A Five Weeks Christmas (Raquel)

It makes now three weeks and an half that I am back in Europe. And I try to look back, to those five weeks in Lebanon, as if they were not a dream; but this is hard, sometimes. There are things that we pass through and that touch us in such subtil ways, deeply, and they stay hidden in us… And then we have to force to think, to re-live, to remember, to discover them.

I went to Lebanon with small big words and big dreams deeply scratched on my mind – Peace, testemony, educational activities, inter-religious dialogue… When we arrived, the meeting of this new “system„ of society, balanced upon the division of sects, made the word Reconciliation to stand out, big, pointing a way. And then, slowly, I understood how the small big word Peace was so easily in contradiction, in that place, with other small big word – Justice. And I started to realise how I was naife, thinking I could understand that reality, and judge it, and solve it, through my own perspective. I understood how, as an european, I was there so naive, and inevitably so powerful. And then how was it fair that I had the right to be in a place just because I wished to (when any syrian and and lebanese person around would not have that luck), and to think I could do something there when, actually, I understood nothing of what was going on?

From the pictures on TV, back home, I built an image of a place, and of a people, and of a situation, and I created on my mind the image of a beautiful and touching Christmas, spent maybe in a tent, sharing a meal and that evening with syrian refugees. Then, when our Christmas was spent in the confort of the Peace Center home, between us and other volunteers, I was a bit disapointed… And then I came down to reality, and I discovered, little by little, that, this year, my Christmas didn´t took place in just one evening, but I had, instead, a five weeks Christmas! Five weeks of a slow and surprising discovery of a place, of people, and of a reality, the softening of judgement and fixed points of view, and a light that slowly slowly started to shine on other ways of understending, and other ways of being present. And this could not happen in just one night.

The tea in the tents arrived, yes. Not as a big event for Christmas eve, but as daily simple invitations, where the time togheter was the most precious gift. Without big actions, without material things or even a fluent conversation that we could share, I discovered how the most important, there, is to share a presence, a being, a time. And I was surprised, and very touched, how we were welcomed everywhere with such joy, trust, simplicity, generosity, for the simple wish of people to share their time with us.

The old church in Bqerzala always felt a bit empty of people during our prayers, and, once more, I slowly discovered that, in that village, with so alive religious traditions, a Taiye style prayer was not a major need, and it was either not up to us to come and spread an ecumenical message. Again, our simple presence was seen as a big gift, I believe, and, withouth realizing, just our being there was a testemony enought of reconciliation, somehow. I think so. This was told to us by some of the youth of the village in the evening of our last prayer: that it was for them very important that us, as european volunteers in the Peace Center, were willing to meet them and the population of Bqerzala, that we came to meet all, and not just the syrian refugees.

In the same way, if we thought we didn´t give too much to the syrian people – as we were lacking the language, or an organized educational program, or even time – the truthfull “Thank you„ of Abu Abdalla, in the end, made me realize that, again, our being there was maybe more important for some people than I would ever supose. Maybe… I believe so. And it was in the beauty of this meetings, by its simplicity, that I could find God everyday – in all people, on their diversity, the same simple and genuine welcome, the same love.

In the end, the time felt to short…

Finally, if I lived all this, I didn´t live it alone. Our small community was like the safe rock through all the way, and this “five weeks of Christmas„ were the most special and beautiful because they were shared on a daily community life. Each question, each dificulty, each joy, was lived togheter, given to others, suported by the others… And each day started and finished as well on this shared prayer, on this common nourishing of Gods love. And I am so thankful for that, to Maria, Julia and Rafaela, for having lived with met this Christmas, that would not make sense to be lived alone…

Now back to Europe I remember all this with joy, I thank everyone who made this way with me – the girls, Taize and brother Leo, Relief and Reconciliation and Friedrich, everyone I met in Lebanon, and everyone I left back home – and I wonder how to don´t stop this way… How to keep alive all this moments on my life back to Europe… I wonder what will come next!

