Heart for Lebanon

Before I came to Lebanon, I contacted a Lebanese Christian friend I met the last time we visited Lebanon and asked her: can I come to your church, and can you connect me with any Christian organizations that can use a volunteer for a couple months?

She connected me with Heart for Lebanon, a Christian non-governmental organization that seeks to aid refugees in Lebanon (there are over a million refugees from Syria alone registered in Lebanon, according to United Nations Refugee Agency).

I got to volunteer at H4L’s summer school for at-risk kids two days a week. I had a grand total of three weeks before school let out, but that ended up being a good thing.

It was one of the harder things I’ve done, shall we say 😉

The kids, who go up to about age 11, are instructed in math, Arabic, and English.

All the teachers are young women like me, only a year or two out of university. Jamie, the English teacher, is an energetic woman who used to teach drama. So her gestures are grand and sweeping and she is bright and charismatic. She switches between Arabic and English with ease, saying each sentence in English before translating it into Arabic for the kids.

The only problem is, authority=who can yell the loudest. (for the Syrian refugee children, at any rate, though I have a sneaking suspicion it is true for Arab kids in general. I’m told teachers in Syria hit their students).

They’re not bad kids, they’re just…chaotic. On the first day, Jamie told me, “feel free to speak harshly to them; it’s the only way to maintain control.”

Boy did she ever! But she was right; it was the only way to maintain control (though sometimes barely!) but the kids adore her. The kids adore all their teachers. It’s odd to contrast that with my experiences in the US as a homeschooler. Yelling rarely ever occurred and I teach my classes with that perception. But it just doesn’t wash here.

I want to stress that yelling isn’t necessarily equivalent to abuse here in Lebanon. I intend to do some sort of blog post on the Lebanese people at some point and one of the things that I realized very quickly is that the Lebanese people are very happy to have things out publically, and that’s a cultural characteristic. A big explosion, and then it’s over. Even in everyday life, people talk at a higher volume. I think westerners would be surprised by daily conversation too, and would find it rather stern and blunt—but it’s not usually meant to offend or hurt. That’s just how people are here.

However, I think everyone who knows me realizes that that’s not true of me. I’m not loud and I’m usually pretty polite (“Oh you Americans,” a new English friend I met here in Lebanon told me. “You’re always so polite!”)

So when Jamie asked me to sub for the first two classes of the next day, as she had a dentist appointment, I definitely hid a groan. But sure, I said, figuring that as long as I keep them from hurting themselves it would be okay. I knew anything they learned would be a bonus.

It was awful.

I was yelling so hard that the sweat was falling off my face in fat ugly drops and leaving embarrassing spots on my clothes, and I still wasn’t loud enough. Twenty minutes in, the lady helping me said, “Mind if I do something?”

“Sure,” I said gratefully.

Poor woman pretty much taught the class, restoring discipline in a matter of minutes and drilling the kids on their letters while I stood around and tried to look like I belonged there.

That was embarrassing.

Definitely, definitely not cut out to be a teacher of young kids.

The next class was the oldest class, and my Arabic was definitely not strong enough to carry that one. So I read the English bits while Tamar did everything else.

Few things have incentivized me to improve my Arabic like that experience did. That was really hard. I hate feeling useless like that. I came to help, and didn’t do anything at all beyond just stand there.

I liked the one-on-one stuff though; I always do. I got to work with two older girls on their English in some after-school tutoring. Their names were Nejwa and Yasmeena. They’re both sweet, soft-spoken girls who work hard on improving themselves. The teachers are trying to get them ready to join their own grades in school as quickly as possible.

Nejwa looks like a typical Arabic girl: dark skin, dark hair, and big, soft, dark eyes you can get lost in. She has an adorable baby brother who sometimes came in and rattled around while we were working. He’d giggle and ask questions and so many times I came this close to grabbing him and kissing him. We’d try to include him a bit in the English lessons (“What’s that?” I’d ask, pointing to a picture. “Cat!” he’d answer. “What’s a cat?” In Arabic, he’d answer, “beeseh!”)

