Building global friendship

In five weeks Jade and I became not only customers, but also friends with the owners of our favorite local vegetable store in Sanayeh, Beirut. Even when we could go to another one nearby our apartment, we always went here because the connection we got with the family was worth walking a couple meters more. We could barely understand them due to the language barrier, but luckily the son named Wassim was able to speak English. We practiced our Arabic with them, and the father tried to speak English with us.

Unfortunately, this family that had to fly from Syria during the war, is not able to pay for education for their children. Our conversations were limited, but the smiles on their faces and the hugs we got from the children were enough to create a special relationship. Wissam knew I had an obsession for watermelon, so he always made sure he gave me the best one left. I didn’t even have to ask; he knew I would get one every time I came and he always asked me politely if the last one I got was good. When we come back, we hope to see this family again and that they have found a way to support their smart children who should have the possibility to go to school.

Lebanese Alternative Learning: A place that makes me feel at home

Sadly, it’s already my fifth week at Lebanese Alternative Learning, which means I
have only two weeks left before I leave Beirut behind me for my 75 KM hike in Jordan. If I could, I would stay at least another month because the ‘ZERO WASTE’ project I’m working on together with four other Lebanese girls is finally getting off the ground. My NGO isn’t the only reason why I would like to stay longer; Lebanon makes me feel more home than ever before and the country fascinates me everyday. The sun is always shining (I haven’t seen rain once), it’s not a problem when I arrive a bit later because I forgot my keys again since everything starts at least 30 minutes later here, I can cycle up a mountain whenever I want, and the people here are extremely friendly and helpful. Of course Lebanon isn’t perfect, which you probably realized after reading our previous posts, but in the end: what is perfect?   

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My NGO’s main purpose isn’t focused on reducing (plastic) waste. LAL actually fulfills a completely different goal: providing education for vulnerable groups. Lebanese Alternative Learning was founded by Nayla Fahed and Nagi Ghorra; CEO & Vice President of the only non-profit organization in Lebanon that uses digital learning platforms to reach a wide variety vulnerable communities.

“Nayla, how did you come up with the idea of combining technology and education for vulnerable communities?”
“As a French literature teacher at Université Saint-Joseph in Beirut, I was also very curious about technology. I became friends with Nagi, who was responsible for the e-learning system of the university. We had lunch together often, and initiated small projects containing learning languages and helping out interns. Besides teaching, I created exercises for children that were recovering from cancer. During this period of volunteering, I realized I wanted to create study books for them. One day Nagi said to me: ‘why not create interactive digital activities?!’ Soon we got the chance to meet the NGO Myschoolpulse. Since their objective was to bring school to hospitals in Lebanon for children that were undergoing treatment for a life-threatening illness, they gave us our first funding and we started working with them.’

“In the beginning you worked together with Myschoolpulse, when did you decide to start your own NGO?”
“Officially in 2014, but we started two years before thinking about it. Because we desired not only to work with sick children, the NGO believed we had to start our own organization. Myschoolpulse wasn’t big enough to cover everything; the small number of children they had under treatment did not justify digital which is the solution for large numbers of students. They decided to give us the part we already created and some funding in order to improve the content and the overall plan. From that moment, we started to work together with other international non-profit organizations such as World Vision (funded by Global Affairs Canada). They funded Tabshoura Kindergarten, our first official e-learning project in three languages; Arabic, French and English dedicated to nursery classes, free of charge. The program is based on the new Lebanese curriculum. After that, more and more people came and we started to make any kind of educational programs.”

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“Lebanese Alternative Learning is an NGO which aims to develop alternative educational resources through technology and creative interventions. A network of educators, education technology experts, artists and communication specialists are working together to enhance teaching methods and practices in Lebanon. Our priority is to empower vulnerable communities and ensure all children receive an engaging and effective learning experience and avoid school dropouts.” – LAL, 2018

You say ‘any kind’ of educational programs, can you give an example?”
“Digital is LAL’s chore work, but sometimes we give workshops or seminars as well. We have had a very interesting and well-received project about comic strips, in which multiple schools with children from different nationalities were participating. Each school began a narrative, and the next school had to continue. In this way, Syrian, Lebanese and Iraqi children were working together on a story. In the end they all met and discussed about how they came up with their ideas. Recently we had a girl from Germany who gave lessons about conflict resolution in vulnerable schools, but we also used her knowledge to create an e-learning module. In this module children learn how to react in certain situations without using violence, and try to improve to use dialogue instead of physical and mental punishment. ”

“You said LAL creates content for vulnerable groups, are there any specific groups that get the most support?’’
“Most of the schools we approach are public schools, refugee camps and non-formal learning centers in Lebanon. At LAL we mainly do the content and partner with other NGO’s that are able to implement it into schools. Our goal is to provide digital resources, motivate children, keep them in school and avoid children from dropping out. We hope our e-learning programs help students to acquire the level of education needed to enter formal education.’’

