This year our fall travels took us to Lebanon, Malaysia and India. I was joined in the first two countries by fellow Amurtel board member Diane Alcantara. As usual with my international travels for Amurtel, time was short and the to-do list long. We had less than a month to visit projects, attend meetings and shop for this year’s International Boutique.
The focus of our visit here was a project for Syrian refugee children run by our partner AMURT. With their headquarters in the mountains of upper Chouf, we spent much of our time in the heart of the Druze community, about an hour outside of Beirut.
Over 2 million Syrians fleeing the civil war have poured into Lebanon so far. As most refugees had fled Syria with only the clothes on their backs, Amurt initially began helping families after they first arrived, providing clothes, household supplies and seed money to rent small apartments.
Over time, it became clear that although families were settling in, the children continued to be in a state of trauma and distress. One way children recover from the traumas of war and displacement is to attend school and become part of a community of peers. But many Lebanese schools were already struggling before the enormous wave of refugees. Now refugees fill 30% of the classes in some schools, becoming a considerable burden on strained resources. Due to this and other reasons, almost 50% of the refugee children have missed school for two or more years. And those who are able to attend face significant difficulties as a result of the horrific traumas they suffered from the war.
Amurt advocates for these children, offering psycho-social therapy to the children and their parents, and providing text books and school uniforms when necessary. If school placements are unavailable, or if a child requires special preparation and emotional assistance before entering school, then the child is enrolled in the Child-Friendly Space model.
Child Friendly Spaces
Historically Amurt and Amurtel set up Child Friendly Spaces (CFS) immediately following a disaster, as we did most recently in Banda Aceh, Myanmar, and Haiti. CFS provide a safe, nurturing environment and offers children a structured routine and engaging activities. The staff are trained to detect and respond to behaviors resulting from trauma, including, isolation, grief, and PTSD. Additionally, the program in Lebanon provides individual and group therapy for the children, and pays school fees and arranges transport for the most vulnerable children spread throughout the mountains.
We spent 4 days with the staff, children and therapists, learning the background of the crisis, the development of the program and hearing of successes and challenges of individual children and families. We were invited to observe at the CFS, which is hosted in their own school building, complete with soccer field. During our discussions concerning the overall needs of this vulnerable community, we were invited by the program director to launch an Amurtel program for the women refugees. After meeting with the women and hearing what their biggest concerns were, it was decided to begin with a project offering training to the women in sewing, thus setting up some economic security for their children and their families. I am quite excited about this new Amurtel initiative, and look forward to hearing from the women as they develop a greater sense of security and self-esteem.
Although we spent much of our time involved with the programs, we also joined the Amurt staff in an excursion to the Chouf Biosphere Reserve. What a grand adventure that was- driving up the 6,000+ mountains to sit under 5000 year old cedar trees, visiting ancient forts and temples, all the time surrounded by sweeping vistas that seemed to reach to the Mediterranean Sea .
As many of the larger markets were closed for holidays, we ended up visiting small shops scattered amongst the mountain villages- thanks to the connections and knowledge of our hosts. We were also plied with amazing meals- the local Women’s Association hosted a delicious brunch they cooked on a traditional stove, and each member of the Amurt team seemed intent on outdoing themselves in introducing us to the incredible cuisine of the region. It was a given that each meal include olives and dates (from local groves), tahini and locally grown fruit. Then there were the breads! I am sure we were waddling onto the plane that would take us on to Malaysia!
Being my first time to Malaysia, I was immediately struck by the dramatic contrasts. We stayed with friends in downtown Kuala Lumpar (KL), which is a very modern, bustling city. Side by side with gleaming shopping malls and large towers were peaceful Buddhist temples, lush green parks, complete with peacocks and other exotic birds, simple neighborhoods and always friendly people.
The first day in KL, we immediately jumped into shopping, with our first stop the Central Market. We were surrounded by goods from all over Asia and Indonesia, and even managed to buy some things from Borneo! A bit ironic, that in this very warm and humid climate we ended up buying warm woolen shawls and scarves- I’m still not sure how that happened.
One of the highlights of our visit was spending time with the Amurtel team. These dynamic women work tirelessly to provide aid to thousands after the many disasters that hit this region. They were instrumental in providing immediate relief after the tsunami in Banda Aceh and the earthquake in Padang, Indonesia. Currently they are working with displaced Sri Lankan families in Malaysia, as well as continuing on-going development programs in Indonesia. We spent two afternoons discussing Amurtel policy, strategy and approaches to the many challenges faced in disaster relief in this part of the world.
After saying goodbye to Diane, I was on my own as I flew into India. Arriving in Delhi was like coming home. But because I had spent so much time already in Lebanon and Malaysia, there were few days to shop for the Boutique before leaving for Kolkata and meetings. I found myself going into whirlwind mode- flying from shop to shop, eating breakfast at 9pm, and basically trying to fit 8 days of shopping into 4. New and different was my mantra as I explored shops in back alleys I hadn’t seen before. Exciting but at times a bit dodgy!
Before traveling, I had read about the severe flooding that had swept through Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, in September. As this is home to many of the families we often buy carpets and scarves from in Delhi, I made a point of visiting each of the merchants I knew. It was heart breaking to hear their stories and see videos of homes being washed away; entire families being displaced by the flood waters and seeing the level of destruction that has hit this lovely city. So many of the merchants had their warehouses filled in preparation for the wedding season (October and November), and so lost all their stock. No one has insurance and with the harsh winter fast approaching, things are grim for the Kashmiri people. This country reminds me a lot of Vermont in the spectacular scenery and seasons. And now like so many in Vermont after Irene, they too are having to reach deep to find the strength to push through this first difficult phase after the flood and work to rebuild.
Taking the overnight train to Kolkata gave me a chance to catch my breath before meeting with Amurtel directors from various countries. In Kolkata we reviewed long range plans for creating a leadership program for village women in countries hit by disaster, and ways to improve our programs for displaced children. It was very inspiring to hear from other team members of successful Amurtel programs in Africa, Egypt, South America, Nepal and India.
And then back to Delhi and flying home. It was a bit of a shock to go from the 93 degree weather of India to a snow storm on my arrival back in Vermont, but oh, the clean air!!! Delhi now has the dubious distinction of being the most polluted city in the world, so to take a breath of Valley air after too many days trying to breathe the pea soup of Delhi was a gift. As it is in so many ways to come home to our small piece of paradise here.
This trip moved me deeply as I met with displaced families in Lebanon, hearing the horrors they faced from war and bombs; of sitting with my team in Malaysia and listening to the challenges faced by women who fled from torture in Sri Lanka, seeing the photos of tremendous loss in Srinagar, and as always, being aware of the grueling struggle so many families, so many women and children in the streets of India, face each day just to get food.
It is with a sense of deep gratitude I can return to Vermont, but one that carries with it a continued commitment to work in partnership with those struggling against seemingly overwhelming challenges. I have a deep faith that if we all reach across and grasp the hand of another, we can make a difference. This is at the core of our work with Amurtel.
I invite you all to this year’s International Boutique- Dec 6-13 at the Masonic Lodge on Rte 100 in Waitsfield. We will be selling all the beautiful things from this trip and others made throughout the year, with the profits supporting programs for women and children here in Vermont and around the world.