But most of the time it was just me and Nejwa for an hour or so together after school. We’d work through a book together, translating the English words back and forth into Arabic and drilling her on dictation and vocabulary.

One day, I sat in on an Arabic class with her and Yasmeena. Both of them smiled at me and their eyes twinkled at our little secret: I can’t read and write Arabic!

In appearance, Yasmeena is the opposite of Nejwa. Everything about her is fair, but like Nejwa, she’s quiet and intelligent and soft-voiced.

(In some ways, the experience has made me nervous about applying to the Peace Corps. I submitted my application and requested a position in ESOL education in Jordan, South Africa, or the eastern Caribbean. It’s a two-year commitment and it provides extensive training in language and other skills as well. That’s why Jordan was my first choice: extensive language training AND two years there? I’d have great Arabic at the end of it. But Lord! If they put me with Arab kids I’ll want to quit for the first six months.)

Lord, please protect these kids and their families. Have mercy on the Middle East, and please God – come quickly!

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One day, I had the privilege of going to the south of Lebanon one day with a Heart for Lebanon medical team from Georgia, USA (of all places!) as a translator (yes, me, with my all of my extensive knowledge of the Arabic language).

All we had was a structure that provided shade. We set up stations for triage, general medicine, dentistry, and pharmacy. All of it was pretty basic (though the dentist had a pretty sweet set-up, with a chair, sterilized tools, and everything). We had antibiotics, vitamins, probiotics, painkillers, and that was about it.

There was a sense of expectancy about the camp as we set up. I thought it was just because we were gearing up for a long hard day, but looking back I realize now that it was an expectancy that God would be at work in sobering ways. We prayed before we started, asking God to work through us to minister both to their hearts and their bodies.

And then they came, and they were so beautiful! They are beautiful. Syrian refugees and Bedouins from the camp on the other side of the road flooded in, men, women, and children of all ages. Most of them were shy, unsure of their welcome with the confident Western men and women who carried themselves so differently. They came so timidly, until we smiled at them and welcomed them to sit down and asked them what they were feeling. Despite being warned against it, I couldn’t help reaching out to touch them (the women, anyway), clasping their shoulder, or running my hand up their arm, or letting them take my hand or hug and kiss me. We’d rarely take more than ten minutes with each one, but they’d walk away with palpable relief and gratefulness on their faces. And really, most of that came from being treated as human beings.

I remember one Muslim lady who was terrified that she had diabetes; she had been so thirsty lately and she’d heard that being unquenchably thirsty was a sign of diabetes. The doctors I was translating for immediately nixed the idea (many of the immigrants work in the fields and it is SWELTERING hot in Lebanon in the summer. Dehydration is a real issue. On top of that, Ramadan fell in July this year.) but we did a blood sugar test and she came back well within normal ranges. When we told her, she nearly cried with relief, taking my hands and kissing them. “We have no money for the doctor,” she said, “and I was so afraid! I’ve been self-medicating – trying not to eat sugar and stuff like that – and so worried. Such flutterings in my stomach, here, feel!” She grabbed my hand and held it against her rib cage.

I couldn’t feel anything, but I didn’t tell her that. Teresa said that’d be from dehydration, tell her to drink more water.

“Don’t be afraid any more!” we told her. “Just drink lots of water, as much as you want and more!” and she walked away to get the vitamins the doctor prescribed with a spring in her step. All from a simple blood test. Truly, we are privileged to live in these days.

We prayed with nearly every one of them. We’d ask them for permission first, and then proceed. At first, Beverly or Teresa prayed for them in English, but then they started asking me to pray.

I was scared, at first. God, my Arabic isn’t good enough to talk to You in it and to express the depth of my heart for these people! Especially in front of them!

“Just say something about Jesus the Messiah – Yasou el Massih – and how He loves each of them and can heal them,” said Teresa and Beverly, the doctor and nurse I was assigned to.

“Okay.”