“Are there any big challenges you are facing?”
Creating content is time consuming, which makes it difficult sometimes. Luckily we have partnerships with NGO’s that provide computers, who also implement computer labs into these schools. In the beginning the internet connection was the main challenge, but now it is possible to install the Tabshoura software out of a box. The Moodlebox is small enough to fit in your pocket, it’s a universal device, internet and electricity independent, providing a local wireless network to which up to 30 smartphones, tablets and computers can connect simultaneously. The scope of the Wi-Fi largely covers a classroom. Because of the help from other NGO’s, young, intelligent volunteers from all over the world that come up with inspiring idea’s, we maintain working with little money and keep improving our content.”

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The United Nations award, 2017

“Lastly, which achievements are you very proud off?”
“If we look back at our journey, we are very proud of how much we grew in such a short period of time. With a lot of patience and discussions with the Lebanese government, we achieved a contract with the CERD – the center that creates education books in Lebanon and works for the Ministry of Education. This contract states that our e-learning programs are qualified as adaptable in the Lebanese education system. In 2017, we got the ‘Equals in Tech’ award from United Nations for our project ‘Girls can Count.’ This project was funded by Malala and focused on improving women and girls’ digital technology access, connectivity and security. The program was mainly used in schools with girls only. The content we produce is equal for boys and girls, but some of the Syrian refugee camps are very conventional so some parents didn’t allow their girls to go to schools in which they could meet boys.’’

Do you want to know more about LAL? Feel free to visit the website: http://lal.ngo

7 Facts on the first note

Habibaty! After spending almost a month in Beirut, we figured there are already many things that bridge the gap between the Dutch and Lebanese culture (avoiding the term Western and Arab culture). There are some stories that surprise us, some that make us laugh but also others that make us worried. We believe that these stories are worth sharing, because they might inspire you and appreciate an unfamiliar culture. However, we also want you to sit down for a minute after reading our blogs and think about the things that you love about your own and what you could learn from another culture.

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The government
Since Nicole intended to work on her master thesis besides doing her project for the NGO
Lebanese Alternative Learning, we are getting more and more knowledgable about the very interesting political system of Lebanon (yes, she decided not to do it anymore simply because there’s no time, but now she has an excuse to come back soon). Why is it interesting? Simply because the Lebanese government is quite different to how we, in the Western world, know it. For instance, the President of the Lebanese Republic is the head of state of Lebanon and is, by convention, always a Maronite Christian (i.e. one who is an adherent of the Maronite Church in Lebanon).  By contrast, the Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament is always a Shia Muslim and the Lebanese Prime Minister is always a Sunni Muslim.  Although these representatives are a feature of political parties, they play a much less significant role in Lebanese politics than they do in most parliamentary democracies.250px-Flag_of_Lebanon

Electricity cut off three hours a day
In Lebanon, the electricity cuts off three hours a day due to a shortage of electricity. However, we have our doubts about this since we hear different sides of the story. Many people pay for a generator on a monthly basis which covers these three hours of electricity. This costs a lot of extra money which many citizens cannot pay. It also causes a lot of pollution that causes the mortality rates to go up. A 2012 study by the American University of Beirut found that in the Hamra neighborhood, levels of airborne carcinogens were 60 percent higher when the government power was off and private generators were operating, which accounted for 38 percent of the daily carcinogen exposure in the area (Sewell, 2018). Whereas Lebanon’s climate is ideal for solar power, private companies keep selling their power on the black market.

img_1738Cars and public transport
Cars, first of all, there are many of them. Lets say, way too many of them. Surprisingly, a lot of these cars are crazy expensive (in the Netherlands at least). You find BMW’s, Range Rovers and Mercedes driving around everywhere, as if people here get discount on these show-off cars. Second of all, they do not come in an organized way. The traffic is very chaotic but for some reason it seems to work. The same happens with public transport; there are buses on set routes but there are no stops and there doesn’t seem to be a schedule. Sometimes it takes 30 minutes from A to B and sometimes it can take 60, but in the end you will always reach your destination. At times we miss NS, but the commute is also kind of nice, because there is always something to look at in this interesting city.

Vegetarian paradise
The Lebanese cuisine is widely known by Vegetarians. Beans, chickpeas and vegetables in all different sizes and colors; and all of this flavored with the most delicious herbs. In the local stores you can buy loads of them for only 2 dollars, so if you love cooking and have your own kitchen: this country is paradise. But don’t forget that the meat and especially fish at the seaside are definitely worth it as well!

