Monthly Archives: January 2015

Syrian refugees face a new kind of hell

Syrian mothers trying to keep their children warm in a refugee camp

Syrian mothers trying to keep their children warm in a refugee camp

“Words simply cannot describe the sorrow and despair facing Syrian refugees in Lebanon today,” stated Lynn Tabbara, a co-founder of Intaliqi, a Lebanese-based NGO set up in 2013 to empower socially disadvantaged women in refugee camps across the country.

According to the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, there are over 3 million Syrian refugees scattered across the Levant, making it the “biggest humanitarian emergency of our era”.

Lebanon is hosting the largest number of Syrian refugees in the world, with over 1.3 million living in makeshift tents in northern Lebanon and the Beqaa Valley. Many, according to Ms Tabbara, are not registered, making it difficult for them to access aid. And being registered, she said, “Unfortunately it doesn’t guarantee them access to aid, given the scarcity of resources”.

“The situation is also deteriorating quite quickly,” she added. “We visited some of these camps around two years ago and conditions today are significantly worse. Refugees in the camps live in extreme poverty and every day struggle through life. Their displacement has stripped them of their humanity; children have lost their childhoods while adults seem to have given up on life. Their basic needs of shelter, belonging and protection are rarely met. Access to education and healthcare are luxuries few can afford.”

The winter months cause these refugees the most distress. Earlier this month, Lebanon and parts of the Levant experienced one of the worst snowstorms in history. According to Lebanon’s state-run news agency, in North Lebanon’s Akkar region “snow fell at just 200 metres above sea level, completely cutting off villages and towns above 1,000 metres. Certain villages were buried under more than 150 centimetres of snow.”

But despite snowstorm Zina tapering, there appears to be no end in sight for the Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The destruction left behind has been catastrophic, making life unbearable for those families living in makeshift tents.

“We have tragically witnessed babies and elderly frozen to death,” said Ms Tabbara. “Refugees have to face the snow with practically no shoes on and very few layers. Their frail bodies are often unable to protect them from the freezing cold and sub-zero temperatures. Blankets are often used to protect the tents from water leakage, instead of providing warmth to their bodies. They have practically no heating and unreliable electricity.”

Intaliqi team loading trucks filled with much-needed aid for Syrian refugees in Lebanon

Intaliqi team loading trucks filled with much-needed aid for Syrian refugees in Lebanon

Since its establishment, Intaliqi has set up programmes to assist Syrian refugee women, among other programmes aimed at vulnerable and displaced women. However, the harsh winter conditions Lebanon has witnessed this month required Intaliqi’s prompt intervention on a much wider scale.

“We felt compelled to act decisively and lend our support to as many affected by this crisis as possible. Our hearts ached for every man, woman and child who was literally freezing to death,” she added.

“In partnership with other NGOs, private donors and businesses, and with the strong support of the local and international communities, we are trying to reduce the impact of the crisis by assisting some of the refugees and providing them with basic survival needs.”

Children have lost their childhood as a result of the Syrian war

Children have lost their childhood as a result of the Syrian war

Ms Tabbara started a personal social media initiative to raise donations from close family and friends; what she didn’t expect was the rapid international response to the initiative.

“We have been overwhelmed by the response so far! We have now set up collection points in Lebanon, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and the UK. People from all over the world are sending us donations to help those in need. We are forever grateful to the priceless support we have had from businesses and individuals who truly believed in us and made this initiative a success,” she said.

Among the supporters of the campaign is Lebanese-Australian beauty Jessica Kahawaty. With over 160,000 followers, the former Miss World Australia urged her followers on Instagram and Facebook to get behind the campaign. “These are LIVE images of four Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon that I’m personally helping,” the Yahoo Maktoob presenter posted on her social media pages. “If you aren’t aware already, many children are dying from starvation.”

Speaking from her home in Sydney, where she’s currently completing a law degree, Ms Kahawaty told me that her message was that we should live in harmony with one another and provide an education to those who are most vulnerable in society.

Jessica Kahawaty

Jessica Kahawaty

“The most important thing right now is providing basic life necessities such as food, water, warm shelter and medication to the displaced minors and their families,” she said. “The issue is obviously a very complex one that will take many years to resolve and the scars are engraved so deep they will show for generations to come, but eventually, it would be imperative to place these children in schools and make sure they receive at least universal primary education in order for them to have some opportunity in life.”