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“Keep the flame of hope alive” (Rafaela)

You know nothing when it comes to the Middle East. We, Europeans, know nothing. This was something we heard a few times during our stay in Lebanon. And I remember it very well. Yes, it is true that we don’t know much about the Middle East, Lebanon or Arab culture. But it is not true that we know nothing at all about them. Nonetheless, walking around Lebanese villages, we look a bit, naive, silly and touristic. But I think it is a good sign, it shows that we are curious to see, to learn and to know how thing are here. For me, it was something very new, I’ve never been to the Middle East before. I never had any knowledge of Arab culture or history so I was really curious. I was very happy to learn a lot of things from the people we met.

During our stay I got really inspired by the kids we worked with. They don’t live in very good conditions but they simply accept things the way they are, or maybe they just don’t know any better, which is very sad. Because of the language barrier, I couldn’t really talk to them, but we did connect, having fun together during class or recreational activities and they always seemed very happy. They just make the best out of it, as children do in general, with joy and love.

It is heart breaking when you look into their big and beautiful eyes and think about what the future is holding for them. Nothing, the prospects for a successful future for them here in Lebanon are very small, unless they are lucky enough to have their families resettled to another country. Even if the war in Syria stopped now and they were able to go back to their homes, they would find their houses in ruins, their home cities destroyed. It all seems very hopeless. And that is why we, and also the other volunteers, were or still are there. ‘To keep the flame of hope alive’.

I feel very enriched by the encounters with the kids. They reminded me again how important it is to love. At first to love yourself, and when you feel this strong and beautiful love inside, start to spread it, start to share it with others. You don’t have to change the world. But you can do simple things, like sharing joy and fun with others. Or sometimes it is enough to be only a shoulder to lean on, or an ear to listen. I believe that everyone is able to show this little gestures of love. It is a choice everyone has to take. And it starts very deep inside every person.

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Also, it was so nice to meet the local Lebanese community. It took time to reach them. But with time some of them were getting interested in connecting with us. Some young people started to join our prayers in the old church of Bqerzala. I remember some very nice evenings with them at the Peace Centre or at the nice Manaish place (Diner & bakery) in the village. I am very grateful for everything they shared with us in such a simple, natural and funny way.

 

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I would say it wasn’t always very easy to be there, in Lebanon. Often, I felt very frustrated or useless, but the longer we were there, the more I learned and the better I knew how to handle different situations. I am very grateful that I got the chance to participate in this beautiful project. All in all, it was an amazing experience for me, which I will never forget.

 

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Very special thanks to Maria, Raquel, Julia, Friedrich, R&R Lebanon, the Taizé Community, Brother Leo, Samer, Abby, Johnny, Michael and all the people we met during our journey. Also to you, the readers of our blog.

Inner beauty through shades of misery, Journeys towards the discovery of each other and Joy of sharing and living in community (Maria)

I remember the night I arrived to Lebanon, with so much enthusiasm and overloaded by information, facts, stories and experiences by Fridrich. Felt so much lucky as he was bringing much light to the actual situation of the country, the political and religious struggles and the reality of refugees, sharing things which we would have never heard otherwise. We have received such updates day by day and learned a lot through it. Still grateful and much impressed by Fridirich’s knowledge, memory and will to share.

I remember the first night and the cold I felt while entering the house and our room and realizing that we’re going to learn how to deal with it. Even if br. Leo and others mentioned it, it shook me up a little, especially when the next morning we went through the village and the refugee children were walking barefoot. Then I knew that gradually this condition will become part of what we share with the people here and it will work out.

I remember the olive trees, the hills covered by rooks and the mystical feeling of an old land which is still so alive through the sounds of many cheerful birds and people. A beautiful country with so many colors and shadows.

Day by day I came to realize and learn little by little how to understand, love and give the best I can, despite of challenges and circumstances.

Inner beauty through shades of misery

Looking back at the people we interact and worked with, the refugees in Bqarzla and Tall Aabba – the children and their families – I have seen so much beauty and strength in them, despite their miseries and I have lots of respect in regards to their struggles in order to develop and keep their dignity. Being present, in a humble way within our limitations, still brought us together and made us able to share, to laugh and to acknowledge each other. I remember how much tea we drank, the google translate conversations, their curiosity and especially their generosity. Maybe I didn’t understand enough and couldn’t listen to their stories, but those simple meetings brought us closer. I remember the New Year’s Eve, as we organized a little celebration for them and with the rush and chaos we experienced, it mattered and it was one of the most special new years that I recall.

