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Refugees' care fall into volunteers' hands
26 July 2006

Young volunteers loading food onto trucks in a relief campaign based at an artists’ community in Beirut. (Bryan Denton for The New York Times) Young volunteers loading food onto trucks in a relief campaign based at an artists’ community in Beirut. (Bryan Denton for The New York Times)
Beirut, Lebanon: There are no firm figures on how many Lebanese have been displaced by Israel's ongoing military assault. As The Daily Star went to press, people were still fleeing the worst-hit areas, South Lebanon and Beirut's southern suburbs (the Dahiyeh). A conservative guess puts the number of internally displaced people in the hundreds of thousands.

Caring for the internal refugees has largely fallen to Lebanon's volunteer organizations, among them several groups usually active in the arts.

One of the first arts-based relief-coordination efforts to declare its existence centered on the SHAMS Arts Collective. SHAMS was founded a few years ago by theater director, writer, and actor Roger Assaf; its Sunflower Cultural Center at the Tayyouneh Roundabout - basically the point where southeastern Beirut meets the Dahiyeh - provided a focal point for refugee relief.

SHAMS' intention was to assemble a refugee-relief effort that was non-sectarian, intra-regional and non-ideological. He wanted to establish a third space - neither "the ideological and war-mongering thesis of Hizbullah" as they wrote in their 15 July mission statement, nor "the irresponsible rhetoric of Arab oil merchants or Lebanese billionaires" while condemning "the crimes of the theocratic state of Israel ... and the complicity of Europe."

The center's proximity to the Dahiyeh was to its advantage and its detriment. Though refugees did come at the beginning of the crisis, numbers dwindled as the attacks continued and the Israelis broadened their attacks to strike areas beyond Beirut International Airport and Haret Hreik.

Electronic improvisational composer Tarek Atoui is among the young artists who volunteered at Tayyouneh.

"There are a lot of artists who want to help the refugees anyway they can," says Atoui. "I started going there less because it's too close to the bombing. From the very beginning [Assaf] took pains to tell everyone that it wasn't political. But some feared that's how the place would be perceived. For certain people, trying to help refugees is the same thing as helping Hizbullah. In a way, Hizbullah seems like its the only group fighting for human rights here, simply because nobody's doing anything to stop this aggression and Hizbullah is the only group fighting it."

Atoui is now working independently for the most part - making short videos of the crisis and making them available to the outside world via email.

"Essentially, I'm adapting the project that I had to discontinue because of the attack. Before I was working with Palestinian refugees ... Now I'm doing the same work with Lebanese refugees."

Ultimately Tayyouneh is simply too close for the refugees' comfort, so SHAMS has relocated, joining relief efforts based, in the northwestern neighborhood of Sanayeh.

Sanayeh's Zicco House - for years a nodal point of arts and cultural activity - is these days the nerve center of Relief Center - Sanayeh (RCS), which is coordinating relief efforts at several different levels - work that in another country, or another time, would be done by the state.

"At first we tried to coordinate with the Ministry of Social Affairs," says Ghassan Mukarrem, who works with the RCS's media team. "Now they're coordinating with us because they didn't have a team in place."