Bqerzla- Baalbek (Part 1)

Last weekend we took some time to visit Lebanon. For three days we travelled around the country by car, thanks to Friedrich which organized this trip and was our guide. We left home on Saturday morning, in direction to the Lebanon Mountains, which can be seen from Bqerzla. Our first stop was in the ruins of the old monastery of Saint George and Saint Daniel, close to Qoubaiyat. What is curious there is that there are two churches next to each other, it is not known with what purpose. Few kilometers after we entered the Bekaa region, mainly were mainly Shia Muslims live. Among the Christians, the Greek Catholic are the majority. The shia has historically been the poorest group of the country, and we could feel that something was different: people looked more at us, the houses were more simple.

The road goes across the mountains until arriving to the Bekaa valley, at the end of which in clear days you can see Homs. We continued to the South through the valley, between the Lebanon Mountains that we had just crossed at the West and the Anti-Lebanon Mountains at the East. These constitute a natural border with Syria. In the villages we passed by, we often saw portraits of ‘martyrs’ who have recently died in the Syrian war. One of the biggest towns in the valley is Hermel, where we could see an ancient pyramid from the  1st century BC. In the afternoon we arrived to Baalbek, the native town of Saint Barbara, very venerated in Lebanon. There we visited the Heliopolis, the ruins of the temples of Jupiter, Bacchus and Venus. It was a roman construction that later became a Christian basilica and a mosque.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In the middle of our stay

After New Year and the end of holidays, we have started to live in a more regular rhythm. It also coincides with the second half of our stay here –we passed the midway in the middle of last week. On Thursday 5th we visited Tripoli, the largest city in northern Lebanon and the second-largest city in the country. There we had lunch with Ziad Fahed, a Theology professor in Notre Dame University of Lebanon and a good friend of Taizé brothers. He explained us a bit more of history of the country, and reassured us when he said that we shouldn’t believe any foreigner who pretends to understand it. He shared with us a bit of his projects about interreligious dialogue and then we could visit Tripoli: the immense souk (market), the Citadel de Saint-Gilles –a castle built in 1105 and used during the Crusades-  and the best sweets shop. Back in Bqerzla we had our prayer in the church village and we ate “manaeesh” –a kind of Lebanese pizza- with some young people of the parish.

wp_20170105_060

The Epiphany was a day full of surprises. On the way back home from church, we met by chance the director of the public school. He offered to show us the building and then we saw some other places in Bqerzla. We ended the morning having breakfast in the house of a Lebanese family. At 13h the Syrian children came in the Peace Center for the playing time that they have every Friday. They made their own King’s Crowns and had some games.

Next day we visited the public school again, that time the children were there. Some of the Syrians that come to the Peace Center were very happy to see us there. The director told us that they are at the same level that the Lebanese students, and that they get along well. Afterwards we took advantage of the good weather and went for a walk on the mountains around Bqerzla and other small villages. We noticed that each one of them was from a different religion or Christian confession: Muslim, Greek Orthodox or Maronite. Before lunch we welcomed in the Peace Center two young boys who usually come to our prayers, and we showed them the video about Taizé. They said they would like to live this experience. In the afternoon we attended the ordination of Fouad, the deacon of Bqerzla.

wp_20170106_015

Later on we had few minutes to talk to the leaders of the youth groups of the parish. We talked a bit about Taizé and our work in Lebanon. Some seemed interested, but in general we find difficulties to discuss about ecumenism and interreligious exchanges with both young people and adults. We feel very far away from each other when introducing these topics. That evening a Marist and a La Salle brothers arrived from Saïda, a city in the South of Lebanon, where they have a common mission with refugees. We prayed and had dinner together at home. They came from Spain and Mexico here a bit more than a year ago, and also have met Taizé brothers. We could share about their work and life in Lebanon.

