7 Ways to Help Syrian Refugees and the Reason Why You Should

I just wrote my first story over on Medium. I originally intended to publish it here, but because I am hoping that anyone who reads it might be moved to action, I wanted to see if I could cast a wider net for readership. I hope you don’t mind popping over to Medium to check it out.

7 Ways to Help Syrian Refugees and the Reason Why You Should

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Eight-year-old Aya, on the right, walks home along a dusty road in Dalhamiyeh with her sister, Labiba. The two are best friends. They live in an informal settlement for Syrian refugees. (Lebanon) UNHCR/S. Baldwin

 

 

Is It Safe (or even Sane) to Travel to Beirut?

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Beirut Souks decked out for Christmas

Since my May 2015 post on safety in Beirut is my most popular ever, I wanted to post an update on the situation. Some of you are reading because you know me personally, and like to stay in touch and worry about me and my family living here. And some of you are reading because you’re planning a trip to Beirut – for work, or to visit your spouse’s family for the holidays. (And maybe someone somewhere is planning a trip for pure tourism, but I have to admit, that seems highly unlikely.)  You may have seen the U.S. State Department’s most recent travel warning, issued December 11th, and are wondering if you are in your right mind to come visit.

As I wrote this week for the Wall Street Journal Expat blog about hosting visitors, “If I thought we were at risk, I wouldn’t have my kids here.”

I acknowledge that the peace Lebanon does have is fragile. And it’s true that a bomb could go off at any time. There hadn’t been a bomb in over a year, and on the same day in November that I had scheduled a tweet linking to my post on safety in Beirut, there was a bomb. (I pray I’m not jinxing anything now by writing about the topic again!)

On the other hand, if I were living in the U.S., a guy with a gun could walk into my movie theater or my kids’ school and start randomly shooting at any time. There have been hundreds of mass shootings in the U.S. in the past year,* and one bombing in Lebanon in the same time frame. If I were living in Paris, I would have risked getting caught in the horrifying massacre that took place two days after Beirut’s tragedy. All terrible things, but not a reason to run away from Beirut or Paris or Aurora or Newtown.

I don’t embrace danger, but I also refuse to be paralyzed by fear.

Life holds no guarantees, but we can confront our fears rather than let them rule us. The Lebanese do an amazing job of demonstrating that principle, and in this regard, I hope to keep taking my cues from them.

My mother-in-law sent worried messages to my husband when the U.S. travel warning made the news in Italy. He sent back pictures of us having dessert on the terrace of the newly-opened Cheescake Factory here in Beirut. I’ll leave you instead with a few more images of Beirut decked out for the holiday season.

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Creative lighting at a posh clothing store in downtown Beirut. I love it!

 

 

*Mass shootings are defined as those in which 4 or more people have been shot (either wounded or killed). ShootingTracker lists 353 mass shootings in the U.s. in 2015 as of December 2nd, and Gun Violence Archive has recorded another 8 since then.

Soup for Syria, from Seattle to Beirut

I am a food writer and a photographer. How can I use my trade to help the unfortunate and send a message of peace?… If I were a barber, I would have offered to cut their hair.” – Barbara Abdeni Massaad, editor of Soup for Syria: Recipes to Celebrate Our Shared Humanity.

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Soup for Syria is a gorgeous cookbook, equal parts appetizing recipes and luminous images. The pictures, taken by Massaad herself, are of both food and Syrian refugees. The refugees are people Massaad knows well, living in a makeshift camp not far from her home in Lebanon. Her commitment to them began with visits to the camps with a trunk full of food. The visits became weekly, the refugees became part of her extended family.

As a cookbook author, the natural next step for Massaad was to put together her photography and culinary talents into a project that could give more. She reached out to a combination of renowned chefs and dear friends to create a mouthwatering collection of soups. Culinary superstars Mark Bittman, Anthony Bourdain, Greg Malouf, Yotam Ottolenghi, Claudia Roden and Alice Waters are among the contributors. Massaad donated her time and images, and chefs donated their recipes. What a fitting choice, to use soup, the ultimate comfort food to raise funds to provide comfort to those in need.