3afdbbfc-51c7-4a1d-bda2-fa3fd97adc3aLebanese people and sports aren’t friends
But you can’t really blame them. With an average temperature of 30 degrees that starts at 06:00 AM, doing outdoor sports like running or cycling is far from comfortable. In addition, the pollution makes breathing almost impossible and cycling here is only for the really crazy ones since the cars aren’t used to bikes at all. Luckily Nicole is able to keep up with the Lebanese national champion, so she found her way to stay in shape. Of course there are alternatives, but from Jade’s experience Lebanese people just aren’t the Dutch when it comes to sports. Five crunches, three push-ups and running around for five minute in a 10 m2 room is enough to make the average Lebanese girl exhausted.

Getting married in Lebanon
In Lebanon it is not possible to conclude a civil marriage. You can only marry at a religious authority such as the church or the Muslim court. Civil marriage is increasingly popular, especially between different faiths. Try to google on travel agencies in Lebanon for civil marriage and you find tons of them. Many Lebanese travel agencies are specialized in civil weddings abroad.

Getting divorced in Lebanon
Recently we read an article about the divorce system in Lebanon.  This article of the HRW states that in Lebanon each religious court comes with its own set of rules. Sunni, Shia, and Druze men can divorce their wives at will. Sunni and Shia men can even do this outside of a courtroom. This can happen without the wife knowing. For women however it’s different and more complicated. Sunni and Druze women can petition a court for a divorce, that terminates the marriage. Yet grounds are limited (he’s in prison, prove of hardship and discord, sexual impotence, etcetera). For Shia women, it’s more difficult, they rely on a long process of sovereign divorce. Another option for Shia is the Khul, a process that gives up all financial rights and needs an agreement of the husband. For christians it seems to be even more difficult.  For confessions, domestic violence is not sufficient grounds unless it’s life-threatening.

However, we believe that for every story, written by an outside authority, locals should
be able to comment. The interesting part starts here. Because according to some local friends (Shias and Sunnis), the law isn’t this strict anymore. A lot of regulations are written down, but are not working in practice. For instance, according to the law girls here are not allowed to wear shorts. Ironically, almost all the girls that are not practicing a religion are walking in short dresses and skirts. Some weird laws are there, they are just not applied and no one really cares. So for all the content we find online, it is important to wonder if the information is still up to date and what the locals think about it, or if it changes per person (being more conservative than the other).


Sewell A. (2018) Staying on the grid in Lebanon. Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/articles/2018-02-13/lebanon-struggles-to-rebuild-its-power-infrastructure.

Human Rights Watch (2015). Interview: Women Unequal Under Lebanon’s Law. Retrieved: July 26, 2018 from: https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/01/19/interview-women-unequal-under-lebanons-law

 

Driving around in Lebanon

What is a better experience than discovering the country by local transport? Many times we have taken the local bus, which always ends up being one big adventure.  There are no rules, everything is possible here. You stand wherever the bus passes by and you simply wave to get in. This also means that during the ride the bus stops lets say.. several times. If someone in the bus wants to stop to get some snacks they just tell the driver and he/she will wait for the passenger to get back. Or.. if you want to buy beers, that’s fine too, but don’t forget to also buy one for the driver. A little bit of music, beers and some cigarettes: completely normal and no one cares. Nobody uses the traffic lights, and passing other cars on the right as well as the left side is allowed.

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Bus ride from Beirut to Tripoli: 3000 LBP (1,70 EUR)

Driving drunk? Completely normal; sending messages and bus drivers that try to set up a marriage with you and their sons or nephews? completely normal. If you want to listen to your music and entertain the others, just give the driver your phone and start a little party. No strict schedules and pressure for the bus driver to arrive at the destination on time. Hurry doesn’t exist in Lebanon. The ‘don’t worry and don’t hurry’ part of the culture is something the Dutch can definitely learn from. The first days this can be pretty frustrating, but if you change this mindset, it is pretty relaxing. Local transport is far from safe, but at least it’s ridiculously cheap and way more fun! 🙌🏼

One more fun fact. Many of you might know about the ridiculous prices to get your drivers license in the Netherlands. We suggest you to go to Lebanon, because it’s way cheaper and only has three easy steps. 1. You apply for a driver license at an office. 2. They give you a date to do an exam, the waiting list is looong. 3. You take an exam for which you don’t have to study, which basically means: make one u-turn. 4. You pick up your license. Already convinced to come to Lebanon? I definitely would if I didn’t have my license yet. Lastly, might you ever get the chance to drive in Lebanon: do whatever you want, drive as fast as you can, make up your own rules, and most important: don’t forget to honk as if you will never be able to do this again, because that makes you supercool here and you don’t get a 100 euro ticket .