On Sunday 8th we were invited to meet the youth of the Orthodox Church of Hmeira. We first went to greet the old priest. Then they drove us to an old monastery of Saint George built in the rocks, now a bit damaged. We actually found a group of about 40 children, from 6 to 13 years old, and their leaders. They sang for us in a cave, then we went to the current church and talked a bit about Taizé. After that we played some games and we finished with some tea and sweets. We felt very welcomed and we will come back there tomorrow.

img-20170108-wa0003

On Monday we started the classes in Tal Aabbas camp. We are going there every morning to help the children doing their homework –they go to school on the afternoons. They have most of the subjects in French, but they don’t really understand. We teach them basic French, Maths and anything we can. The plan is that from next week on they will have a fix teacher, as they have the children in Bqerzla. These last ones taught us how to make Syrian tea –with a lot of sugar!- and we drunk it together.

wp_20170104_031

On Tuesday we were invited to have lunch with the Orthodox Patriarch, that we had already met. He came with his brother, his sister in law and his niece. They have Syrian origins but have lived most of their lives in Saudi Arabia and the Arab Emirates and they have travelled a lot, so we could know their vision of the Middle East and the relationships among religions.

Our days now are fuller, we know more people and we feel free to experience what every moment can brings to us. We continue to pray together and the young people that join us share more and more with us. We are preparing activities for the children to play tomorrow and a trip around Lebanon… we will update you with the next days!

 

Starting the new year

At New Years Day we organized the first prayer in the old church of Bqerzala. Unfortunately our invitation did not reach as much people as planned. In the end there were the four of us, Friedrich and four boys from the village. The atmosphere was very nice and the acoustic of the church helped a lot to make the prayer beautiful.

img-20170102-wa0007

During the next days we continued inviting people to the prayers which should become regularly.  We are trying to integrate the local people as much as possible. We practiced some Taize Songs and the Our Father in Arabic. The Bible reading is read in Arabic by locals who participate in the prayer. The rest is read in French. We are looking forward to organize this prayer regularly and we are very grateful for the opportunity to use this unique church.

These last days we have met representatives of the different Christian Churches of the region. On Thursday 29th we went to the seat of one of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchs of Antioquia, the Metropolitan Basilios of Akkar. He had just came back from Syria, where he goes often. He welcomed us in his office and we talked about our countries, how he sees the situation in Syria and the Lebanese and European societies. He has already been to Taizé and was visited by two brothers this December. When we asked to the Metropolitan what could be told to the young people gathered in Riga, he said that “now more than never, the young people in Europe have to live the message of the Gospel and to keep the flame of Jesus Christ burning in their hearts”. We found in him an authentic man of faith, who says what he thinks and enjoys sharing his opinions with others. We also spent some time with him today, after joining the Greek orthodox community for their liturgy.

As we are interested in meeting young people from the Churches, Metropolitan Basilios recommended us to talk to Abuna (Father) Nectarius, the Greek orthodox priest responsible for the youth. On Friday 30th we visited him in his house, where we shared a tea with his wife and two of their three sons, 16 and 11 years old.  We had a pleasant talk and we liked very much that Serge, the teenager of the family, shared with us his vision of the youth from here. We were especially happy about a project where he participated making Syrian and Lebanese children play and do some activities together. He seemed very aware of what surrounds him. We agreed with Abuna Nectarius that we will meet three groups of young orthodox in different villages around and do an activity for the children of the Church.

We also had contact with the Baptist Protestant Church yesterday, when a friend from Bqerzla invited us to the prayer they have in Miniara every Wednesday. We were very well welcomed by that small community –it was around 12 of us in the prayer. Most of them spoke English and/or French, so they translated some things of the prayer for us. Afterwards we were all invited to drink tea in the pastor’s house, where we could have a fluent conversation about their Church and our experiences here. Unfortunately they don’t have any group of young people, but we hope to keep in touch with them.

img-20170104-wa0020

The meeting with Syrian children is still fulfilling in a beautiful way some hours of almost all our days. Beautiful moments, but very tiring, thought!