Last night I had a chance to taste some soup and hear from Massaad at a book launch-slash-fundraiser organized at Station Beirut. Chef Wael Lazkani of Jai and Chef Alexis Couquelet of Couqley were among those who had brought soup to share, while 961 Beer and the Syrian wine Bargylus were on tap (check out the fascinating story of Bargylus in this article from The Telegraph). Funds raised by book sales were bolstered by donations for the food and drink.  Massaad’s photographs of refugee neighbors adorned the walls.

Barbara Abdeni Massaad addresses the crowd gathered in support of Syrian refugees

Barbara Abdeni Massaad addresses the crowd gathered in support of Syrian refugees

Massaad shone as she recounted her impetus for the project, two young friends from the Syrian encampment at her side. She reiterated her message, “Compassion for Syrian refugees is not a political stance but a human obligation.”

It was a fun evening out for my husband and I, but much more than that, it was a meaningful one. I picked up my copy of Soup for Syria. Guess what’s for dinner tonight?

Buy the Book

In the US, UK and everywhere else outside of Lebanon, 100% of profits go to helping refugees. The book is available on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

In Lebanon, thanks to some special donations, 100% of sales go toward helping refugees. The book will be available at Librarie Antoine starting tomorrow, and soon at Virigin stores as well.

These funds are being channeled through the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, which is providing critical aid to more than four million Syrian refugees. Soup for Syria funds are earmarked for medical care and food relief.

Do A Little More

It would be a mistake to think that Massaad’s commitment has culminated with the publication of this cookbook, because it’s clear that she’s in for the long haul. And there are a million ways that she hopes you’ll join her. The book’s website details eight ways anyone can use Soup for Syria to further support refugees, from hosting a “foodraiser” to giving copies of the cookbook as presents.

While book proceeds support UNCHR’s efforts, you can use your fundraiser to support your own favorite agency working with refugees. (Mine is The International Rescue Committee, where I worked for five years and saw their efficiency and efficacy first hand.)

Seattle Supports Syrians

For anyone in my hometown of Seattle, the next opportunity to support Syrian refugees is tomorrow, October 22, at Mamnoon restaurant on Capitol Hill. I finally got to dine there this summer, and was dazzled by their creative take on the cuisines of Lebanon and Syria. (Massaad was a menu consultant there.) Mamnoon is hosting a casual soup tasting at their street-side window and community table, starting at 5:30pm, no reservation required.  Ethan Stowell RestaurantsTom Douglas RestaurantsThe Whale WinsHitchcockModernist CuisineTerra Plata, Blind Pig Bistro and NAKA are all contributing delicious soups. (So many of my Seattle favorites all in one place! Wish I could be there too to taste it all…) Mamnoon is asking for a “donation of $35 to enjoy these soups and feel the warmth all over.“

At the same time, Mamnoon will host a multicourse benefit dinner with beverage pairings in its dining room, for $250 per person. Each dining guest will receive a copy of Soup for Syria to take home. Chef Garrett Melkonian, in charge of Creative Culinary Development at Mamnoon, contributed his recipe for Spicy Clam Soup with Basturma.

For both of these events, 100% of the money raised will be used in support of refugees, channeled through three organizations: Mercy CorpsMedecins Sans Frontières and Karam Foundation.

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Chef Wael Lazkani dishes up a delicious Thai coconut-chicken soup in support of Syrian refugees.

Giving Tuesday, and Giving Syrian Children a Chance

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Syrian children are thrilled with their new books

 

Shortly after moving to Beirut, I met a woman named Tuesday. Apparently she’s not the only one – she says there is even a Facebook group of women named Tuesday. But she’s the only one I’ve ever met. And I’m thinking of her today, on “Giving Tuesday.”

