won’t be my last…so watch this space!

  4. Laila Chandio permalink
    July 18, 2012 4:34 am

    well done are doing such a wonderful job. its a few people on earth who cares / thinks for other people and you are one of them… keep going on.

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