Last week -the last week of vacations of the children- we ran after a ball in a football game, we did yoga sessions, we played Uno and danced in the Tal Aabbas camp; we played and sung in the noisy, chaotic and alive playing time in the Peace Center, on Friday afternoon.

wp_20161230_014

img-20161230-wa0004

And we decided to finish the year with a big, beautiful challenge –a new year party for all the Syrian refugee families of Bqerzala. During the day, the distribution of invitations, cooking, cleaning the house, preparing everything… At 6 p.m., the welcome of about fifty people, with whom we could not share a common language. Between some trials to seat with the mothers and fathers, to speak as we could and share tea and snacks, between playing with the kids, and a shy sharing of some music from our countries, this party happened, somehow. And we finished 2016 with the feeling of having lived a 1h30 beautiful odyssey. We did our best, but still we feared that something could have failed in our welcome, to such a big number of people, and form such a different culture. But the invitations and welcoming smiles we received in the following days proved that people were happy touched by our good will.

whatsapp-image-2017-01-05-at-19-56-45

School started yesterday. We try to discover now – both in Bqerzla and Tal Aabbas – how to help the children with the homework, mainly with French learning. A new challenge, which we just started to discover…

wp_20170104_032

The visits to the Syrian refugee families in Bqerzla and Tal Aabbas are another meaningful part of our experience, both in receiving and sharing with them the little we can. Small tents, practically built to accommodate at times more than 10 people, with improvised facilities which are somehow meant to create a place of dignity and comfort, a home. Beyond simplicity and poverty, there is a warmth and a hospitality which goes further than our expectation and we always found ourselves overwhelmed by their kindness, generosity and joy.

img-20170103-wa0001

Even though with a little broken Arabic vocabulary, we end up making contacts, getting to know each other, laughing and having a good time. It seems so natural to share time with them, surrendered by many curious eyes and beautiful children smiles. Despite the delicious tea tradition (tashy chai- sweet black tea) or coffee, the meals and little snacks they share with us, we talk, play with the children or sing.

wp_20170103_009

It feels that the time has a different dimension here and we are still learning the importance of the presence in its simplest sense, in giving ourselves to the moment, without trying to follow the schedule and constantly looking at our watch. And even if we start shy, the visits are very precious moments to us, bringing us closer to the beauty of humans and the message of the gospel. We are still asking ourselves, what do we give to them and what does it mean to be there?!

wp_20170103_017

Christmas in Lebanon

We write today to explain how these last days have been for us. Christmas started on the afternoon of the 24th, when we were invited to attend a “carnival” in Bqerzala. We didn’t know what to expect, but it turned to be a carol parade on the streets of the village, at the joyful sound of an “arabic-fanfarre” band, and coloured by the balloons and Santa Claus suits that all children and young people dressed up. We could feel the joy of Christmas and the emotion of the kids for the presents they would receive later that night. The mass was at 23:30h. Although we didn’t understand much, it was nice to see that the people there were happy, and we were touched by the beautiful singing all the time. In the end we offered to everybody a cup of hot wine that we had prepared, while we wished them a merry Christmas. Back at home, we spent the night with the other volunteers living in the Peace Center and two Italian journalists who visited us.

On Sunday, Christmas day, two of us went to the mass in Bqerzala, while the other two helped to prepare the lunch and the presents we would give to the children of Tal-Aabbas, a refugees camp. Four more Italians came to the Peace Center, volunteers and a student. We spent the day with them, cooking, having lunch (at 18h!), talking and playing games. We enjoyed it, even if we were expecting something more especial. We experienced contradictions among what we would have liked to live, what was expected from us, what was morally correct and what happened in reality. We finally accepted that we are in a reality that we don’t understand much, that it is not easy for us to take initiatives (because of the language, knowledge of the society, etc.) and that we may not have been completely aware in that occasion.

