Another outside-of-Beirut adventure came about by chance. At church on Sunday, Maria bumped into an old friend who was visiting Lebanon for a few days. She was going out into a few villages the next day to see some Christian-run refugee schools, and their conversation resulted in an invitation for me to join!

The drive out of Beirut was beyond breathtaking. I took a few inadequate pictures out the car window before giving up and just looking with my eyes.

I was very interested to see the refugee situation in Lebanon and how it compares to Armenia. Before this, Armenia was my only real reference point, and that isn’t exactly a typical refugee scenario. One major difference is simply the number of people. In Armenia, a country of 3ish million people, the numbers we usually cite are that 22,000 refugees have come to Armenia, and 15,000 of those are still in the country. Lebanon, a country of 4 million people, is estimated to have around 1.5 million Syrian refugees, not to mention the almost 200,000 Palestinian refugees who have been there for decades now (though no one really knows the accurate numbers, so they could be higher or lower than these).

Another big difference I didn’t think much about beforehand is housing. I was answering some questions about the refugee situation in Armenia, and someone said, “What are the camps like?” I was a little thrown off and replied that there aren’t camps in Armenia. The person looked impressed by that fact, but I tried to clarify that that doesn’t mean Armenia really has its act together or that most refugees have decent living conditions. Maybe things are “better” for people here, but it doesn’t seem productive to use that word when the situations are just two varying levels of horrible.

One of the refugee camps from a distance. It’s a little tent city, and with the cold of winter (which can be decently cold despite being in Lebanon), a tent is definitely not an easy or comfortable living space.

There are estimates that as many as half of the school-age Syrian refugee children in Lebanon aren’t going to school. Despite many initiatives to change that, various challenges such as language barriers, transportation costs, and kids working to help support their families all contribute to keeping kids out of school.

We visited two out of the six total schools that this particular ministry operates. Between all six, they have about 1,600 kids enrolled! The principal at the first school explained that even though it’s a school run by Christians, they don’t explicitly teach the kids about Christianity. For a while at first, they just operated the school and gained the trust of the community. After that, they started talking a bit more about stories from the Bible and such, and they do teach Christian values.

Kids at the first school singing and dancing. They were all so excited to show off what they’ve learned.

She told a story about a boy from one of their schools. His father told him to go and steal some fruit, and the boy said that they learned at school that you’re not supposed to take things that don’t belong to you. The kid’s teacher went to see the father, explained what they’re teaching the kids about how to behave, and said that it only works if they’re also getting the same reinforcement at home. She told him that they needed to work together.

Now that the school has been around for a bit, they’re gaining people’s trust more and more. They’re bringing the parents in for meetings and getting them involved. Most of all, they’re just trying to show the people God’s love. They said that they’ve heard multiple times from the families they work with that the only people who treat them like they’re people and not animals are the Christians. That’s nice and I’m glad that the Christian community is treating people right, but honestly, that statement mostly just bothers me. They are people. Why is it so hard to treat them that way? Or better question, why is it so easy to not treat them that way?

One of the classrooms in the second school. The school is located in what looks like a very small strip mall. You can see the garage-type door on the opposite side of the room.

We have this horrible human habit of thinking that we deserve what we have, and if people are in unfortunate situations, it’s their fault. How do we have such undeserved, high opinions of ourselves? As if we deserve success and happiness because we’ve never done anything wrong in our whole lives, and they don’t because they definitely have done something that justifies their circumstances.

These people had lives back in Syria. They had businesses. They were teachers, writers, mechanics, artists, jewelers, shopkeepers. They didn’t start the war. Most of them didn’t want the war and would have been happy to keep on living life the way they were. They are just people who were caught in the middle of a conflict in their country. They deserve to live as much as any of us. They deserve to build lives and to be able to support their families. They deserve to be treated with love, respect, and dignity. How can you look at a person, know nothing about them, and think of them as less than you? Saying it like that makes it sound ridiculous… because it is. Somehow though, we manage to do it constantly.