The children, their energy and enthusiasm overwhelmed us many times. We had big aspirations but day by day we let ourselves be lead by what they needed and learned how to be with them. We overcame our fears of being ‘not able to teach them something’ or do something ‘very ambitious’ and we came to realize that the space we provided for them was already sufficient – letting them express themselves and be stimulated with little things. Moreover, to be treated with care and warmth and you could see their joy overflowing. For sure they don’t have easy childhoods and lack much of the structure, stability and resources needed for their development and in this context, R&R is trying to be present and offer the best support.

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Journeys towards the discovery of each other

Grateful for Bqerzala community, the youth and all the people within religious contexts that we met as they helped us to understand their culture and they showed kindness and generosity. With little steeps, we came to know each other and with great joy I will remember the young people who were welcoming us in their lives and shared with us in such a genuine and natural way. Both sides we have learned, had time for reflection, shared valuable moments and became friends.WhatsApp Image 2016-12-28 at 12.46.09 (1).jpeg

All religious meetings (Maronites, Orthodox, Baptists and Muslims) brought us closer to the meaning of divinity with so much diversity and expressions of faith. To me, they all speak all the same language but use different words. And we could witness it from the outside, ask questions and make them reflect upon our presence. Much more grateful I am to Taize for giving me the opportunity to further explore, reflect and get closer to the source.

Joy of sharing and living in community

The morning prayers, the sharings, the company of each other, the support and permanent feeling of communion was there and it feels that it was the center of what we lived in Lebanon. The whole experience was built on it and as the structure was strong, we could easily grow in confidence towards our mission. I am very grateful for it and I thank the girls for their presence and the genuine bonds which were created in this time.

And this was Lebanon for me, with small words and gratitude.

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Special thanks to Fridrich and R&R, Br. Leo, Julia, Rafaela, Raquel, Abbi, Samer, Johnny, Michael and all those who were on our way!

The deepest meaning of reconciliation (Júlia – conclusion)

Between Monday and Tuesday the four of us left Lebanon, after five weeks of living the small community. In the next days each one of us will try to write a personal reflection to conclude this experience. Here is mine:

Since we were going into a different culture, from the beginning we had to be humble in many senses. We were often told that we didn’t know anything about Lebanon and the Middle East, that we were too naïve. Many times this was said regarding the relations among religious groups, or also regarding the power carried out by Occident in the region. So we had to find a balance between accepting that we truly didn’t know much about the Middle East and at the same time not losing our believes –believes that peace, reconciliation, trust, forgiveness are good and possible. The fact of having been deeply hurt makes the different groups mistrust one another. Although I can understand it, this was not easy for me to see, especially from the Christians. Listening to Lebanese people talking about themselves -their history, their plural society, the Occidental influence- made me understand peace, reconciliation, trust and forgiveness deeper in their meaning and challenges.

Something similar, although not that hard, happened to us when we wanted to share about Taizé and ecumenism. We quickly understood –and respected- that ecumenism was not in the horizon of the Christian communities we met, and also that for them Taizé was not interesting nor a meaningful point in their path of faith as it is for us. I think we still were a sign for them: a sign of interest and respect for their communities and traditions, a sign of shared faith. In regard to our prayers, we observed that they were not a need for the Christian community that was welcoming us, never came more than five people. However, we wanted to make them significant for those who were coming, and for those who were not but knew that this was happening, and I think we did.

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Another point we had to deal with was the question of giving and receiving, of how we could concretely live solidarity. We often felt powerless and passive, both in the activities or teaching with children and in the visits to families. We knew that presence and being is already important, but this answer was not always satisfying. In another level, I also became more aware of the power relations among countries and peoples and of international aid –UN, NGOs, etc.

All in all, the experience of the small community in Akkar has widened my world. It is not always easy to leave previous ideas behind and let us transform ourselves, but I think that is what we all four did. I have accepted my and our limitations and ignorance, I have been touched by hospitality and faith, I have tried to live simplicity of heart and solidarity. I think that real knowledge comes from the concrete experience, and that knowledge leads to action and hope. So I believe that my hope has grown, that my heart and prayer are now closer to those in trouble and to those divided, and that I am more and more able to live in solidarity.

