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Youth volunteers restore hope in Lebanon
12 April 2007

Volunteers working at a school in Saida (Sidon). (David Snyder/CRS)Volunteers working at a school in Saida (Sidon). (David Snyder/CRS)
Sidon, Lebanon: During the war that unfolded in Lebanon last year, 23-year-old Abdel Razak Hammoud and a group of friends organized a children’s party. That was the easy part. What proved most challenging was convincing parents, many still mourning the deaths of their loved ones, to attend.

But somehow, they pulled it off. Just two days before the war ended, children and their parents gathered to celebrate life. Abdel says that he couldn't contain his happiness when he saw the parents dance with their children to the "sweet sound" of Lebanese folk, or dabka, music "as if it was some kind of a celebration of what was to come rather than remorse over what has come to pass.” Looking back on that day, Abdel says it will be one of his most cherished memories.

The Grip of Conflict

For many young adults in Lebanon, war is the most prominent backdrop of everyday life. And since conflict has gripped Lebanon for over three decades, many of the country’s youth are all too familiar with being confined to their homes, finding refuge at shelters, obeying curfews, and sifting through the rubble of their homes to find the remnants of their lives.

Lebanon, which has a sizable Christian population, saw a brief period of peace in early 2006 — a time when many Lebanese were optimistic about new commerce development and much-needed revitalization. Yet a two-month conflict erupted in July of that year when the radical Lebanon-based group Hezbollah crossed into Israel and killed three Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two others, causing Israel to retaliate. As Israeli air strikes pounded many neighborhoods and structures in southern Lebanon, an estimated 1200 Lebanese civilians were killed, along with hundreds of Hezbollah fighters. According to United Nations estimates, a third of the civilians injured or killed were children.

Thousands of displaced and mournful Lebanese families returned to their communities only to find their homes and livelihoods destroyed. School-age children, still shaken by the war, were expected to start the new school year and return to some of the same schools that were used as shelters.

Despite recurring conflict and the prevailing attitudes of the younger generation — who wish to abandon Lebanon in search of peace and work — many of Lebanon's youth are highly motivated to take an active role in recovery efforts.
‘I Keep on Laughing’

"I keep on laughing, even at times when there is nothing to laugh about," explains 23-year-old Zahi Chahine, who works with a local CRS partner, the Development of People and Nature Association. "It is like the common [expression]: Laugh and the world will laugh with you."

For Abdel and hundreds of other young volunteers, helping to pick up the pieces is their way to make a change for their country and provide a new generation with hope. Some deliver food to the elderly and needy families who lost most of their possessions. Others have picked up shovels to restore a community park.

Catholic Relief Services has recently completed the first phase of its $10-million postwar recovery effort, aimed at restoring hope and life for at least 100,000 Lebanese of all faiths in 80 communities. Youth volunteers and workers placed by CRS and our local partners, the Development of People and Nature Association and Caritas Lebanon, have helped make these projects a success.

With the help of youth volunteers and local partners, CRS is now moving into its second phase of recovery, which includes helping people get back to earning a living, rebuilding infrastructure destroyed by the war and supporting psychosocial activities such as summer camps for children.

"Increasingly, we’re looking to focus on development of youth leadership, [along with] promotion of good governance and further economic development," says Mindy Burrell, CRS Lebanon country representative.

The initial large-scale recovery effort included food assistance, vouchers for crops and livestock, water sanitation, livelihood restoration, community upgrade projects, and camps designed to ease the psychological trauma of children affected by the war.

A Chain of Compassion

Snapshots from these camps show youth volunteers holding hands with young children as they engaged in fun activities designed to dull the fresh memories of war.

"It is as if — in some kind of way, while playing with these children — the volunteers find themselves compensating for their lost childhoods," theorizes Elie Haddad, a CRS Lebanon staff member who recently engaged several of the youth workers in candid discussions about their experiences.

Elie, too, knows how it feels to come of age amid war. As a logistics officer for CRS Lebanon, he is responsible for delivering food and other supplies to war-affected families. But Elie is also a writer and actor in his spare time and volunteers at a children's theater, where he teaches youngsters about the environment and other issues they face.

Elie continues by explaining that as the young volunteers see it, they were once in the small shoes of these children, who are often filled with fear and uncertainty. Etched in the volunteers’ minds are the infectious smiles of past volunteers who held their hands during times of war.

"They were touched by these memories to the extent that it drove them today to take the places of those volunteers in the hopes of returning a smile to the face of a new child, who is in his turn a victim to a new war," Elie says.

Unwavering Passion

In talking to the volunteers, what is most striking, Elie says, is not just the unwavering passion that gleams from their eyes but their conviction to bring about change in a society that by many accounts has stripped them of a peaceful life.

Natalie Nohra, a Caritas volunteer, has found her niche working with the elderly, whom she lovingly refers to as "big kids" and "innocent souls." Sitting below a framed picture of Pope John Paul II, she explains that everyone needs someone to lean on.

One point that 24-year-old Naji Mousawar says he had to make clear was that the programs were open to people of all faiths . "The truth is that we help everyone who is in need, regardless of religion, ethnicity or region, and this exact behavior was clear to all who had doubts in the beginning," he says.

It is this compassion and perspective that lend the youth a maturity beyond their years, Elie observes. When Elie asked them what they would be doing if not for their volunteer work, most were unable to imagine an alternative. "It has become indispensable for them, and it is virtually impossible to trade it with any other kind of lifestyle," says Elie.

For 27-year-old Natalie, not even the idea of marriage and starting a family is more appealing than volunteering. "I leave this to the far future because then — when I have a family — I wouldn't be able to volunteer like I do right now," Natalie says. "And even if my parents rarely see me at home for the time being, they take solace in the fact that their daughter is happy with what she is doing."