Lebanese gather to join in solidarity with Gaza

This week, the international community has witnessed countless protests demanding the halt of Israel’s ground intervention and airstrikes on Gaza, ranging from populated demonstrations in London to violent ones in Paris. On Monday, Lebanon joined these demands.

Approximately 1,000 people gathered at Raouché’s Ramlet al-Bayda on Monday, holding a vigil for more than 500 Palestinians who have died in Gaza.

“We came up with the idea of a sit-in or a vigil in solidarity with the people of Gaza, with the people who died, to humanize everyone, basically. Individualize everyone who was killed,” said Thurayya Zreik, one of the vigil organizers.

Palestinian flags waved, white balloons with names of the victims were released into the sky, and a long string stretching along the sidewalk listed the names of those who died in Gaza.

The vigil occurred simultaneously with two other vigils in the Rashidiyye and Nahr el Bared Palestinian refugee camps.

As people screamed snippets of speech through a megaphone, many different opinions were voiced with fervor throughout the crowd– from calls for peace to calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.

IMG_5574“We don’t want your bloody war! … Stop the killing, stop the hate!” said Shezza Abboushi Dallal, a student at Barnard College. “Occupation is a crime, from Iraq to Palestine,” she continued, referring to the United States’ war on Iraq. “Israel, Israel, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide!”

“The Palestinians are under fire,” chanted another woman in Arabic. “To those who aren’t hearing,” she added, “listen, listen, listen, listen.”

But as the megaphone blared, Zreik’s main concern was to show the people in Gaza that she is supporting them.

“You have brothers and sisters standing with you,” she said. “You are not alone.”

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Photographed by Daniel Nasr.

Another demonstrator, Jinan, who preferred to be listed solely by her first name, also expressed her disappointment in the silence of the international community.

“People are getting killed and nobody is doing anything about it,” she said.

In contrast with Dallal’s call for the end of “Israel’s war,” however, Jinan voiced a desire for the “war on Israel” to persist until “historic Palestine” is free and pre-1948 borders are restored.

She also expressed her dissatisfaction with the Oslo Accords, where both the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organization officially recognized each other.

“The people in Gaza are living in a huge cage, the people in the West Bank are living in a huge cage, and the Palestinian refugees that are living in the refugee camps in Lebanon are living a shitty life,” Jinan said.

Beit Atfal Assumoud, a non-governmental organization dedicated to helping Palestinian communities in Lebanon, setup donation boxes at the vigil. According to the event’s Facebook page, proceeds collected during the Ramadan holiday will be donated to Gaza.

Nessim Stevenson, a student at the University of Sussex, said he attended the vigil out of frustration. As he watched the news and kept up with the events unfolding between Israel and Gaza, Stevenson felt helpless.

“This is one of the very few things you can actually do,” he added.

People are much more active than in the past, whether through social media or by protesting on the streets, Stevenson said, exemplifying protests in the U.K., South Africa, and Turkey.

However, the Lebanese public is not as involved in comparison to other communities, which, according to Stevenson, can be attributed to the lack of willingness to talk about the Palestinian issue, as made evident by the number of protestors present at the vigil.

Dallal also voiced the importance in numbers of those who support Gaza, especially in Arab countries where most governments have refrained from political solidarity with the people in Gaza.

“It’s our responsibility as the social population of a country to demand, first, of our people to voice concern with the brutality that is being experienced in Gaza,” Dallal said, “and, second, to show our governments that perhaps the populous demands more than just silence.”

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Photographed by Daniel Nasr.

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Photographed by Daniel Nasr.
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Photographed by Daniel Nasr.

 

 

 

 

With the Syrian conflict entering its third year, refugees still remain hopeful to return to their country

While stuck in yet another traffic jam in the city of Beirut, I look at the cars around me: a BMW here, a Hyundai there, a Toyota, a Range Rover, nothing out of the ordinary.  But then I pay more attention, looking closer. I spot the variety of license plate colors, the usual white and blue Lebanese plates, the red taxi plates, and the green rental car plates.

Then I notice certain ones that would have definitely stood out to me a few years ago.  But now, with the Syrian cars populating the streets of Beirut, the black and white plates seem synonymous with the rest.

Typical Lebanese License Plates.
Syrian License Plate
Typical Syrian License Plate.

Another noticeable change on the streets is the increase of Syrian refugees in Beirut, knocking on people’s car windows to either beg for money or sell the cheapest gum, tissue paper, or candy they can get their hands on. Drivers have become immune to it, since it has become so standard at traffic lights and busy intersections that more often than not people seem to not even acknowledge their presence. On the rare occasions they do, a few thousand Lebanese pounds (1,500 Lebanese pounds accounts for one dollar) would be spared through a cracked window. A short-term fix, for a long-term problem.