Last days in Akkar

Our stay in coming to the end and we wish to share with you what we have been doing these last days in Lebanon. It has been a joyful and grateful time, in which we have appreciate some results or achievements of our work here.

On Tuesday 17th we welcomed in Bqerzala Chou, a Chinese friend of Maria who has joined our small community for the last week. She followed with us the usual schedule: classes in Tal Aabbas camp, homework help in the Peace Center and open prayer in the old church of Bqerzala. On Wednesday morning we went again to the Orthodox liturgy to say goodbye to the community there. As other times, they were very welcoming and we had together the first cup of coffee of the day. In the evening we were invited to Toufic’s home. He is a man from Bqerzala who lived in Brazil for five years and speaks Portuguese fluently. We had a nice time with him and his son and two daughters and we could understand a bit more what kind of life a Lebanese family has. Next day we had the chance to meet another family, the one from the only Lebanese kid who comes to the Peace Center for homework help. Beforehand we had welcomed in the house Ilias, a young Syrian man who works with the Orthodox Metropolitan Basilios and who is interested in collaborating with R&R.

Friday was the last playing time with the children of Bqerzala, we wanted to do something especial to say goodbye to them. We painted, danced and ate cake and chocolate. It was a joyful moment, we realized that we got to know each other and shared valuable moments with them and their families. In Tal Aabbas the “good-bye party” was on Saturday morning. We also painted, danced, shared a cake and modeled figures with plasticine. We felt happy because they behaved very well and so we were able to make things that they enjoyed. But at the same time we were sorry because they have to say good-bye to people too often, they receive many volunteers and visits that treat them well but leave after a short time. That day R&R also distributed oil for the stoves to each family of the camp.

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By the midday we were very glad to be welcomed by two sheiks, one of them the secretary of the Akkar Mufti, the highest Muslim authority in the region. They talked about the sense of Islam, the problems their religion faces now because of the extremisms, the living together with Christians, the expectations and realities of Muslims when they go to Europe. They asked us to transmit the experiences we had here with Muslims –experiences of hospitality, openness, sharing from the simplicity- back home. Even though one can presume that they repeated the politically correct speech Occidentals like to hear, we believed in their good will and work for understanding and living together with other religions and for fighting extremisms inside Islam. The sheiks were glad that we went to them, and that meeting gave us hope and clarity about Islam and how to connect with Muslims back in Europe, as well as how to fight against prejudices and misinformation in our countries.In the evening we had our last prayer in the village. We were very happy that some young people from the Mouvement Apostolique Marial came for the first time and sang Maronite songs. Afterwards we gathered at home and had some time together singing and chatting. For most of them it was the first time they were in the Peace Center, and from now they may collaborate in some activities.

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On Sunday we met the Orthodox youth of Halba, the biggest town close to Bqerzla. We were very touched by the fact that they had prepared a full program for us: we first went to Abuna Fouad’s house and met their wife, son and two of the daughters. They told us that we were the most welcome and that we have a home there. Afterwards we drove to the parish, where around thirty children, teenagers and their leaders were waiting for us. The son of the priest read a warm welcome letter and we introduced ourselves and Taizé. They showed us pictures of their activities and sang for us. After that we had a small prayer in the church, where we also shared a Taizé song ad Abuna Fouad talked about the value of diversity. And we finished eating some cookies and drinking tea. They were very happy to have us there, we could see on them the joy of welcoming.

In these moments of leaving we realize that we have built relationships, we have prayed with different people, we have visited quite a lot of the religious representatives and groups of the region, that for some people our interest for them was meaningful. We found God in the diversity as well as in the simplicity of our actions and of those who welcomed us. We are more aware of the complexity of the world and of the big challenge that peace means. We especially are grateful for the opportunity to be here, to build a small community, to pray together, to share from the simplicity and to receive the unexpected when comes to us. In next posts we will share the conclusions we take from this experience.

