No prejudices, one mission: Young volunteers in Lebanon
08 May 2007

Beirut, Lebanon: It came from the mouths of babes, as they say. Tired of sectarianism and politics, eight teenagers who met regularly at Hamra cafes decided to take a stand.  So they formed a group, "Volunteers With No Constraints" - meaning without religion and without political affiliation. Their plan is to volunteer wherever necessary, offering help with no questions asked.

Their leader is a 17-year-old straight-A student, Shawky Amineddine. The idea came to him after the summer 2006 war. He and his friends spent all their time helping out refugees sheltered in Beirut. Despite the bombing in the background, the teenagers distributed relief supplies and spent hours entertaining the distraught children. With the war over, Amineddine felt he had found his mission in life and called a meeting with his friends. The first meeting held in a cafe attracted 30 youths. Eight out of those chose to commit seriously to Amineddine's idea and they began to plan.

The first rule was that there would never be political or religious talk. Nor would there be racism or gender discrimination. The second was that everyone, board and members, had to be under the age of 20.

Next, they had to find a place to serve as their headquarters. Aid Lebanon, a local non-governmental organization, offered them office space in Sodeco Square. In return, the Volunteers With No Constraints will dispatch dozens of teenage volunteers as needed for various projects.

Ironically, Amineddine first balked at the idea of volunteering last year when he found out that he had to do 90 hours of community service as a requirement for graduating from the International College (IC). An IC scholar - he won a full scholarship based on his high academic grades - he wanted to concentrate on his studies.

"I thought it was a waste of time," he recalled.

To his surprise, he found out that he enjoyed it. "At first I just felt sympathy for the orphans, the disabled and the deaf," he said. "But then, I realized that I didn't feel just sympathy anymore. I genuinely liked working with them."

Before the year was over, he had completed 280 hours - many more than the required 90.

"I stopped counting the hours after that," he said, laughing.

IC began requiring all students to fulfill community service hours in 1998, when its senior vice president and director of the secondary school, Mishka Mourani, was seeking international baccalaureate (IB) accreditation for IC. She was told that IB students must fulfill certain community, action and service requirements.

Mourani, a strong supporter of community service herself, was intrigued by the idea. Part of IC's mission, after all, was to produce compassionate and giving citizens. She wanted all IC students to volunteer their time. And so she created a three-year community service program and made it a prerequisite to graduation.

Some parents protested. Their children, they felt, were too young to see poverty, disability and despair. Some students themselves resisted.

"Whether we like it or not our [IC] kids are more privileged," said Mourani, "and with privilege comes responsibility."

Mourani was adamant. Students would not graduate unless they fulfilled a certain number of hours serving their communities. In their first year, students have to fulfill 35 hours of community service. After a few introductory sessions on campus, students are taken to NGOs to spend time with orphans, the elderly and disabled people. At the end of the scholastic year, students host their new friends on-campus for a day of fun-filled activities created and organized by the students themselves.

In the next two years, students can choose to volunteer with one of 20 select organizations. Each NGO has agreed to accept several students. The program was such a resounding success that four other schools followed suit. Tellingly, many parents themselves now call up to volunteer their time.

For Amineddine, the program introduced him to a whole new world. He volunteered with many NGOs and participated in many events, including Global Youth Service Days. He found himself on various NGO committees, planning and organizing. He attended workshops faithfully and helped run workshops whenever needed. Together with other teenage volunteers from various schools, Amineddine continued working with the needy.

"This is when I started thinking that we should have our own group," he recalled. "We were all young, got along well and willing to volunteer."

Today, Volunteers With No Constraints boasts a membership of 250 volunteers.

The group is planning its first big event: an open-air carnival. Magicians, stage performances and inflatable bouncing platforms are all part of the program. The target audience is disabled, underprivileged and orphaned children. But it will also be open to the public for a small fee.

Somehow, between studying, passing the baccalaureate exam and attending classes, the teenagers must secure sponsors and financial contributions.

Once the carnival is over, Amineddine will be eagerly waiting for one thing: to turn 18 and register the Volunteers With No Constraints as an official Lebanese NGO.

© The Daily Star

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