Visiting refugee camps in Lebanon: two teenagers’ stories

Recently, the Catholic Agency For Overseas Development (CAFOD) sent two young people on a life changing trip to the refugee camps in Lebanon.

Leah Fox, 19 from Newcastle and Ryan Wilkinson, 18 from Sheffield travelled to meet CAFOD partners in Lebanon who work with refugees who have been forced to leave their homes because of conflict in Syria, Iraq and Palestine.

Whilst in Lebanon, the pair visited two CAFOD partners: Caritas Lebanon and Association Najdeh. The Caritas Lebanon centres across Lebanon are places where refugee children and young people can learn, socialise and integrate into Lebanese society whilst also discussing their experiences and some of the challenges they face as refugees.

Association Najdeh works to address the challenges of the protracted Palestinian refugee crisis in Lebanon, supporting both Palestinian refugees from Lebanon and those who have more recently fled conflict in Syria. They also support Palestinian women to gain employment and advocate for their rights as well as psychosocial support projects for children and young people.

Below, they share some of their experiences.

Leah Fox, 19

My overall experience in Lebanon was amazing; I feel extremely privileged to have had an opportunity to go and experience first-hand what life is like in a refugee camp.

There was so much to learn and it was great to meet so many people from many different walks of life.

In the camps we met Syrian and Palestinian refugees who had been in Lebanon for a long time. We also met Palestinian refugees from Syria, who initially moved there because of conflict but are now in Lebanon.

We arrived with an open mind, unsure of what to expect. What struck me most was that the reality of daily life for refugees was completely different to what I had imagined.

A lot of people we talked to struggled with the cost of living for rent and food etc., which I expected, but what had not crossed my mind was how desperate people were to work. It is extremely difficult for refugees to get a job, and even more so for Palestinian refugees who are not allowed to work in certain fields and often need a permit to work outside of the refugee camps.

Being unable to work has such a big impact on people’s lives.  It was evident to see that not working wasn’t simply about not earning an income; unemployment represents a loss of independence and the denial of a basic right to work.

We visited two partner organisations that CAFOD works with in Lebanon, one of which was Association Najdeh. They tackled the issue of unemployment in ways that I could never have imagined.

Association Najdeh not only helped refugees with applying for citizenship and sorting out visa problems, they also provide psycho-social support for all in the refugee camp. This involved delivering support sessions enabling people to talk about the challenges they faced on a daily basis.  The association also had a particular focus on empowering women by providing vocational training sessions which allowed them to learn a new trade.

These vocational sessions are beneficial in numerous ways; the women are taught new skills, therefore making them more employable; the sessions provide a space for friendships to develop, but more importantly, they are given back their independence. A lot of the women we saw taking part in the beauty vocation session were passionate about their newly acquired skills as it would allow them to set up their own businesses and create an additional source income for their families should they return home.

We also visited another partner, Caritas Lebanon. It was extremely inspiring to meet with their youth team as they work so hard within the community - particularly trying to build cohesion between the Syrian and Lebanese people.

I found that the young people were very passionate about their work and were involved in a range of projects. For example, some of the young people raised money to refurbish a prison.  Their commitment was incredibly inspiring. Overall,  the whole experience has been life changing. 

Ryan Wilkinson, 18

My time in Lebanon visiting CAFOD’s partners and learning about all the great projects that are being run for refugees was absolutely incredible. Each day I was able to speak to different refugees who Association Najdeh and Caritas Lebanon, the two partners that I visited, reach and help in different camps and shelters. Having the opportunity to talk to the refugees and the staff at the organisations was so inspiring for me as it made me think more about my life and how I can do more to encourage change.

There were times during my visit which left me emotionally drained as I heard many stories about what the refugees are going through and how their lives have changed since moving to Lebanon. Although my visit to CAFOD’s partners in Lebanon wasn’t easy, it was very thought provoking and has helped me to become more aware of the situation for refugees; it has also left me really eager to communicate the situation and take what I’ve learnt in Lebanon and apply that to my life.

One person that particularly stood out for me was a 14-year-old boy called Peter. Peter is a volunteer for Caritas Lebanon and it was inspiring to learn about all the work he does for the youth and his community. At only 14, George has been made the logistics coordinator for his Caritas Lebanon volunteer project, a role that consists of making sure that all the activities  are fully organised and have all the materials that are needed. . The fact that Caritas Lebanon puts this amount of trust in a young person gave me so much hope for the young people that I work with at Savio House, a retreat centre run by Salesians, as well as all young people in the UK as there is so much that young people can do to help and raise awareness for issues such as the refugee crisis.

One thing that Peter said really left me motivated and inspired. He said that anyone can volunteer but you don’t volunteer in your free time, you have to make volunteer time.

Being born a Christian, I’ve always had a faith in God. However, I have never felt so close to God as I did during my visit to Lebanon. Hearing different people’s stories and experiences in their faith really left me feeling inspired and has helped me to build an even stronger relationship with God. Walking around Lebanon and seeing the different religious buildings really added to my experience and helped me to feel the presence of God at all times. This experience has left me feeling really blessed for receiving the opportunity to speak to the refugees, but also to reaffirm my faith. I have learnt so much about the refugee situation as well as about myself and I will be using my faith to guide me when sharing about my experience in Lebanon.

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