Every time I hear someone talk about their experiences in Syria during the war, I get this weird mix of emotions. It’s the same thing I feel when Maria and Badveli talk about something that happened during the war in Beirut and they’re so matter-of-fact about it. “Well, this bus only ran to here, and then you walked to taxis over here but you had to be careful because of snipers, and then you drove to these buses here and you had to be careful again because other snipers, and then you got home!” I think I feel a combination of horrified and baffled because the words don’t match the tone. The words are horrific, and the tone is simply factual. It’s amazing what people can get used to. We can train ourselves to feel like almost anything is normal, even when it absolutely isn’t. People shouldn’t have to know what shelling sounds like or how to avoid getting sniped or what to do when bombs are being dropped on their neighborhood. Those are not things that should have to be accepted as part of “normal” life.

View from one of the schools.

Visiting those schools, it was hard to reconcile the knowledge of the horrible things those kids have lived through with the smiles on their faces. Part of that is because kids are amazingly resilient, and in these schools, part of it is definitely because of the teachers. It was immediately clear to me that the teachers are passionate about their work and that they love the kids. I was so impressed. I’ve seen a lot of teachers all over the world, and you can very quickly tell which ones see teaching as more than a job. They know that they can have a huge impact on the kids and who they will become, and they take that responsibility seriously. In all of them, I saw that look in their eyes where you know that they love those kids like their own. The students can feel it too, and every single kid in those schools was clearly thrilled to be there. Their families are still facing plenty of challenges, but for a few hours each day, they get to be regular kids who smile and laugh and play.

Kids at the second school taking a break from classes to sing, dance, and run around.

I’ve had some very unique opportunities this year to see the world from different angles. Some have been fun and beautiful and some have been sad and uncomfortable, but all of them have been equally important. Ignoring sad things doesn’t make them go away. Paying attention, letting yourself feel, and trying to understand are what lead to empathy. Empathy connects people. And paying attention usually also reveals hope because where there’s a problem, there are “ordinary” people working to fix it. I think that’s pretty amazing.

Anyway, I know this isn’t exactly my usual type of post. I’ve just been thinking a lot about these things recently, and my experience in Lebanon reinforced a lot of the thoughts that have been rolling around in my head. I’m still not completely sure what to do with them, but for now, they’re pushing me to see people and situations in a new way.

Here are a few more pretty mountain views 🙂

Remember when I said that my lack of sleep was going to catch up with me? Well… it didn’t take as long as I was expecting. I completely crashed today. When I got back to the house after school, I took a quick 20-minute nap that turned into a not so quick 3-hour nap. Ha. Oops.

Normally, I would try to just hold out for the weekend, but brace yourself to hear the worst thing ever… They have school on Saturdays. SCHOOL ON SATURDAYS. I also somehow JUST found this out because they’ve had school holidays on the two Saturdays since I’ve been here (one because they get off on the second Saturday of each month and one for Easter). At first, I thought that they just had chapel in the morning, but no, after that, they have two classes! CLASSES ON SATURDAYS. They get off at 11:30, but that doesn’t change the fact that there’s SCHOOL… ON SATURDAYS.

The school coordinator literally laughed at me when she told me this and my jaw dropped. I just… that’s horrible! I know that I’m supposed to say that just because things are different here doesn’t mean they’re wrong, but this… this is so wrong. I am a big supporter of vacation time and weekends and not working on the weekends. How am I supposed to survive the week if I have literally ZERO days to sleep in? Six days a week I have to wake up for school, and on Sundays, I have church. I know, I know. I’m complaining. But did I mention that they have school on Saturdays??

Speaking of the school, I realized that I haven’t explained much about it and how I ended up there. The missionary couple who is hosting me (I’ll have to tell their story sometime too… it’s awesome!) started the school. To give you the short history, they moved here without a plan. They didn’t already have the idea to start a school; they just came and observed and decided that it was something that the community needed.

Ruth said that she and Pastor Daniel used to take walks around the city, and they saw so many kids who weren’t in school for one reason or another, often money problems or because they were girls. At the time when they first came (around the year 2000), many people here still didn’t see education as important for girls. Girls are already expensive because they need money to get married, so why send them to school and spend even more money on them? (Women/their families often have to pay a dowry/bride price as part of marriage agreements. Apparently there are laws against this now, but as far as I can tell, they’re not very effective.)