Following the U.S.’s famed “Black Friday” (shopping frenzy day) and “Cyber Monday” (more shopping madness, but this time online), comes “Giving Tuesday”.

Created by the non-profit sector in 2012, Giving Tuesday channels the generous spirit of the holiday season into charitable giving. It’s a way to give a gift to someone you have probably never met, whether your gift is to help fund cancer research or to provide notebooks and pencils to a child in need.

Over the past few weeks my friend Tuesday has been channeling her generous spirit into a campaign for an education center for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The center is in the battered border town of Arsal, where Syrian refugees outnumber locals – the same town where Syrian refugees from the volunteer group Chabaab lal Oumma (Youth for the People) distributed food aid to Lebanese in need back in May.

According to the UN, it’s an area where between 50% and 70% of children – more than 10,000 individuals – are unregistered for school.

With this same group of earnest and energetic young women volunteering to get things organized, an education center was established for the Syrian refugees. They didn’t let the lack of text books or even chairs stop them, and over the past couple of months the numbers have swollen to more than 800 registered students. Teachers are refugees themselves, working without even any monthly stipend.

Two weeks ago my friend Tuesday started a campaign on GoFundMe.com to help support the school. On the first day of her campaign, a young man named Yuki Tanaka donated GB£1,500 (US$2,360), posting the following message:

“I stayed in Arsal and worked with Syrian refugees on February, 2014. I visited the school as well. Everyone I met there are very kind so I love them very very much. I always concern [sic] their life and future. Thank you for giving me this opportunity because sadly no one supports them in this world except us.”

According to a Beirut-based volunteer with Chabaab lal Oumma, Yuki had been saving his money since his last visit to Arsal, when he spent two weeks working with the volunteers from Chabaab lal Oumma.

A couple of days ago, a 10-year-old girl living in Beirut named Polly Stokes committed all of her savings – nearly US$100 – because “she wanted to help other kids get an education.”

Tuesday’s campaign is still in progress, but she has made the first transfer of funds and the first installment of supplies has been delivered to the classrooms in Arsal.

Five-subject notebooks for older students…Arsal School1

And copybooks for elementary students…

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Today on Giving Tuesday, would you consider giving my friend Tuesday your support, and help give Syrian children in Arsal a better education?

If you have funds to give, that could help provide a few more desks and chairs, geometry sets and pencils, transportation for students who live too far to walk, small stipends for the teachers…

If you have time to give, you could take a moment to share this message with a “like” or a forward…

Click here to see Tuesday’s campaign on GoFundMe.com.

While the campaign is in British pounds, donations can be made in Australian, Canadian or US dollars, British pounds, or Euros.IMG-20141201-WA0025

Tuesday and I will be grateful for anything you can do. But we sure as heck won’t be the only ones appreciating your support.

*All images courtesy of Chabaab lal Oumma, and may not be reproduced without permission.

Syrians Assist Lebanese Refugees: A Counter-Narrative

You’d be forgiven if you thought my headline should read “Lebanese Assist Syrian Refugees.” I mean, who are Lebanese refugees? Who ever heard of them?

They aren’t anyone you hear about in the news. In fact, the people I met aren’t technically refugees. But there are hundreds of Lebanese families that were living in Syria prior to the war, many of them for generations, who joined their neighbors in fleeing their homes and the surrounding violence for what was hoped to be a safe haven in Lebanon. This is what they got:

Although the story I have to tell took place in May, I don’t want to leave it untold. It’s a counter-narrative – a story that stands in juxtaposition to the mainstream narrative, the kind of story that can get drowned out by the louder headlines about Syrian refugees in Lebanon who need help, take jobs or incite violence.

A couple of friends have been inspiring me lately to think more about counter-narratives. Friend and filmmaker Gregory Berger creates satires that examine issues from the H1N1 virus to fracking, and is currently working on a film that skewers the media coverage of Central American migrants in Mexico. Journalist Sharmine Narwani specializes in counter-narratives about politics in the Middle East, and while she and I are often not on the same page, I appreciate hearing her perspective. She inspires me to ask more questions and think more deeply about my own point of view.