 On Saint Steven day Raquel became again Papa Noël, in that occasion for the children of the refugee camp of Tal-Aabbas, half an hour by car from Bqerzala. As it happened the first time in the Peace Center, they were happy and it was a nice moment. It was also our first visit in a camp. It is a small one, very close to the village, with around sixty people. A lot of them have already been there for three or four years. They rent the land for 50-60 dollars/month, including the water, and they pay electricity apart. Many rooms and garages of the village are also rented by Syrian refugees. They are in a delicate situation, since the Lebanese government don’t recognize them as  refugees and they are only registered by the UN. We drank tea with Abu Abdala’s family –Abu Abdala, his wife and nine sons and daughters between 20 and 2 years old. It was our first visit to a family and we felt very welcomed. They don’t speak much French –only a little bit the kids, who are becoming polyglots.

The next day, the 27th, we visited two more Syrian families in Bqerzala. We experienced the same feeling of being welcome and at ease in spite of not being able to communicate. Especially the children are open and used to meet new people, being used to express themselves with gestures. We lived quite a big contrast a bit later, when we had lunch with two Maronites sisters from the village. We met them last week in a mass and they invited us to their home, which is actually the school they run here. They prepared a very good meal for us and we liked to see as well their reality and listen to how they perceive it. We agreed for a meeting and prayer with the oldest students when they come back from holidays.

We are knowing and understanding more, we are having more ideas and we start to see what is possible for us to do (today we played football close to the camp and planned a yoga session!). We also wanted to write today with the best wishes for the European Meeting that starts in Riga. We feel in communion with the young people gathered there. May they have a good meeting, that brings unity and leads to engagement!

First Impressions

Hello from Lebanon! Here is the first post since we arrived. We have been here for few days – Maria, Raquel and Rafaela arrived on Monday, and Júlia on Wednesday. Friedrich, the director of Relief&Reconciliation, came to pick us up at Beirut airport and drove us to the Akkar region, in the North of the country. The Peace Center of R&R, where we are living, is located in Bqerzala, a small village. In our way to Akkar we crossed Beirut by car. From the explanations Friedrich gave us, we understood that it city is divided because of religious beliefs – each religion has its own zone. Besides, it is a city in reconstruction –a lot of buildings were destroyed during the war and also in more recent fights.

For what we have seen so far, all Lebanon is a divided society. A word that is coming often to our minds is “reconciliation”. And that … is a big word. We left our countries wondering what we could do here, what we could give, and if we would have enough to give. And despite all those questions, we arrived full of energy and dreams, looking forward to give ourselves… But facing the reality, we discover a very complex world, spoken in a language completely strange to us (Arabic),  and we find a slower rhythm than we expected. Instead of big things, our projects calm down, to meet the need of  discovering, each moment and on each small thing, the hints to slowly understand the complex reality of the place, the work in loco of Peace Center, and how our common life can be born and grow in this context.

We share now our life on the Peace Center with Friedrich and two other volunteers that have been here since three months ago – Abby and Samer. Slowly, we get to know the rhythms and activities of the place: in the afternoon, some children from Bqerzala ( almost all Syrian refugees) come here to do their homework, with the help of teacher Pauline; after we have time for a small dance… Yesterday was a special day. Santa Claus came to the Peace Center, to join the kids on a small Christmas party. All the children were good kids – all got a present. A small present, that we feel… too small… Again, the will to give something more is alive on our chest… And we must remember that our presence is already important. A classic sentence, but truthful. The kids were happy, and it was a beautiful afternoon. On Sunday another Christmas party waits for us, this time in the refugee camp of Tel Abbas.

Besides meeting the children on the Peace Center, we have left the house to go to meet the village. We have been attending the novena celebrations of the maronite parish of Bqerzala, and discovering the beauty of this poetic sung services (in Arabic and Aramaic!). We met the priest (Abuna), deacon and church workers, we had an unexpected tea with the Maronite sisters (that run a religious school  here), and slowly we get to know the activities of the youth group – after a concert yesterday, we wait to meet them in a Carnival today…

Let’s see what this Cristmas will bring to us! We wish you all a Merry Christmas!