It’s just as terrifying in the Za’atari camp – Jordan’s largest refugee camp – where the UNHCR says that dozens of families remained camped in emergency shelters last week after their tents collapsed under the weight of snow.

“This storm has had a big impact on refugees here, and it’s making their daily lives even harder,” said UNHCR’s Nasreddine Touaibia. “Being in a camp is already not a comfortable situation, so if you add to it this extreme weather – strong winds, rain and snow – the situation now is pretty bad.”

In the UAE, more than USD 45 million was raised earlier this month as part of the UAE Compassion Campaign to help the displaced refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Gaza and Palestine.

Shoes are delivered for children in refugee camps

Shoes are packed and delivered to children in refugee camps

But more needs to be done says Ms Tabbara. “They still need blankets, boots, jackets, kids’ clothing, gloves, scarves, socks, canned food, bread, fuel coupons and medication to help them get through the coming winter months.”

Do your bit to help the Syrian refugee crisis: contact Intaliqi by email at info@intaliqi.com or by phone +961 70706167.

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Reckless Parenting in Arabia

Young children are often left alone at home

Young children are often left alone at home


“Parenting classes should be mandatory, whether you are adopting or not, and would include an evaluation of your current physical, mental and financial state as well as how ready you are to take on the rigors of parenthood. Our children are our most precious natural resource, and there is absolutely no other way to parent but to put them first.” – Dale Archer

Parents living in the United Arab Emirates will nod their heads in agreement after reading this piece. Some might be surprised while others simply won’t care. If you’re out of the country or the region you might be shaking your head by the end.

If you think seeing children hanging out of moving vehicles, jumping around in the back seat with no seatbelt on and sitting on the driver’s lap in a fast car is reckless, that’s nothing compared to what I’m about to tell you.

Working in the events industry in the Middle East, I have come across parents from all walks of life. There are those tearing their hair out desperately look for a lost child, and once she’s found, embrace her with love and care. And then there are those who drop off five and six year olds alone at an arena with not a care in the world. Others won’t realize their child is missing until we announce that he has been in our care for 20 minutes and we need his parents to come and claim him.

In one situation, I was confronted with a disturbing parental decision. I had invited my daughter’s eight-year-old school friend and her mother to attend a family event. On this particular day, the arena was filled to capacity, 3500 people. While doing my regular rounds to see whether my guests had any problems, I came across my daughter’s friend.

It's not uncommon to see children in movie theaters without adult supervision

It’s not uncommon to see children in movie theaters without adult supervision

“Where’s your mum?” I asked. “She’s left,” the quietly spoken girl responded. Beside her was another little girl, her friend. I looked out into the distance and saw her mother and another woman leaving the arena, heading down the stairs and out the door. A million and one thoughts and profanities went through my head. What on earth was she thinking?

I dashed past several people. “Excuse me! Excuse me!’ I said, as I ran towards the woman. Still trying to catch my breath, I put my hand on her shoulder. “Hi, how are you?” I asked casually. “I’m glad you could make it.” She introduced me to her friend, another Lebanese mother.

“Where’s your daughter?” I asked.

“She’s sitting down with her friend,” she responded. And then the tales began.

“Aren’t you staying?” I asked.

“No, we’re going to have a cup of coffee,” she said casually, as though it were normal to leave two eight-year-old girls alone at a large event.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “Unfortunately the rules don’t allow you to leave your children unattended at these events.”

“But we do it all the time when we go to the movies,” she continued. “They’re old enough and mature enough to be on their own.” Wow, I thought. Was she serious?

Sadly, many poor parenting decisions end in tragedy. And we’ve seen many here in the UAE and worldwide.

The UAE is still coming to terms with the news of a five-year-old girl who fell to her death from a high-rise building after she was left alone sleeping as her mother partied with her boyfriend on New Year’s Eve.

I’ve lost count of the stories over the years of children falling from windows of apartment buildings after they were left unattended.

Just last week I dashed across a busy carpark and scooped up a two-year-old boy who had wandered out of a nearby park. One car had swerved and missed the child, and it looked like he was on a collision course with another 4WD.

Fortunately the child was wearing an identification bracelet. I called the father, who then contacted his wife inside the park. It took the mother 25 minutes to come to the main gate to collect her son. Not even a hug for the little boy or a thank you!

