My last full day at Nahr al Bared and in Akaar province was an unexpected mega treat of music, songs and dance. That seems to be the way of things in so many camps. In the morning I visited Al-Ihsan camp with a friend Bassel who arrived two months ago from Aleppo, we played a little then had an impromptu ceilidh dance with all the kids, followed by some performances by the kids themselves. Then in the evening Melad and Khalil, my Palestinian family at Nahr Al Bared heard about a dance party at the other end of the camp. Two very different parties, both fantastic.
The original idea was to go play a concert for the kids along with another guy who plays Syrian music on the Lute. Bagpipe music can be kind of esoteric, especially in a ‘concert’ setting, I love bagpipes but I wouldn’t really want to sit still and listen to them for more than a few minutes! The best thing for it was to get the kids to dance. Abu Khaled and Suliman took turns to play percussion on a biscuit tin until someone produced a tabla. The easiest and most fun dance I could think to teach them was a Strip the Willow, Orkney style. I had a moment of internal panic after I asked the boys to line up on one side and the girls on the other- I wasn’t sure if boys and girls were encouraged to mix here as in some places, like in Nahr al Bared, the sexes don’t really mix and especially not for dancing! Life is a mine-field in Lebanon when you don’t really know the culture and what is okay and not okay to do or say. Things like wearing shorts, talking to women, what particular greeting you use and so on, can be problematic and offensive, if the correct manners aren’t observed. I tend to try to be as polite as possible but often still find myself doing the ‘wrong’ thing at times. Turns out it was fine. At this camp children are encouraged to mix and to engage in whatever creative activities they fancy. It took a while for the kids to get how the dance works, many of them just looked on in amazement at the other kids spinning around. One young fella stared at me and balled his eyes out. I don’t blame him. They got the hang of it and kept dancing, every time I stopped to catch my breath they demanded another dance. Well done the dancers!
After that the kids showed off their skills- some of the boys formed a rap group, Sheikh Abdoul laying down some heavy gangster beats on the PA and the lads taking turns to rip it up. That was followed by some more traditional Syrian chanting, call and answer kind of song, where a boy would lead and the rest of the kids would answer. That was cool as well. The camp puts a strong emphasis on art, painting, singing, dancing and creating theatre, these kinds of activities are clearly absolutely crucial to the well-being of the kids and the community as a whole. Without proper structures like regular schooling or work for the adults, the camp could easily deteriorate in different ways. Artistic activities give everyone a focus, a structure, a good excuse to be together and laugh and smile and of course they are a type of therapy that will help ease the very real psychological and physical suffering everyone endures.
a picture by 9 yo Fatima Selo from Aleppo
As is the case everyday in Lebanon, I met some great people. Bassel is an impressive guy. He’s from Aleppo, where he had been working for the last 3 years for an organisation supporting families and individuals affected by the violence there. He speaks perfect English and is an engineer to trade. He could have left Syria a long time ago but decided to stay, in his own words, he’s attracted to lost-causes. Living under the regime for all his life and witnessing the destruction it was causing against civilians and then remaining there to help others, with the catastrophe all around, is quite something. He is now volunteering with Relief and Reconciliation for Syria, an NGO which among several other projects, helps provide social and educational support for children in camps in Northern Lebanon. They are always looking for volunteers who can spare time to teach children, if you have a few weeks or a few months then please get in touch. We all have the ability to pass on skills, whether it is teaching English, French, photography, art or whatever else- I went there with bagpipes so I’m pretty sure anyone can do it! Language education I understand is particularly important for the kids there because, though Lebanese schools are technically open to refugees, classes are often conducted in French or English so in practice they are not open to kids who cant speak these languages. As the war rumbles on from year to year children are missing out on opportunities to learn and to grow, when the time finally comes to rebuild Syria the people desperately need these kids to be educated to have any hope for the future.
Interestingly, R&R also offer services to other minorities, formally and informally, such as Alowites resident in Lebanon, known as ‘Haisa’, and sometimes other groups such as a local Bedouain tribe. They would usually be in Syria now, but like so many others are stuck in this part of Lebanon and have pitched tents near where the other camps are, among the farms. The NGO as I understand it was inspired by the work of Jesuit priests in the region, in particular Fathers Paolo Dall’Oglio and Frans Van Der Lugt. Both worked tirelessly for peace and reconciliation between all people, that’s why it is particularly sad that Father Frans was executed at the community centre he had established in Homs in 1980, probably by extremists of Al-Nusra front and Father Paolo after being exiled by the Assad regime was kidnapped by forces of Daesh(ISIS) and is still in detention, his fate unkown.
Back to Nahr al Bared with my Palestinian family and out of the blue I was whisked away to a dance party at the other end of the camp (videos below). One of the guys was getting married the next day so all the men were partying in the street. It was an impressive sight and better than any nightclub, rave, festival I’ve ever been to. Everyone was there, even some old ladies took to dancing and fathers brought their kids. There were fireworks and a smattering of Kalashnikov bullets sent through the camp sky. All the men joined to do a Dabke through the streets. The songs from Abu Jandall were intense, as was all the dancing. It was a fine end to the day and my stay at this amazing camp. I’ll be back soon.