As an American visitor to Lebanon I can’t help but seek out the contrasts between our two countries. For one, as I have found across Africa, and now in two Middle East countries, hospitality and generosity are a ferocious badge of honor. NO ONE here will let me pay for a meal or a drink - EVER; I am their guest and they take that extremely seriously. It is far more pronounced than I have experienced in the States.
But another stark contrast is hard to escape: the United States is currently at war, albeit thousands of miles away. You certainly wouldn’t know this by roaming the streets of a typical American town. But in Lebanon , a country currently not at war, there are relentless reminders of it, and the potential for it, everywhere you look.
The impact of the war in July of 2006 between Israel and Hezbollah – and of the previous wars here throughout the 70’s and 80’s - is still being felt throughout this small country, which is boxed up against the Mediterranean by Israel, Syria and Jordan. In the Bekaa Valley in the east, one of Lebanon ’s largest bridges has yet to be repaired; a bomb ripped apart a section, leaving a tangle of steel cables and concrete rubble hundreds of feet below.
Across southern Lebanon there is heavy construction underway to rebuild houses and buildings that had been leveled during the July assault, Quite honestly, it is often difficult to discern which areas of devastation are the result of war, or of poverty and neglect.
Even in downtown Beirut - a breathtaking blend of old and new, pristine cobblestone streets, gleaming cafes, soaring glass structures, and centuries-old mosques – heavily armed government soldiers are posted at checkpoints every few blocks. And there are buildings damaged during earlier wars that are still abandoned today, their facades pockmarked from the shelling.
In the southern suburbs of Beirut , which is controlled by Hezbollah and suffered significant damage in the July war, the streets are lined with banners on every streetlamp commemorating the war dead, referred to here as martyrs. Each banner shows a picture of the dead soldier and is emblazoned with the Hezbollah flag. I am told by IMC staff as we drive through the streets that this is considered the very safest part of Lebanon : Hezbollah knows everything and has tight control over security and intelligence of all kinds. One person jokes that Hezbollah no doubt could access my photos the minute I plug my USB stick into my computer.
Driving through the southern Lebanon town of Sidon , near Tyre , we were reminded of the dangers of working in this region when we got a call informing us that a small bomb had gone off in the town. No one was injured, but we were a bit rattled - I, evidently more so than our staff, whose reaction was somewhat blase.
I remark to our local staff on the apparent “celebration” of guns – one of our drivers even has a cell phone whose ring is a machine gun’s rat-a-tat-tat. They explain that guns are a sign of power and independence from those who threaten to take it away. Ironically, the government has plastered the streets of Beirut with an advertising campaign promoting peace and unity. One foreboding sign shows a Hezbollah fighter holding a shoulder rocket; the words implore, “Don’t let terrorists come between us.” Another poster shows a young boy with a machine gun positioned next to his face, the text refers to the importance of nurturing him, and educating him now, before he is wooed away by violence.
So, how do you reach out to a population that is in great need of physical and psychological healing?
As a medical agency, International Medical Corps is providing primary health care services to clinics across Lebanon , vaccinations for children, maternal health care, screenings and referrals for secondary care, even helping with wheelchairs and hearing aids for the disabled. We’re also targeting the influx of Iraqi refugees (there are an estimated 40,000 of them), particularly in the suburbs of Beirut , with mobile medical units to provide basic care and let them know that services are available.
But in addition to the immediate needs, we are trying to address the underlying problems that hinder proper care. Several months ago, UNICEF provided us with a sizable grant to establish a psychosocial “Child Friendly Spaces” program at 27 schools across Lebanon . This means training instructors on more constructive ways to educate and care for children who have been repeatedly exposed to war and violence.
The needs here are enormous. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. This has been true at every field site I’ve visited with IMC – from the Congo to Lebanon . But in talking to the people we are helping and training I am deeply moved by the impact we’re having. An Iraqi refugee who had brought his young daughter and son into a clinic in south Beirut told me that without this clinic he could not afford any care for his children – especially his young boy, Ali, who has a persistent upper respiratory infection. An elementary school instructor in the Bekaa Valley , east Lebanon , says she is learning that there are other means, beyond corporal punishment, for reaching her students and helping them learn.
It is difficult, as a non-political humanitarian organization, to work in these convoluted, political environments, yet stay focused solely on the humanitarian need. Whether our beneficiaries are Muslim or Christian or Jewish, need is need, suffering is suffering. We have to just do the work, navigate the politics without taking sides, and make lives better than they would be without us.