As parents, we can’t take any risks with our children’s lives. They’re irreplaceable!

Majestic Lebanon

Lebanon remains a hidden treasure in the Middle East

Lebanon remains a hidden treasure in the Middle East

‘Would you like to come with me to Lebanon?’ my father would often ask me when I was a teenager, as he planned his annual trip to his home country.

“No!” I’d reply arrogantly, shutting down any idea of travelling to that place so far away.

I’d heard the stories of girls returning home to be married off to a cousin who was only ever interested in getting an Australian visa – his ticket to freedom. As the years passed, my father stopped asking and I never broached the subject.

Shamefully, my youth was spent distancing myself from my Lebanese heritage. Lebanon was a tiny nation far away from Australia, where I was born and raised. It reminded me of my father’s strict Middle Eastern culture, one which shaped my lonely teenage years ‒ not to mention the poor reputation the Lebanese community had in Australia. Why on earth would I want to be connected to the country?

My father is from a small village in Syr el dannieh, in North Lebanon, 22 km from the country’s second largest city, Tripoli, and several hours from cosmopolitan Beirut. Throughout my childhood I’d heard tales of gun battles and family feuds – my uncle was once shot in the crossfire between two quarrelling neighbours.

With my husband and children admiring the breathtaking view of the Qadisha Valley

With my husband and children admiring the breathtaking view of the Qadisha Valley

The image of Lebanon in my mind was a far cry from the real beauty of this small country, bordered by Syria to the north and Israel to the south, and situated at the crossroads of the Mediterranean Basin and the Arabian hinterland. Its rich history and cultural and religious diversity is a result of all these influences.

Like the millions of Lebanese expats scattered around the world, my father and mother left Lebanon at the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975. Before that, my mother says, Lebanon was compared with Switzerland, and Beirut was the ‘Paris of the Middle East’. They, like many other Lebanese, had planned to return, but 40 years on they are still in Sydney, Australia. Fifteen years of civil war created great divisions among religious and political groups that still stand today, making life difficult and even dangerous.

As I grew older and became more fascinated with Middle East politics, the need to travel to my parents’ birthplace grew stronger. My first visit in 2011 with my husband and three daughters was brief – four days to be precise ‒ hardly any time in which to explore this majestic country. Two days were spent dashing through a rainstorm; a quick photo on the Corniche (Raouche’) was the only proof that I had visited Beirut that year. Finally, I had made it to Syr, where I met my aunt and cousins for the first time. Their faces and voices were familiar; the years we’d spent talking on the phone made the introduction easier. I’m not sure I would have made the journey so far north had my father not been staying in his hometown that year. The pride on his face made the visit worth it; he was clearly happy to see me explore his part of the world.
Although it was difficult to do or see anything with my three small children, we still managed one important trip to my father’s property in the mountains. As snow fell, dad and my cousin Fadi guided us further north, stopping along the way to take photos of the mountainous terrain, and for my daughters to stretch their legs and play in the snow. But as the sun set over the snow-covered mountains, I knew I was exactly where I needed to be. In that moment, I promised myself that I would return to explore Lebanon fully.

Pigeon's Rock from the Beirut Corniche

Pigeon’s Rock from the Beirut Corniche

Living in Dubai made it easier to travel to Lebanon. From Sydney, Australia, it takes up to 19 hours, which is an effective discouragement. Several months after my first visit, the Syrian uprising began, and the hundreds of thousands of refugees spilling into the country had a profound impact on Lebanon. The United Nations estimates that today there are over one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. My mother’s extended family, including my aunty and her family, escaped Homs in Syria and now live in Tripoli.

Lebanon is deeply divided over the Syrian war, creating further problems for the country. In August 2013, a car bomb ripped through a busy shopping street in Hezbollah’s stronghold in the southern suburbs of Beirut, killing 21 people and injuring hundreds. It was the deadliest attack in the Lebanese capital since the 2005 assassination of the former Prime Minister, Rafic Hariri. December 27, 2014 marked the first anniversary of the assassination in Beirut of former Lebanese finance minister Mohamed Chatah.

With so much unrest in Lebanon, I had put off my return until now. If the Lebanese people could bravely live through this tumultuous unrest, there was no reason why I shouldn’t return and explore Lebanon.

Exploring Lebanon
Giving in to fear would mean giving in to the militants and political factions happily spreading hate and tearing a nation apart for personal gain.