Getting into the country

How not to behave at customs (some tips from Nicole)  vs. How to behave at customs (tips from Jade and for Nicole) 

Salam Habibi, first things first: we are happy to say that we arrived at the beautiful city of Beirut! Although the journey for Jade went smoothly, Nicole faced some challenges. But hey, just follow Jade’s tips and don’t think you get away with a nice smile and some jokes.

A smooth journey: Since there are no direct flights from Amsterdam to Beirut, I (Jade) had a ten hour stopover in Barcelona. As I was able to get of the airport I had my fingers crossed to hope that my suite case followed me on my journey. After spending the day with a friend in Barcelona at 30 degrees, I returned to the airport and changed my shorts for some uncomfortable jeans. I think my biggest struggle before going was to pack my suite case, even after searching the web I had no clue about the clothing in Beirut.

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What to pack??

At 7pm I got to check in. I loved that moment, to just sit down and observe the diverse people that get on the plane. The diversity of people getting on the plane surprised me in a positive way, and I loved to hear the Arab language around me. The airplane from Barcelona to Beirut was almost empty and I finally got to read the lonely planet and fell more in love with the country. Then the scary moment of customs, wondering if you will pass easily or if something will happen.. Surprisingly, it took me 20 minutes from the moment I arrived at the country till I got picked up so here is what to do: fill in the visa form, walk through customs, show all the stamps in your passport and don’t lie if you have been somewhere because as you will read later, they will know. And then: you will be personally welcomed by the agent “Ahlan Wa Sahlan”. By the time you get through customs your luggage will be happily waiting for you. And if you bring a backpack, you won’t miss it among all other suite cases!! At this time, my buddy Yehya was already waiting for me at the exit and introduced me to the Lebanese culture: Shoarma for Jade.

How not to behave:

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Ready for take off

Unfortunately, my journey didn’t run as smoothly as Jade’s. Even though I’m a person who doesn’t get annoyed that easily, during this flight there were just too many things happening not to freak out.. Firstly my flight got delayed by one and a half hour in the Netherlands. I was lucky to sit next to a Greek with a very interesting smell for 4,5 hours instead of 3 hours, since we were already sitting in the plane when we got informed about another delay. He probably didn’t sleep that well last night, since lying on my shoulder wasn’t an issue for him. Luckily my flight from Athens to Beirut went perfect, until the moment I saw the line in front of the Visa customs… Then the chaos started. After waiting for 1,5 hours in line and showing my passport to the good looking Lebanese guy behind the desk, I had to go to a sketchy office because the computer (I assume) showed I had been to Tel Aviv lately. Of course I checked my passport for stamps before departure, but I thought my visit was no where to be found and was just a secret that I could keep to myself. After waiting in this room and wondering about how these officers were doing their work since there were passports and papers laying around everywhere, the somewhat aggressive questionnaire from an unfriendly looking agent started. “Have you been to Israel?” -‘Shall I lie, or be honest..’ was I asking myself. Since it was 02:30am and I became a little bit scared about his tone of voice, I decided to be honest. “Yes, I have…” “When?” He rolled his eyes. I’m not sure if I have ever answered so many questions from a stranger. ‘Why were you there?’” “Who is your friend who lives there?” “Is she Israeli?”  And then, when I thought it was finally over I made another big mistake. “What kind of work are you going to do at the NGO?” ‘I’m going to be a journalist.” I said it with pride, but at the same time I realized I just applied for jail. The guy became furious, but also a bit annoyed since he probably couldn’t really do anything since I was still a student and trying to look very innocent. When he asked IMG_0382.JPGabout my studies, I was just like; well, whatever, I already screwed it up so I answered  again with pride ’Political Communications, and I want to become a journalist.’ I could resist saying that I wanted to work for CNN and become the best news reporter in the world and tell the world about this ridiculous situation, but I was smart this time. I tried to smile as beautiful as I could, and the officer all of a sudden changed into a friendly guy, and let me pass.  It was a miracle I found my suitcase and most important: my race bike, because all the luggage from our flight was already taken off the belt. When I finally met my buddy Ali, I felt relieved and he as well: he called all his friends and the AIESEC head quarter because he had no clue what was going on with me.

 

 

Night of the Refugee

On the night of the 16th on the 17th of June, Nicole and Amber walked 40 kilometers as part of the “Nacht van de Vluchteling” (Night of the Refugee). Together with Marit, a fellow Nour participant, they collected €1055,50 for refugee camps!