Olwen Maynard is a member of the Asia and Middle East team. She tells us how bringing young people together in Lebanon is helping to build trust among local people and Syrian refugees.
There’s been a lot of heart-searching in this country about taking in Syrian refugees, and how many would be our ‘fair share’. Something we tend to forget is that most displaced Syrians are still in the Middle East region. Lebanon, a small country with a population of about four million (half that of Greater London), has taken in over a million. Just stop and think about that for a minute.
CAFOD volunteer, Leah Fox, 19, from Newcastle spoke to thousands of young people at Flame 2017 about her experiences of meeting refugees in Lebanon and sharing messages of hope from the UK. Here, she reflects on her experience and encourages others to act.
Tell us why you were on stage with CAFOD at the Wembley SSE Arena on Saturday 11 March.
Last year I was part of Youth Ministry Team in the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle, whilst I was there I became a CAFOD Ambassador with representatives from other retreat centres around the country. All around the media, we could see that there were a lot of negative things being said about refugees, and they weren’t being treated in a dignified way. We decided that the Refugee Crisis needed to be addressed so we started talking to the young people we worked with about refugees and gathering messages of hope from them.
We caught up with CAFOD volunteer Ryan who is getting ready to speak to over 8,000 people at the Catholic youth event, Flame 2017, at the SSE Arena, Wembley on March 11. Read on to find out more.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got involved with CAFOD.
Currently, I am a volunteer at Savio House, the Salesian residential retreat centre. I really enjoy working with young people and helping them to build relationships with each other as well as with God. When I was in Y12 I joined the Cafod Young Leaders program in my school and as a part of this, I went to the Houses of Parliament to speak to my MP about climate change. From this, I continued to volunteer for a second year on the program with different people.
“I have learnt so much about the refugee situation as well as about myself and I will be using my strength in faith to guide me when sharing about my experience in Lebanon.”
Ryan Wilkinson is a 19 year old CAFOD volunteer from Sheffield who recently travelled with CAFOD to meet refugees in Lebanon.
My recent visit to Lebanon has had such a large, positive impact on my life and has made me want to encourage others to learn more about the refugee crisis.
It was such incredible experience to meet refugees who Association Najdeh and Caritas Lebanon, the two CAFOD partners that I visited, reach and help in different camps and shelters. Having the opportunity to talk to people who are refugees, and the staff at the organisations was so inspiring for me as it made me think more about my life and how I can do more to encourage change.
There were times during my visit where it left me emotionally drained as I was hearing many emotional stories about what people are going through, and how their lives have changed since moving to Lebanon.
Leah Fox is a CAFOD volunteer from Newcastle who has spent the past year working with young people to help them better understand the plight of refugees. She recently travelled with CAFOD to meet refugees in Lebanon who have been forced to leave their homes because of conflict in Syria, Iraq and Palestine.
My overall experience in Lebanon was amazing; I feel extremely privileged to have had an opportunity to go and experience first-hand what life is like in the refugee camps. There was so much to learn and it was great to meet so many different people from many different walks of life.
In the camps we met Syrian and Palestinian refugees who had been in Lebanon for a long time. We also met Palestinian refugees from Syria, who initially moved there because of conflict but are now in Lebanon.
Mark Chamberlain is a communications officer with CAFOD. He spent time with refugees in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley in December 2015. On International Families Day, he writes about meeting some of the families there.
Razir is a 40-year-old mother of five. It was just after 11 in the morning when I visited her tent.
She offered for me to sit down on the only blanket the family had. I declined, blew into my hands to keep them warm and chose the bare floor instead. It was like sitting on ice.
Nana Anto-Awuakye is CAFOD’s World News Manager. She recently met families living in the Bekka refugee camp in Lebanon as part of CAFOD’s Lost Family Portaits project.
Last Christmas, various family members snapped away on their latest mobile phone cameras, and we all dutifully posed for the camera. I asked for the unflattering photos of me to be deleted, my sister refused saying, “It’s Christmas, and we are all together.”
Only a few weeks earlier I was in Lebanon’s Bekka valley, just nine kilometres from the Syrian border. I was working with our partner Caritas Lebanon Migrant Centre, the photographer Dario Mitidieri, and the creative agency M&C Saatchi to photograph family portraits of Syrian refugees inside some of the informal camp settlements in the Bekka.
Dario Mitidieri began his career as a professional photographer in 1987 working for The Sunday Telegraph and The Independent newspapers. In his long and illustrious career, he has travelled to Tiananmen Square in Beijing to witness the army repression of students. He has also photographed the conflict in Northern Ireland, the Iraq War, the 2005 Tsunami in Indonesia and the Kobe Earthquake in Japan. He recently travelled to the Bekaa valley, Lebanon, with CAFOD and creative agency M&C Saatchi where he worked on studio-styled portraits of twelve families who have fled the conflict in Syria.
It is early – just before eight, but winding through the steep hill side roads of Lebanon’s capital Beirut, there is a frenzy of building work: hotels and luxury apartments going up. This ancient, open city is alive.
Once we leave the concrete landscape behind us, the undulating hills of the Bekaa valley – Lebanon’s agricultural pulse and once the ‘breadbasket of the Roman Empire’ – come into view. Overnight there has been a first dusting of snow on the hills.
Just over the mountain ridge, some nine kilometres away is the border with Syria.
I’m heading to a Syrian refugee camp, with CAFOD and its partner, the Caritas Lebanon Migrant Centre.
Just before Christmas, I came together with CAFOD, the Caritas Lebanon Migrant Centre and the creative agency, M&C Saatchi, to work on a unique project to highlight the plight of Syrian refugees: Lost Family Portraits.
Tabitha Ross is a CAFOD freelancer who works in Lebanon. On International Day of Peace she tells us about Eman and Hanigal – two mothers who have been forced to leave their homes in Syria because of the ongoing conflict.
Sitting on a blanket on the grass in the warmth of the sun, Eman looks shell-shocked to find herself in Lebanon, safe from the fear of violence for the first time in nearly four years. When I meet her, she has been here just over two weeks.
Despite coming from Daraa, the region of Syria where the uprising first began on 15 March 2011, and which has seen bitter fighting and bombing, Eman only decided to flee the country this year.
I ask what was the final straw, after so much suffering, that pushed her to leave. With tears in her eyes she said: “At the start of the war my husband disappeared, so I didn’t want to leave because I had the idea that he would come back. But in February my house was bombed and destroyed, so I decided to come here.”
Eman tells me how she and her four children spent three days on the road from Daraa to Damascus. Reaching the capital, they spent two nights sleeping in the freezing street. Finally a taxi driver took pity on them and brought them here to Lebanon, where she is staying with a cousin in an unfinished breeze block construction in the Bekaa Valley.
In Syria, it’s traditionally a source of great pride to be the mother of sons, and Ghossoun was rightly proud of her five boys. Brought up on a farm in the Homs region of Syria, each one grew up and went into the army when he left home – a stable and respectable career at the time. Ghossoun and her husband were left at home with their youngest, their only girl.
Then Syria descended into war.
Ghossoun’s sons were targeted
“We didn’t want to participate in the war. We were neither with the government nor against it. But unfortunately we were not allowed that option,” said Ghossoun.
Because they were in the army, her sons were targeted as government supporters, although Ghossoun says their choice of career was not a political statement. The threats got worse, and one terrible day, Ghossoun’s husband was murdered as he worked on the farm.
Fearing for her children’s lives, Ghossoun fled to Lebanon with her family.
This made her sons military deserters, and now they are in trouble with both the Syrian government and its opponents. “We told the authorities that their father was killed and their lives were threatened, but of course they didn’t believe us,” she said.