Whether generated by news outlets or pop culture, counter-narratives can be powerful in broadening our perspectives. The recent movie Maleficent retells the classic story of Sleeping Beauty from the point of view of the evil fairy who cursed Princess Aurora with a deep sleep. I appreciated that the movie gave viewers the chance to understand the complexity of Maleficent’s motives, and to find a fresh definition of “true love.” A traditional narrative is upended, and a parallel story revealed.

Counter-narratives also have the power to jar us from our comfort zones. The heartbreaking photo of Fabienne Cherisma, a Haitian girl killed by a stray bullet post-earthquake, stays in my mind because of its counter-narrative – a side-story image capturing the photographers who swarmed a few feet from the dead girl – that I cannot forget.

Stories behind, or beneath, or beside the main story. Overlapping, intersecting, or the other side of the same coin. The story I have to share is similar in its unexpectedness.

At the beginning of May I attended a distribution of food aid in the town of Arsal, in northeast Lebanon, close to the border with Syria. I was proud to have helped in the food collection and packaging, thanks to the Boston University Global Day of Service and to the many friends and family members in Beirut and around the world who donated to provide supplies. Together with the local non-profit foodblessed, we put together 130 boxes, each of which had supplies for 100 meals plus a few basic hygiene items. Through foodblessed’s partnership with Lebanese 4 Syrian Refugees, who in turn works with the organization Shabaab il Oumma (Youth for the People), they had identified a special subset of families in need: Lebanese refugees.

Like the Syrians, these families were forced by the violence to leave their homes, possessions and livelihoods behind in Syria. But because the Lebanese had fled to their home country, not away from it, they do not qualify for assistance from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. As Lebanese, these families were instructed to contact the Higher Relief Council, an office of the Lebanese government that has been plagued by a corruption scandal. There was no response. And so, Shabaab il Oumma decided to reach out to them.

The representatives of Shabaab il Oumma had organized the aid recipients, inviting families to register ahead of time for assistance. Each registered family was given a small card, which would be collected back in exchange for the food aid. Two young men with SiO – one quiet and serene, the other gregarious and smiling – did the heavy lifting of the food boxes. The rest of the SiO volunteers were young women, girls really, aged 15-18. All of the youth were Syrian refugees themselves.

The young women took turns at the head of the line of Lebanese “refugees,” carefully collecting the cards, checking the numbers against their registration list, then giving the go-ahead for each distribution. The recipients were patient as they quietly waited their turn in line. When the occasional Syrian stopped by to find out what was being distributed, the girls politely explained that this distribution was only for Lebanese, and those turned away left without rancor.

Many of the beneficiaries had been in Lebanon for two years already. They told us this was the first assistance of any kind that they had received.

Each of the young women had her own story to tell, of educations that had been halted, of fathers working back-breaking jobs in the nearby granite quarries for a meager 10,000 lira ($6) per day. They told of local teachers that asked for bribes in order to allow the Syrians to go to school – bribes that the girls cannot afford.

“My dreams are broken,” one girl told me.

Yet they didn’t display bitterness or anger, but resolve. One of the young women has stayed in touch with me, and says that the girls have organized a school to provide an education for the younger ones. She says that they have been frightened by the wave of bombing that took place in Arsal during August, but are hanging in there.

These Syrians have lost everything, live in dire circumstances and fear, yet turn around and lend a helping hand to others. It is certainly true that Syrians in Lebanon are straining resources, and sadly there are those who are linked to further violence.  But it is equally true that there are Syrians who are dedicating themselves to those around them who are in need, without discrimination.

Syrian refugees aid Lebanese in need.

What I most appreciate about counter-narratives is that they remind us that no one has the monopoly on the truth. It was a story that couldn’t go untold.

 

A New Normal

This week our family celebrated our second anniversary of life in Lebanon. We returned to the waterfront restaurant La Plage, the same restaurant we ate the very night we arrived to Beirut.