A family wedding in Beirut was the perfect excuse for us to visit Lebanon in December 2014. We put our fate in God’s hands and booked five return tickets. We were tourists, desperate to explore every corner of this splendid country.

As we arrived in the capital, I was taken aback by the strong presence of Lebanese soldiers posted on almost every street corner. Amid the Christmas decorations, colourful lights and Coco-Cola-influenced Christmas tree, it wasn’t uncommon to see tanks and armed soldiers posted in densely populated areas such as Beirut Souks, a major commercial district in the Beirut Central District, with over 200 shops and department stores. Visiting the Beirut Souks is a must if you travel to Lebanon. It is home to the finest designer labels, from Hermes to Carolina Herrera and high-street labels such as Zara. If you’re looking for a place to dine, the Met (Metropolitan Café) is perfect for a light meal or traditional Lebanese coffee.

The civil war left visible scars on the tattered, bullet-pocked apartment blocks. Narrow streets make it difficult for cars to pass, so locals usually get around on scooters, and it’s not uncommon to see three people on one at any time. Bed sheets replace windows in poorer areas where Palestinian and Syrian refugees are housed. Beggars line the streets. Hussein, our tour guide, says Palestinians and Syrians are too proud to beg and the women carrying babies as a way of seeking sympathy are Gypsies who make a living scamming tourists. Anyone who has ever been stuck on the border between Tijuana, Mexico and the United States will understand how it feels to have small children and women approach the car, bang against the window and demand money. I was confronted with this again when a mother with a small child pleaded for money as we drove through the popular streets of Hamra in West Beirut.

Where else in the world you see a mosque and church side by side?  Mohamed Al Amin Mosque in Beirut

Where else in the world would you see a mosque and church side by side?
Mohamed Al Amin Mosque in Beirut

Once we’d left the heart of Beirut, our first trip was north to The Cedars (Arz Libnan). Our private tour of Lebanon took us on a scenic drive through Becharre – the poet Khalil Gibran’s birthplace – to the Qadisha Valley. Despite the cool temperatures, we insisted on stopping to admire this deep gorge carved by the Qadisha River. Located at the foot of Mount al-Makmal in northern Lebanon, the Qadisha Valley is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because some of the earliest Christian monastic settlements were situated here. I couldn’t believe this hidden treasure was in Lebanon and that I had shunned such beauty throughout my youth.
With a few more stops along the way, we managed to climb the windy, slippery road leading to The Cedars. During the heavy snowfall period, The Cedars, perhaps one of the most beautiful spots in the country, is populated with locals and tourists who enjoy skiing. At the entrance to The Grove stands a cedar tree believed to be hundreds of years old.

The Cedars of Lebanon

The Cedars of Lebanon

Baalbek, a town in the Beqqa Valley, contains some of the best preserved Roman ruins in Lebanon. Despite my pleas, we were strongly advised by our family in Beirut and in Sydney not to visit another UNESCO Heritage Site. According to our relatives, I was at great risk. Militants have been known to target westerners travelling through the Beqqa Valley. ‘Your wife looks American,’ one relative told my husband. ‘She’s an easy target for kidnappers,’ another added. When you travel to a country where there are strong political and religious divisions, your best source of guidance is the locals and tour guides.
The next part of our journey took us to the city of Tripoli, where my mother grew up and where my aunts and uncle live. We stopped briefly at one of the most famous restaurants, Abdul Rahman Hallab & Sons, for lunch. For years, I’d heard about their knefa and baklava, and had to try some of these traditional Lebanese desserts.

At nightfall the call to prayer echoed out from Al-Salam Mosque, where just 18 months previously a car laden with 100 kg of explosives had ripped through the mosque, leaving a huge crater and the floors covered with blood. It was the second bomb to explode that afternoon; minutes earlier, the Taqwa mosque had been targeted. Dozens were killed in the blast and hundreds more injured. Now, however, the mosque was packed with worshippers who had arrived for prayers.

Soldiers guard Lebanese Streets

Soldiers guard Lebanese streets

Today, no one takes any chances. Armed Lebanese soldiers and tanks heavily guard Tripoli’s streets. Cars left unattended with the engines still running are always a great concern. Unlike Beirut, which has been partially rebuilt since the war to attract tourists, Tripoli is rundown and dirty. Old buildings destroyed during the civil war remain standing, a stark reminder of the city’s harsh history.
Knowing I was just metres away from where one of the deadliest car bombings had taken place since the war, it was hard not to feel anxious. Even in Beirut’s city streets, you need to be alert. The country is still stricken with problems, and car bombs can go off unexpectedly at any time.

