The INMA Volunteer Experience

When we arrived in Beirut we were still not sure what to expect. We knew we would be working with kids in a Palestinian refugee camp – but that was about it.

The first impression as we walked into the camp was of an incredible web of electrical wires and water pipes haphazardly strung up above the maze of narrow alleyways (we later learned that power and water cuts are frequent and that every year people are electrocuted in the camp.) It was a typical sunny summers day in Beirut but the camp seemed starved of sunlight and fresh air; the homes dark and dingy. We did a double- take upon seeing the local armed plain-clothes militiamen patrolling the streets. Apparently there are at least 15 different factions in the camp.

Not knowing much about the Palestinian refugee situation here, we were shocked and dismayed to learn that these people have no legal status to work. There is therefore very little incentive to gain an education and many people live in poverty. Generations have passed since the first refugees arrived, and with no end in sight to the situation its not surprising that there is such a lack of hope in the camp.

We meet with three of INMA’s local Palestinian employees – Eman, Hoda and NajaH – who live and work in the camp. Friendly and motivated these young women are critical to the success of the programme. We were immediately impressed by INMA’s practice of empowering local people to run the programme.

The next day we distributed some donated meat to needy families around the camp. This was a chance to see more of the camp and meet a few of the families. Everyone was friendly and appreciative of the meat – a little bit goes a long way in the camp.

The first week we helped a group from Canada paint a house for a particularly needy family in the camp. The house was very dark, dirty and generally in very poor condition. There was water all over the kitchen floor due to poor plumbing and loads of huge cockroaches lived in the cupboards. This caused more than one of our group to scream and squeal in horror. We got to work cleaning the house and put a new coat of paint on the walls. We left it looking so much better than it was and the fresh white paint made it look a lot lighter. However, we did wonder how long it would stay looking this good.

When we first met the children (aged 5 – 10) they were a little shy and us not speaking the same language made communication difficult. However, with lots of hand gestures, a smattering of badly spoken Arabic and just getting down and playing Lego with them, it did not take long for us to break the ice. Kids are kids and as we got to know them and started learning their names they became less shy and started to interact with us more and more. It was good having both of us there as the girls naturally drew closer to Kerry and the boys to Matt.

It was clear right from the start that they really loved doing all of the activities offered at the Kids Club, including crafts, games, food design, singing, circle time, Lego and sports. We wonder how much opportunity they get to do this sort of stuff at home as many of them struggle with basic motor skills when doing the crafts. This was also apparent with sports – things that we would take for granted from kids this age, these ones seemed to struggle with. A difficult reminder that there is really nowhere for kids to run around and play in the camp; they really hadn’t ever done things like play leap-frog or dodge-ball before.

On Fridays we take the kids and some of their mothers to the river. This is an absolute highlight of theweek for everyone. As the bus pulls out of the camp the music is turned up very loud and the children, mothers and teachers all start singing, clapping and dancing for the entire journey. Party central on the bus. Arriving at the river the children love swimming, running, playing on the swings, kicking a ball around and just enjoy having a lot more space than in the camp.

Since we have arrived we have also tried to gain an understanding of the complex historical, political, religious and social reasons for the Palestinian refugee situation in Lebanon. It is frustratingly clear there is no easy solution. However, we have seen first hand the good work the Kids Club does in putting hope and light in to the lives of the children and their mothers. It certainly puts a smile onto their faces.

The INMA foundation is also involved in promoting dialogue at a big picture level, which is very important and closely compliments the hands-on work it does.

Matthew and Kerry Cole

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