In French (which many Lebanese speak), the word anniversaire means both anniversary and birthday. Either occasion can nudge us to stop and take stock, and this week’s anniversary was no exception for me.

Some things haven’t changed.

Families stroll the Corniche (waterfront walkway) day and night, enjoying the fresh sea air.

The weather and the food are always wonderful.

Local politics continue to baffle me.

Other things are different. Two years in, and I’m far from conversational in Arabic, which is not what I was anticipating when I arrived. (This list made me realize (1) I’m not alone – see #36; and (2) not understanding the Bedouin desert guide in Jordan wasn’t a reflection on my Arabic skills – see #17). But, this time when the waiter at La Plage asked, in Arabic, if we wanted our wine by the glass or the bottle, we understood. And could even answer. None of us are conversational yet, but we’re getting the important stuff down.

I have some new favorite foods. Many of the dishes that we ordered on that first visit to La Plage have become our favorites of Lebanese cuisine: eggplant raheb, cheese rolls, fried fish. (The French fries were the kids’ pick, and hardly a new favorite.) I now refuse to go a week without a good fattoush (green salad with fresh thyme, mint, sumac and toasted pita chips).

When we arrived to Lebanon, there were almost no beggars and few street vendors. Two years later, with more than a million refugees from Syria, there are some neighborhoods where women sell packs of tissue paper at every stoplight and boys hound to shine your shoes on every block. Tens of thousands of refugees in Beirut alone, just a small fraction of them visible on street corners to remind us of their difficult plight. Hundreds of thousands more hidden away in villages and informal settlements across the country, struggling to survive.

Security has changed too. Concrete barriers have been placed around town to discourage parking and therefore the possibility of car bombs. No bombs in recent months, but many of the barriers are becoming permanent nevertheless, like these exceptionally tall ones that were recently painted with the Lebanese flag.

Perhaps the rise of the concrete barriers is due in part to the discrediting of the bomb detector “wands” that security guards use at the entrances of mall and grocery store parking around the city. At my last visit to City Centre shopping mall in Beirut, I found that they had abandoned the wand in favor of an explosives detector similar to the kind I have seen at airports – the guard first swiped my car door with what looked like a small piece of paper, then put the paper into a handheld reader that can apparently register explosives. So City Centre, at least, is taking its precautions more seriously. On the other hand, the grocery store near my house has simply given up altogether, and gone back to allowing cars into its garage without any kind of check. Somehow both scenarios seem perfectly normal to me now.

I had coffee with three Lebanese friends yesterday. When the waiter came to our table, two ordered in Arabic, one in a mix of Arabic and French (we were in the Francophile coffee shop Paul, after all), and I ordered in English. The waiter didn’t bat an eye, but easily switched between languages as he spoke with each of us. Trilingual waiters and conversations don’t surprise me anymore either.

When we left Honduras two years ago, I found it hard to let go of what I knew before, and to see things here in Lebanon for what they are, rather than constantly comparing and evaluating things for what they are not. But I think I can finally say that I’ve adjusted here, and for better or for worse, the fattoush and fried fish, the refugees and the car bombs, the sunshine and the sea air all come together to make up my new normal. Beirut is like a family member now and I love her, warts and all.

Eat Like a Syrian Refugee

Refugees? Again?

Maybe you are following this blog because you wanted to read about Beirut and all it has to offer. Or because you and I know each other personally, and you wanted to stay in virtual touch, thinking you’d hear about me and hubby and the kids and our adventures.

Instead you keep getting these posts that circle back to Syrian refugees.

I hope you’re not getting tired of it.