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Saïda – Bqerzla (Part 3)

On Monday we started in the early morning with a common prayer and breakfast. From 7am children began to arrive and we could see their work in action. The school belonged to the Marists in Rmayleh and was destroyed during the conflicts in the country and not being used for a while. Since their arrival, the brothers renovated part of the building and are using it for several educational projects: homework help, classes for those who are not going to school, for those who will incorporate to school soon, for preschoolers… They hired local teachers and around 340 children and young people go there every morning or afternoon, besides of playing times. After going to all classes to greet the students and the teachers, we said goodbye to the brothers and went to visit the old part of Sidon. First we found the Sea Castel,  built by the crusaders as a fortress of the Holy Land. Then we entered to the Khan El-Franj (“Inn of the Foreigners”), from the 17th century. We visited the souk and bought some spices and tea, but we didn’t manage to go inside the Cathedral of Saint Nicolas. It was built in the 8th century and it has a Greek Catholic part and a Maronite part –the last one is not used anymore. We drank a lemonade in an old café that we wanted to visit because it had one of the last storytellers of the Middle East. The owner showed us the place and explained to us how the storytelling was happening. We entered in a restored traditional house from the 18th century and to an old synagogue that became a normal house.

At the beginning of the afternoon we left Sidon to Beirut. There we went to the seat of Adyan, a foundation that goes beyond the traditional interreligious dialogue: they believe that religions can be and must influence positively the society. They work on different levels –academic research, media, training social leaders in citizenship and diversity- and we attended a meeting with master students. After a presentation of Adyan we had the privilege to listen to two of the founders: Father Fadi Daou, a Maronite priest, and dr. Nayla Tabbara, a Muslim professor. They mainly talked about the salvation of believers of other religions or non believers according to their respective religious traditions. It was very inspiring for us and in the end we could share a bit with Nayla, who was in Taizé in 2015 during the Solidarity Week. After that we went to a Taizé prayer organized in Franciscan chapel. We met Ziad, his son and a few more people. When it was finished we had the opportunity to get to know them a bit more in Agnes’ home –she is a French woman who lives with her family in Beirut and knows Taizé very well. Around 9pm we started our way back to the North, to Bqerzla.

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We are grateful as we had very special days: learnt more about the history and the culture of this region, we have met interesting people and we have enjoyed being together!

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Baalbek – Saïda (Part 2)

Next day, Sunday, we went to a Maronite mass. We were welcomed and invited to have breakfast with Abuna Tony (the priest), who belongs to the Lebanese Maronite Order. There were also some friends of him which whom we could share a bit about Taizé. Afterwards we pass by USPeaK: an organization who  trains social leaders and professionals through English courses and other initiatives, aiming to build democracy, citizenship and peace. The director, Rawan Yaghi, welcomed us and explained that at the moment they work with Syrian with middle and high level of education, instructing them to become English teachers. Close to Baalbek we saw a Palestinian refugee camp –there are 450.000 Palestinian living in Lebanon, a half of them living in camps. In our way to Zahleh, the capital of Bekaa, we passed by many small villages, each one of them belonging to a different confession. We continued by the highway Beirut-Damascus, direction to Syria, until the Jesuits convent of Tanaïl. We had lunch with the community and we visited the farm and the shop they have there – they have as well a park where a lot of families go for walks on Sundays.

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We followed the highway to Anjar, an old town resettled in 1939 with several thousand Armenian refugees escaping from the genocide at the hands of the Turkish. There we could see a stronghold built by an Umayyad Caliph in the 8th century. From the road we saw the Mount Hermon, which straddles the border between Syria and Lebanon, and now is also occupied by Israel –the United Nations have a permanent position there. We stopped to contemplate the Lake Qaraoun. From there we were approaching the Israeli border and we perceived a lot of UN presence. We passed by, among other villages, Marjaayoun and Qlaaya. As the road was quite high in the mountains, we were able to recognize Galilee not far away. We arrived to the borderline, a big wall –there is no crossing point between Lebanon and Israel. Although it was getting dark, we decided to go up to the Beaufort Castel, a Crusader fortress used until 2000. From there we could observe an Israeli settlement and bunkers. Then we drove to Sidon, where we were welcomed by the three brothers working in the Fratelli project: Andrés from Mexico (La Salle) and Miquel and Isaac (Marists). We had supper together with the brothers and a family that came to visit them and we ended the day with a prayer.

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