One of these people spending their days on the streets is Sahar, a young 20-year-old mother of three. She sits despairingly on the sidewalk leaning back onto a light pole for support.  One child is in her arms while the other rests his head on her lap. It is the beginning of January, with temperatures dropping to 10 degrees Celsius (about 50 degrees Fahrenheit), the mother and two of her children seek warmth under one thin blanket while the third child, a green-eyed girl, sits on the cold pavement.  Her large green eyes unblinkingly stare at me, as her teeth clatter against each other from the cold.

Sahar was forced out of Syria and into Lebanon about 6 months ago. Some of her family is still back in Syria, dangerously accepting to continue life in the war-torn country, but Sahar was determined to bring herself and her three children to safer grounds.

When clashes between the rebel and government fighters erupted in her neighborhood, Sahar knew it was time she left Syria.

“I was pregnant and lost the baby because of the fighting,” she said.

Although Sahar was supposed to flee the country with her husband, he was caught at a checkpoint, presumably to be drafted into the army, forcing her to travel to Lebanon alone.

She currently rents out a small room with her kids.  There are about 10 other families that live in the same area, each family renting out just one room. In some cases, a single room is packed with more than 10 people.

This is a familiar situation many Syrian refugees are forced to go through, scavenging to find whatever form of shelter they can, whether it is a tent in the Bekaa Valley or a small room in Beirut. Both these accommodations pose their own unique challenges and hardships. None of them can be called home, and little support is offered by the Lebanese government or international aid agencies to ease the burdens all these asylum seekers face.

With children accounting for one million of the refugees, many of them are physically and mentally traumatized by the war.  In the case of Sahar’s children, those who have had their lives interrupted by war rarely get a chance of an education.lebanon_syrian_refugee_10_23_2012

Sahar’s children do not go to school, but instead spend their days by her side as she begs people for money. In fact, a video by Save the Children recently went viral, shedding light on what many Syrian children are forced to go through.

But children are not the only ones traumatized by the war.

“After the war started, I have been scared of everything,” Sahar said.

Yet Sahar was one of the few people who agreed to be interviewed.  After asking nine Syrian refugees if they would answer some questions, only two women agreed to help.  Two other women were willing to be interviewed at first, but when they saw a cellphone being used as a voice recorder, they quickly covered their faces with their hands or veil.  Even after explaining that the phone was just for voice recording, they still refused.

Their fear for being photographed and recognized can be a testament to life under a tyrannical regime. The fear of imprisonment, torture, and even death, was a noticeable concern for all those I attempted to interview. Living outside of their devastated country, the pillars of oppression were still very much intact.

“No no, I don’t want to,” was a recurring response from most I asked to speak to.

Although the United Nations High Commissioners for Refugees has registered approximately 980,700 refugees in Lebanon, many Syrians remain unregistered.  Sahar has not registered with the UNHCR because she said she does not have the information on how to do so.

“I don’t know where to go,” she said. “If someone can help me and show me where to go, I will go.”

This is also an issue with other refugees who do not have enough information on how to register with the UNHCR.

Family on Streets

Another Syrian mother of two, Layal, who also begs for money on the streets, does not know where to go to register as a refugee.

As of Feb. 2014, the UNHCR has appealed for $4.2 billion, and has only received 14 percent of the funding necessary for food, shelter, and other supplies.

With no end in sight to the Syrian conflict and the growing refugee problem, Layal and Sahar still have hope of one day returning to their homeland, sharing a similar dream of peace for the future.

“My hope for the future,” said Sahar, “is to go back to Syria.”

Hope seems like the only shining light amongst all the desolation endured by Syrian refugees. For the rest of us, hope cannot be our guiding light to address this problem, rather, we must act with all our powers to be a changing force in the miserable plight of the Syrian people.

 

 

*Since those interviewed preferred to remain anonymous, the names provided in this article are false.
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Lebanese App: Making the best out of a bad situation or just plain eerie?

A new application for Android users saves Lebanese people a lot of time, effort, and stress.  I am Alive application

I am Alive, an app created by Sandra Hassan, allows users to reassure their family and friends–you guessed it– that they are still alive.

After a bomb in Haret Hreik rocked the southern suburbs of Beirut on Tuesday, Hassan created the app “as a joke” and “a sort of dark humor,” according to an NDTV article.

With the rise of the political instability in Lebanon and three bombings occurring in January alone, unfortunately, this app could actually be useful, allowing people to make sure their loved ones are not in danger with the click of a button.  The usual anxiety-filled phone calls to everyone in the area where the bomb occurred may be replaced by clicking a button and then scanning who else tweeted about their safety.

The app logs into a person’s Twitter account and tweets, “I am still alive!”  It also hashtags #Lebanon and #LatestBombing allowing people to check who else used the app by looking through Twitter’s newsfeed.