Lord, at least You’ll know what I mean. Please God, give me the words in Arabic! Please let them understand what I’m praying for them!

Most of the time, my prayers ended up being a mixed-up jumble of Arabic. I just tried to make it obvious that I was talking specifically to Jesus the Messiah, asking Him to show each one how He loves them, how He knows them personally, and how their hurts hurt Him too.

But Lord, I know You know what I meant. You know all of them by name, and all their ailments. Please, in the name of Your Son who came to earth and died and rose again for every one of them, break into their lives and save them!

I remember one old woman who came to us. I don’t remember what was wrong, but the doctor, Teresa, wanted to do a blood sugar test on her, just to be sure. The doctor asked me to get her permission, because it required a needle. At first, she was hesitant. “I don’t like needles,” she confessed. “I’m the same,” I told her. “But this will tell us definitely if you have diabetes or not.”

So she agreed, drawing her scarf up over her mouth and covering the blue tattoos that decorated her chin. She was Bedouin. I kept up a steady ramble for the ten seconds it took to do the test. I remember her because she looked away, and I do that too. It’s not that the needle hurts that much, but watching it slide into your skin is gross and unsettling.

There was the young girl who came to us with a sick little boy in her arms. I could tell she was young—I thought she was probably closer to 16. She was the boy’s mother. The doctor was more aware than I was. She asked me to ask the girl’s age.

14. I met a 14-year-old mother. I was so shocked I asked the girl to repeat it, thinking for sure I’d misheard. To her credit, the doctor didn’t bat an eyelash, but my heart broke for the girl. At 23, I’m only just beginning to feel like maybe I wouldn’t be as incapable a mother as I’m afraid I’d be. At 14, the most important thing in my life was what’s the next book I’m going to read! Please God, protect her and her child and let there be real love in that family!

Another woman came with her two girls and pushed the older one in front of us. “She doesn’t hear. Please, can you help? We’ve taken her to a doctor and he told us that she needs tubes put in her ears and her tonsils should be taken out.” She handed us a packet of x-rays. Teresa verified the diagnosis but we only had the most rudimentary supplies—the camp was in no way set up to perform operations like that. I hated having to explain that to her, that we just couldn’t do it here and she’d have to go to a hospital.

She shook her head. “We just don’t have the money. Is it life-threatening if we have to wait?”

“No, but the longer you wait, the more the quality of life will be compromised. She’ll get headaches, infections, dizzy spells, and her hearing will worsen.”

She was disappointed, but I think she already figured out that we couldn’t do it here. She gestured to the fussing baby in her arms. “When we were there, the doctor listened to her breathing and said that when she grows up, she’ll need the same thing, but how we’re to find the money, I don’t know.”

“I’m so sorry! But for what it’s worth, the surgeries they need are easy. I had my tonsils taken out when I was little, and I didn’t even spend a day in the hospital. And my dad had tubes put down his ears, and he didn’t stay overnight either. So don’t be afraid on that account at any rate; they’re easy surgeries.”

Then a bit of relief came into her eyes. “That’s good to know. That’s better than nothing.”

That afternoon, I went out to them to do two house calls in the camp itself. Ramshackle structures made of cardboard and scraps, there’s little light and electricity in these tiny little one-room homes. And yet the humanity, the good-humor and hospitality, that shone from those faces, was just as recognizable on those brown faces in their hijabs and abayas as it is on my own mother’s face.

My Arabic didn’t hold up at our first stop, where we saw an old man who must have been a hundred. I had to go and get the driver/photographer (really, they didn’t need me; he was much more able than I to translate.) to relate Teresa’s instructions to them. He had the only mattress in the house, which was just one room with a little cove to the side for the “kitchen.” He was so frail—tiny, stiff, and tired, with not a whole lot of comprehension in his eyes, which rested wearily on Teresa’s face as she instructed him to follow her pen with his eyes or to breathe deeply. But oh, when the photographer asked him to smile the most darling good-humored glint came into his eyes and he lifted his hands in thanks. There it was again. Humanity, made-in- God’s-image-ness, irrepressible and unmistakable and oh so beautiful and relatable.