We’d situated ourselves in a suburb east of Beirut, Sin el-Fil, literally translated as the ‘tooth of an elephant’, staying at the Hilton Grand Habtoor. After living in a Muslim country for seven years and listening to the call to prayer five times a day, it was odd waking up to church bells ringing on Sunday. There are 18 recognised religious sects in Lebanon, and Christians and Muslims form the majority. The most recent study conducted by Statistics Lebanon found that approximately 54 per cent of the population is Muslim, divided equally between Sunni and Shiite. Christians make up 34 per cent of the population, which explains why many parts of Lebanon are richly decorated with Christmas trimmings.

Jeita Grotto cave

Jeita Grotto cave

Between family gatherings, we managed to sneak in another impressive tour. On this day our journey began in the valley, Nahr El-Kalb, 18 km north of Beirut, and continued to Jeita Grotto, followed by Harissa, a small mountain village 650 metres above sea level, and ancient Byblos.

On the way to the grotto, we took a small diversion to a war memorial commemorating the Australian diggers who fought in World War Ⅱ. I knew little of the involvement of Australians in Lebanon during the war. Australian troops, part of the 7th Division, fought as part of an Allied force in Syria and Lebanon against the Vichy French. According to the Australian Lebanese Historical Society, the first Australian casualty was Nicolas Koorey, a 26-year-old Australian of Lebanese descent. Four hundred and sixteen Australian troops were killed in the battle and over a thousand were wounded. It’s certainly a history lesson which needs to be more widely taught back home in Australia. It would help to heal the widening gap between white Anglo-Saxon Australians and Australian-born Lebanese youths.

Australian Memorial in Lebanon

Australian Memorial in Lebanon

As we left the memorial, I felt moved and excited at the same time. Our next stop: Jeita Grotto.

Breathtaking. Captivating. Mesmerising.

There are not enough adjectives to describe this natural wonder located in the valley of Nahr El-Kalb. Millions of years are frozen in drops of water. A very frequent drop-by-drop water flow forms stalactites on the ceilings and stalagmites on the floor of the galleries and halls.
Recipient of the 2013 World Tourism Organisation’s award for best tourist site in the Arab world, the Jieta Grotto houses one of the world’s longest stalactites. It measures 8.2 metres and is located in the upper grotto. This is a must if you’re travelling with children! My daughters, aged nine, eight and six, would not stop talking about their ‘cave’ experience, where they took turns to steer a small vessel in the lower grotto. The girls have travelled to many parts of the globe, including France and Italy, but nothing captured their imagination the same way their trip to Lebanon did.

Once we’d completed our 90-minute tour of the grotto – pictures were not allowed inside – we moved on to Harissa, the home of Our Lady of Lebanon. The village is located 20 km north of Beirut and is accessible from the coastal city of Jounieh by road, or by a nine-minute cable car ride. The best view of this picturesque country is from the cable car to Harissa, from where the city and the Mediterranean Sea look breathtaking. Because of its religious significance, Harissa is often visited by Roman Catholic popes.
On my first trip to Lebanon, I was told that I had to visit Jbeil (Byblos) during the Christmas holiday period. One of the oldest cities in the world to have been inhabited without interruption, Jbeil is situated 40 km north of Beirut. The history lesson continued as our tour guide, Bernadette, recounted the influence of the Phoenicians, Crusaders and Romans on the 8000-year-old city. After their tour of the Byblos Castle, the highlight for my children was putting on a performance in the Roman Amphitheatre. Jbeil is now a tourist hub for its ancient port, fish restaurants and shopping at the traditional Lebanese souk.

Jbeil (Byblos) Port

Jbeil (Byblos) Port

There is no doubt that this was one of the most emotional journeys I’ve taken. I rediscovered myself and reconnected with my Lebanese heritage. When this tiny nation attracts so many negative mentions in the media, few could believe how deeply enriched Lebanon is by history and beauty.

I wish I’d known it earlier.

Head to my instagram account @arabianmum to see all the images from my trip to Lebanon
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