They started out by setting up free classes that were open to all kids. They taught them songs and Bible stories and gave them something to do besides roam the streets, and the number of kids grew and grew until they had 300-400 kids showing up. Can you imagine? 400 kids! Eventually, this transformed into a small school that started with just kindergarten and then grew with the kids. Now, they have Pre-K through 10th standard. Here, after 10th standard, the kids take board exams that determine where they can go to school for “+2”, or the equivalent of 11th and 12th grade. It’s normal for kids to go to a different school for +2, and many schools are just Pre-K to 10th. After that, they take another round of board exams and can go to college to get a bachelor’s degree in 3 years.

The families pay what they can towards tuition, and the rest is covered by scholarship. Some kids are on full scholarship and even get their books, uniforms, and other materials provided. The classes (besides language classes) are all taught in English. People speak a lot of different languages here (Hindi, Nepali, Bengali, and more), so English is the language spoken in a good number of schools in the area. It’s a Christian school, but students and teachers of all faiths are welcome. The kids have morning assembly where they sing Christian songs and such and have chapel on Saturday, and the teachers have a prayer time after school each day. Everyone is required to participate but obviously not forced to believe.

Pastor Daniel said that they’ve had parents who transferred their kids out because of the participation requirement, and within the year they were begging for their kids to be readmitted because they realized the quality of the education they’re getting. Beyond just classwork, there’s a strong moral education, and the kids are taught to behave appropriately, take care of themselves, and be respectful and kind to others.

From what I’ve seen so far, it’s a cool place. The teachers all seem to get along well, and they actually care about the students. The kids act like kids, but they definitely are polite and respectful. I’m learning a lot from working there, both from the students and the other teachers. It’s an interesting dynamic with the coming together of so many different types of people, but it works!

​The last two days have been one, big, notebook-wrapping blur. The team has been working on their service projects, and I’m in charge of the “vinifan” project. Let me attempt to summarize the ridiculousness that is this process:

The notebooks closer to the bookcase are already wrapped. The other ones need to be wrapped. A million notebooks everywhere.

The kids need notebooks for school, and it’s way more than you would ever think that someone might need. A 2-year-old needs 2 notebooks. A 4th grader needs 13. A 7th grader needs 17. What the heck are they doing with 17 notebooks?? Well, that’s beside the point. Each notebook is for a specific subject (geometry, arithmetic, algebra, etc. – even though those are all math, they all need a different notebook). There are a bunch of different line types in the notebooks – graph paper, blank, lined, 3-lines, bigger squares, even bigger squares, bigger 3-lines, etc., and each subject needs a specific type of lines and a specific color. Each notebook also has to get covered with plastic (vinifan is the brand of the plastic) to protect it. If the notebook itself isn’t the right color to begin with, you need to first cover it with paper that’s the right color and second cover it with the plastic. They also all have handwritten labels that have the subject, kid’s name, grade, and school written on them. I think that we have about 24 kids that we are wrapping for, and they range in age from 2 years to 8th grade.


Does that sound like a very complicated situation for some school notebooks? The correct answer to this question is “yes”, by the way. We figured out a system yesterday, after a little trial and error, and it ended up with me writing all of the labels, picking out notebooks, and leaving a note if their colors needed to be changed. I had volunteers assigned to me from the team, so at least I wasn’t doing it alone. By the end of the day yesterday, I think we had only done about 60, and we have over 200 to do.

The last two days have basically just been hours and hours of wrapping books in plastic. Actually, I spent most of my time writing labels. It was a fabulous moment when I finished writing and my hand could finally relax.

The team sang a couple of songs at church tonight!

Tonight, after dinner we went to the church where the kids are taken during the school year. The music was really fun and upbeat, and I knew some of the songs in English. The sermon was also really well done. Dina was translating it, so it wasn’t that hard to follow, but I tried to translate the Spanish and then only count on her for help when I definitely couldn’t figure out what was going on. I’m going to put my comprehension level of that service at about 85-90%. I’m definitely improving!!

I’m exhausted and have to wake up at 5:45AM again to put the coffee on before breakfast, so ciao for now!