For the second call, we followed a gangly little girl back into another dark, barren one-room house, where her mother, an overweight woman in dark robes, sat cross-legged on the floor within the circle of light the open door threw into the room. For this one, I was able to translate, the words flowing with reassuring ease into my mind. “From here to the door, I get out of breath,” she told me. “My heart pounds and pounds like I’ve been running for miles, and I ache everywhere. Especially my back.”

So Teresa tested her, guessing right away that blood pressure was the issue. Sure enough, hers was so high she was at risk for a stroke. “Please take care of yourself, aunt!” I told her, and she blessed us for coming out to see her.

The people in the camp have nothing. They don’t have two cents to rub together, and yet: they’re more real, more alive, somehow, than the other people I’ve seen here. They’ve gone through so much, and yet they still smile.

Educated upper class Lebanese people are all wary of the refugees flooding into Lebanon. To be honest, it’s not entirely without cause. Lebanon’s economy is not particularly well equipped to handle the influx. Prices are going up, and water and electricity (both of which are a bit short) have to stretch farther the more people come in. There’s bad blood between Syria and Lebanon. In addition, many Lebanese non-Muslims are eager to disassociate themselves from Islam as much as possible, especially as Muslim extremists terrorize the Middle East.

The attitude makes me uncomfortable. Before I went to England, I was warned that it was dangerous because of the many Muslims living there. That turned out to be a load of piffle. I met a number of generous, kind-hearted women who follow Islam. They were constantly serving others and they really loved their husbands. They are my friends (you can find stories about them in previous entries.) Because of them I’m not comfortable with the way many Lebanese perceive Islam, especially since fear, which I suspect is mostly unwarranted, prevents loving, which prevents bridging gaps and probably the extremism that is the cause of the fear in the first place. (I mean, think about it. The more one feels isolated, the more strongly one will cleave to what comforts him, or what gives him his identity, or what he loves—and that can easily go to extremes.)

One more story: a youngish man with sad, bright eyes came in for his little son and himself. His son was having tummy troubles. So Teresa asked him about the boy’s bathroom habits. “Wallah,” he told me, “I don’t know. My wife takes him to the bathroom.”

So he came back later with his wife and she was the most beautiful woman I’ve seen in Lebanon yet. Big, blue-green eyes in a milk-and-coffee colored face and a warm, bright smile. She was tall, with a sturdy graceful figure, wrapped up in pretty, feminine Muslim wear. I couldn’t stop staring at how lovely she was.

So we figured the little one out and turned to the man. Teresa (did I mention the entire medical team was from Georgia?) looked at the chart he handed us. “He has some psychological issues,” she said, looking over at me. “Because of some sort of deformity that keeps him from working.”

Oh dear.

He sat down tiredly and smiled hesitantly at me.

“Get him to talk to you,” said Teresa. “Ask him what’s the problem.”

So he showed me his hand. It didn’t seem like a major deformity to me; his thumb was bent inwards toward his second finger, but it kept him from working.

Of course, to an Arab man that’s misery. It’s his job, his God-given duty to provide for his family. As a refugee, this man doesn’t exactly have a lot of job options beside manual labor.

“I’m so depressed about it,” he told me. “My wife has to work for us and wait on me while I just sit around doing nothing all day, being useless. My whole body aches with it.”

“Tell him that in America we don’t look down on people with deformities; it’s not a problem, and it shows that his family really loves him to support him.”

We’re not in America! I thought, half-angry and half-amused. So I stressed the “it’s not a problem and it shows your family loves you” bit more than the American bit. We couldn’t do anything for him, as it was deformed from birth, but prescribed vitamins and suggested drinking more water. But his sad eyes and his wife’s beautiful ones stand sharply in my memory. Please God, comfort that man!

Comfort all the refugees, Lord. Break into their lives and let them find their peace and love in You. Please, God, have mercy on the Middle East!

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