Although everyone can access the tweets through Twitter, the app is not available for Apple owners.  This may seem fine since a lot of apps are solely for Apple products or exclusively for Android users.  On the other hand, if this app is not available to everyone then its whole purpose is defeated, since iPhone users’ wellbeing and safety will not be publicized.

As eerie as it may be, announcing that a person is still alive may actually be useful, since the conflicts and tensions in Lebanon have no near end in sight.

Download the application here.

Cake Cutting in Lebanon

Traveling has always been one of the simple pleasures in my life. I always looked forward to visiting different places, meeting new people, and learning about the different cultures. Because of my wanderlust tendencies, I’ve decided to explore unique traditional tips from different places and cultures!

In Lebanon, whether you’re turning four or 50 years old, you always do one thing consistently: You cut the cake with the dull end of the knife.

I remember cutting my birthday cakes this way from my earliest childhood memories and was shocked to find out this is not a universal tradition. Not in Syracuse, anyway.

Give it a try:

  1. Bake or buy a cake.
  2. Invite family/friends over to celebrate your birthday.
  3. Put the cake on a table and gather around the table.
  4. Start singing loudly and obnoxiously.  In Lebanon, this is usually done in Arabic, French, or English–sometimes even all three.
  5. When the song is over and you are done awkwardly staring at people singing to you, grab a large and sharp knife. Note that this knife should probably look as sharp and intimidating as possible.
  6. Now, completely disregard that sharp end of the knife.
  7. Turn the sharp end facing 180 degrees away from the cake.
  8. Start moving the knife downwards onto the cake. Make sure you and everyone around you screams as loud as possible when you cut the cake.
  9. Lastly, don’t forget to make a wish when cutting!

 

This is a light and fun piece I wrote for 360 Degrees, Syracuse University’s Culture Magazine, on their website.  Check out the original post here.

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Starting 2014 with yet Another Bomb

Time Magazine’s, “The Year in Review,” ranges from devastating events, such as the Boston Marathon bombing and the Syrian Civil War, to happy ones like the birth of Prince William and Kate’s baby.  While these events around the world range from tragic to hopeful, closer to home, it seems as though tragedies are accumulating.

As people around the world celebrated the coming of 2014, some Lebanese were still shaken from the car bomb in downtown Beirut, killing Lebanon’s former minister of finance, Mohamad Chatah, and seven others, just four days before New Year’s Day.  Late this afternoon, another car bomb exploded in Beirut’s southern suburbs, Haret Hreik, marking two bombs in one week.

Explosion in Beirut's Haret Hreik. Photograph from The Daily Star
Explosion in Beirut’s Haret Hreik. Photograph taken from The Daily Star

The current back-and-forth bombing games are not only resulting in the deaths of innocent Lebanese citizens, but are also creating a larger split in sectarian divisions. Unfortunately, the Lebanese are used to bombs occurring every now and then.  The repeating pattern going along the lines of hearing about the news, calling family and friends, and feeling frustrated, hopeless, or entirely indifferent to the situation.  After this, the shock, frustration, anger, and Facebook statuses die down within a few days, while the traffic jams and late nights at pubs and clubs continue.

One thing that differs the first bombing this week from those in the past is the level of outrage received from people throughout the country.  With current tensions concerning a national division on the Syrian Civil War, people can guess which areas may be safe and which ones may not, depending on the religion that is prominent in each region.  Although equally unfortunate, a bomb in downtown is less expected than one in Dahieh.  This is mainly because downtown is not tied to any religion, whereas Dahieh is mainly a Shi’ite populated area.

Considering the fact that downtown is religiously unmarked, many Lebanese can relate to the victims of the bombing.  For example, Mohammad El Chaar, a teenager who was killed from injuries caused by the first bomb this week, is known throughout Lebanon after a picture of him before and after the bomb circulated online.  His death caused outrage because people could relate to him. He was not a politician, he was not a radical extremist, he was just a regular person walking on the streets of downtown, taking pictures with his friends.  Anyone who heard of El Chaar’s story could relate to him; “I always take that street on my way to work,” or “I usually jog by there around that time.” It could have happened to anyone.

El Chaar is not a martyr.  He is a victim. He is a victim of the senseless bombings that have occurred in this proxy war over power.

Smoke rising from car bomb during the late afternoon of Jan. 2.
Smoke rising from car bomb during the late afternoon on Jan. 2.

So the question is, at the start of yet another New Year, has anything really changed? What differs 2014 from 2013? Well, with a bomb marking the end of 2013 and another marking the start of 2014, it does not seem like anything has changed, except for a mere date.  Like at the start of every year, as people are forming a list of New Year’s resolutions, one thing to keep in mind is how a person at the individual level can help ease the tensions in Lebanon by not submitting to the agendas of political and religious parties, and instead keeping Lebanon and the Lebanese interest at heart.

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