A ray of generosity: “how can I watch my brothers and sisters in need and cross my arms?"
Within two or so hours of driving north from Beirut, Lebanon, a far distant collection of constructions rises on the horizon.
“Do you see those buildings laying after the sea?”
“Yes”, I reply.
“What you see on the horizon, is the province of Tartus in Syria. We are very close to the border now”, says our guide and driver Bob, who works for House of Peace, a social peacebuilding project within local communities in Lebanon.
During our journey towards the province of Akkar, in Northern Lebanon, I hadn't realised we were reaching the Lebanese-Syrian border. Let alone that we could see, even without touching, the country whose long armed-conflict has triggered the worst humanitarian crisis of our times.
After a brief sight of the Syrian coastline, we leave the road along the Mediterranean Sea and enter the countryside of Akkar, in the direction of its capital city, Halba. Since the beginning of the Syrian War, in 2011, hundreds of thousands of Syrian children, women and men sought refuge and security in the numerous villages of Akkar. According to local organisations, the rural and mountainous Lebanese province, once with 200,000 inhabitants, today shelters an extra 150, 000 Syrians.
The relationship between locals and newcomers can be chaotic, just like the local traffic. Motorists horning constantly and driving on the opposite side of the road signals that we are entering a land in which lines and borders are blurred. A month prior to our visit, in early July 2018, in a remote village of Akkar, after a dispute between Syrian and Lebanese nationals, locals have set fire on a refugee camp, burning 48 tents. Luckily, the fire was contained in time before causing too much damage to the informal settlement.
In the area, there are many fires needing control. Two being early marriage and child labour.
We are on the way to visit a project which offers education to 450 Syrian children and adolescents. One member responsible for the organisation, Sheikh Abo, shelters currently ten Syrian families in his house. For this reason alone, I am very excited to meet him.
The grim reality witnessed on our way, however, dims my enthusiasm temporally. Many of the official and unofficial refugee camps located in Northern Lebanon are set in rural zones, surrounded by olive and pomegranate trees, potato, tomato, and eggplant plantations. Children and adolescents, accompanied or not by their parents, aiming at contributing to the family´s income, work hard during harvesting season, having their services exploited and their fragile bodies broken under the sun.
Before the war, seasonal work in Lebanese plantations was a common practice. The need of workforce, the proximity between the two neighbouring countries rural areas and the porous border encouraged seasonal migration. Syrian men would spend months working in the field, harvesting fruits and vegetables, and then, with the end of the season they would return to their homes in Syria.
With the intensification of the conflict and assaults in rural areas, the seasonal migration morphed, becoming more permanent. Seasonal workers started crossing into Lebanese territory with their families, seeking protection and a new place to call home. Some families set up their tents among olive trees, while others in refugee camps. Some are able to rent garages or houses.
Since there are many legal and political restrictions, including working limitations, Syrians in the country live in a state of instability and insecurity, without feasible prospects. Many families and individuals depend upon local and international organisations to survive. Yet, some of the organisations working in the region face difficulties themselves. The socioeconomic context and legal restrictions reinforce cultural practices that suppress children, such as child labour, and early marriages that disproportionately affect girls.
Sheikh Abo and his collaborators campaign against early marriage encouraging education instead. When necessary, he intervenes directly with the families. As a Sheikh, he takes advantage of his religious authority and reinterprets passages of the Koran which when misunderstood can lead to early marriage. In parallel, the group also presents medical studies in order to prove the physical and psychological harms of early marriage.
During our conversation, it becomes clear that the success of Sheikh Abo´s approach lies in the trust the families have in him.
In one of the Sheikh´s stories, he tells us that in a given evening, he receives a call from Layla, a Syrian student. In despair, Layla confesses her escaping plan. Because her parents arranged her an older fiancé, the girl planned to escape that night before meeting her unavoidable fate. In such cases, girls are perceived as an economic burden to the family, another mouth to feed, and marriage becomes the only thinkable solution to the problem.
Around two weeks before receiving the wedding news, the Syrian girl had attended a meeting with Malala Yousafzai, world-renowned activist, who was in the region motivating other girls to pursue their dreams in education. This meeting strengthened Layla´s will and desire to continue her studies. And this newfound strength propelled Layla to express her fears and plans to the Sheikh.
With wise words, Sheikh Abo asks Layla to wait another day. She agrees and sleeps in her tent that night. The following day, after a long conversation, the Sheikh convinces Layla´s parents to abandon the wedding idea, at least for now.
All of the efforts of the Sheikh, who until 2011 worked as a school teacher in Homs, Syria, revolve around children's rights to education and a decent life. Around 450 Syrian children living in the region now have their rights to education ensured through attending the school Abo helped build.
Besides education, Sheikh Abo also guarantees housing for the Syrian community. When there are no tents left in the camp, he offers his own house, sharing the privacy of his home with others. Back in 2013, when the conflict worsened in Syria, he received many refugees in his home. One night, he and his wife were looking for a place to sleep but couldn't find a single empty spot! So, they knocked on the neighbour's door seeking refuge for the night. On that night, there were 97 women and children sleeping in his house, as he later found out.
Astonished by his hospitality and generosity, I ask him how can he share his home with so many people? With a modest look, he says: “how can I watch my brothers and sisters in need and cross my arms?”
I leave the school but Sheikh Abo’s presence doesn’t leave me. In the dark nights of armed conflict and violence, courageous souls like him illuminate the lives of so many.