Development workers and non-profit fundraisers call it “donor fatigue” – when no one wants to hear any more about the cause they already helped. I don’t know if that’s what it is called in this case, when it’s not a donor or a group of donors, but an entire country, hosting a refugee population that is now equal in number to a quarter of its own population. But it’s understandable that people are feeling the strain. Syrians continue to flow into Lebanon, and rents continue to go up, wages continue to go down. Grumbling has begun. And yet… borders remain open, refugees are not condemned to a camp, they can access schools and medical services. Indeed, most Lebanese continue to demonstrate an incredible generosity of spirit. As the mayor of one Lebanese town told Ninette Kelly, representative in Lebanon of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees,

You call them refugees, we call them neighbors.

The church I attend had a special program for kids during the month of October, to try and help them understand what all the grown-ups are always talking about, to help them (along with us parents!) better understand what refugees confront.

Week 1: They talked about what the term refugee means (someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence), and then imagined what they would take if they were forced to leave home in a hurry, taking only what can fit in a backpack. It was hard, but I convinced my kids that a couple pairs each of clean underwear and socks would be just as important as the special toys they had chosen.

Week 2: What does it mean to have no place to stay? The assignment for the week was to build a shelter out of cardboard and plastic bags and sticks. Given the dearth of trees within the Beirut city limits, the kids were allowed to use broom handles in lieu of sticks.

Week 3: What can you do for food? While rations for refugees vary according to where they are and who is handing them out, the bare minimum for one day is apparently 400 grams of rice, 50 grams of lentils and 50 grams of cooking oil (which came in the form of some kind of yucky hydrogenated spread in a baggie). Water to drink. Each child was given one day’s ration, and challenged to eat only that food for one day.

“Or for just one meal,” my daughter pointed out. “They said to try it for one day, or for one meal.”

“But if we do it for just one meal, then there’s no challenge,” responded my son.

“That’s right,” I said enthusiastically. “Let’s take up the challenge.”

The kids each got a Tupperware full of rice and lentils for lunch, and a smaller Tupperware of the same for their snack. When they came home from school, my son told me that he’d had the best food that day.

“Really??” The rice was barely speckled with miniscule lentils, lacked all but a sprinkle of salt, and was utterly bland. Nothing like mujaddara, the delicious rice and lentils the Lebanese typically eat, abundant with plump lentils, scented with cumin and topped with caramelized onions.

“Yeah, I told my friends I didn’t have any food, and they gave me all kinds of things – Oreos, Biskolata (a chocolate-dipped cookie), fruit roll-ups… ”

Had he defeated the purpose of the exercise? Receiving food you don’t like and finding a way to obtain an alternative – it was probably perfectly in tune with the challenges a refugee might face and how he or she might overcome them.  I rolled my eyes, but appreciated his resourcefulness.

My daughter was less happy about the experience. She had dutifully eaten rice and lentils, rice and lentils, rice and lentils.

Then we sat down to dinner in front of another bowl of rice and lentils.

“Not again!”

“We get it already!”

“But this is the challenge,” I answered, trying to muster an enthusiasm about these lousy rice and lentils that I just wasn’t feeling. It was only two meals in a row, and I was sick of it too. But I held firm. Over dinner we talked about people beyond refugees as well. In Honduras, where we lived prior to Lebanon, more than two-thirds of the population lives in poverty, and roughly 46 percent of people live in extreme poverty (surviving on less than US$1.25 per day). Their staple diet is rice and red beans. Rice and beans, rice and beans, rice and beans. There’s probably a study by a UN agency somewhere that says what percentage of the world survives on a diet primarily of rice and legumes, and I’m sure it’s a lot.

You couldn’t say that we had experienced what it is to be a refugee or to live in extreme poverty, as we’d had a regular breakfast (I’d even served extra fruit, to make up for the lack of it the rest of the day), we hadn’t had to actually sleep in a makeshift shelter, and we couldn’t shake the knowledge that if we had to fit everything into a backpack, we are fortunate enough to be able to buy replacements for the things we most need. But I hope the experience did help us to better appreciate all that we do have, to be more sensitive to the plight of those in need, and most importantly, to be more motivated and proactive in responding to those needs.

It’ll be a while before I can serve the kids rice and lentils again though.