عيد ميلاد سعيد

the-first

Relief & Reconciliation for Syria: for the journey of many

Two more days until three of us will arrive to Lebanon. A range of emotions as we are trying to move back and forward between so many realties.

How to position ourselves as individuals and as humanity, and how to carry the responsibility of what is happening at this moment in Syria and many other place in the world?!

We might not know and understand the whole truth, the political games and all the interests, the needs of those who are fighting both sides, the struggles of those who are trying to bring peace. But we know for sure that it hurts. It hurts to see desperate people: when everything is literally falling apart, with no way of getting out and being the next victim – Aleppo – ‘in memory of all the victims, both alive or not!’

This Thursday I met Malena Rembe (the head of the Swedish Red Cross in Middle East, North Africa and Europe) as she has just arrived from Damascus. With grief on her face and an alarming voice, she spoke about the crisis: the situation which gets worst and worst, the loss of so many lives, the struggle for survival and the little signs of hope. She mentioned also Akkar (the region where the provisional community will be based) and the winter which will affect hundreds of thousands of people living in the camps and improvised places. As well, she encouraged our work and assured us of her support if needed.

The will to do good and be involved within our capacities,

is maybe the biggest responsibility and the most we can ask from one another.

Fortunately, there are people and places where this energy is being shared. The energy of love, devotion and care, which goes beyond ones’ personal comfort, stability or normality. I refer to the organization and the group of people who will welcome us in Lebanon – Relief and Reconciliation for Syria. With “a main focus on peace-building initiatives that hold up human rights and dignity for all, R&R for Syria unites different confessions around the commune cause of creating a more secure and productive future for their youth.

Relief & Reconciliation for Syria AISBL is an international non-profit organization under Belgian law that is combining peace-building with humanitarian aid for those affected by the Syrian crisis. We are uniting different communities around a common cause: the future of the youth. We opened our first Peace Centre and a refugee camp school in the North of Lebanon, only 12 km from the Syrian border.” 

r-lebanon

http://www.reliefandreconciliation.org/

We are looking forward to meet  them, be part of their team and the community which will be formed.

And we are ready to go. One week until Christmas and more and more our journey becomes  the desire to look for the light which came into the world, restore it in our souls and carry it further. (Maria)

img-z02161753-0001-page-001

Small Provisional Community – ” we can choose to be on the light and to be light”

Hi everyone! I am Júlia, I was born and I have lived most of my 24 years in a town close to Barcelona. I love words, languages, books, the thoughts and ideas that humanity has had and still has with such diversity. That is why I studied Catalan Language and Literature at University.

20160604_101601

I have always tried to take advantage of all the opportunities to grow up and get to know the maximum of things. Recently I am learning to give and to be generous with what has been given to me. Because of that I have been volunteering as a teacher in a primary school in Cochabamba, Bolivia, for the last six months. It has been an experience of giving and outdoing myself, of searching and discovering in me new resources, of wishing to touch the deepest of the other, of touching and seeing the consequences of injustice and poverty.

At this moment my life is marked by the year I spent in Taizé, before coming to Bolivia. It was a time where trust, prayer, unity of Christians, solidarity, hope, community, sharing, visiting, reconciliation, joy, beauty, dialogue, simplicity, and the peace I experienced have become fundamental. I lived all of that with others and thanks to others, I understood that it was not something to live just for some time and in one place, otherwise as a Christian it is my responsibility and my happiness to be bearer of that, build it and communicate it wherever I go, and be for that salt of the earth and light of the world.

I want that to move my life, and that is what moves me towards a project like this small provisional community at Lebanon. In Taizé you often hear about signs and gestures and I know we will be that, a tiny sign in this enormous and dramatic conflict, the Syrian war. However, I also know that, from our smallness when we put ourselves available for God, God operates marvels in us, not for us, but for others.(Julia)