“The First 100 Years are Hard.” That is a Lebanese saying that I learned shortly after my arrival to Lebanon. It means that things get easier after the first 100 years. Too bad no one ever lives long enough to see that and that is exactly the point of the saying!
Life here is hard for everyone. Every day is a fight to survive. Certainly that way for the refugees, but it is as much so for the rest of society. “Really, life is just day by day. We don’t really plan for the future.” That was the response of a white collar professional when asked about what his role in an organization would look like in 5 years. For a country marred with civil war and its own political instability in the midst of the chaos and conflict in countries all around, how do they even begin to hope for peace and stability to plan beyond the next day?
It is not easy for me either. There is nothing easy about being far removed from the comforts of the western world and the conveniences of everyday life that simply do not exist here. You should not take for granted every breath of clean air that you have the privilege to breathe. Not just here, but so many around the world don’t even have that privilege.
I stay in what was the most densely populated neighborhood in the Middle East, even before the refugee crisis. I can only wonder how this has been magnified due to the crisis and no one has an accurate count. Four out of 5 refugees that I meet are unregistered in this neighborhood. I imagine the population may have tripled or quadrupled from the 150,000 in a 2.50 KM radius that was once counted.
If only I could paint a picture of the crazy chaos that swirls around at a breakneck pace every day. When you step outside, you have to be ready for the onslaught of noise, traffic, people, trash and filth lining the streets and all of this in a dizzying swirl of utter chaos that awaits in the crowded concrete jungle, barren of even the smallest greenery.
Navigating even the simplest of places involves a game of dodging obstacles on the sidewalk, piles of trash, stepping out into oncoming traffic, stepping over random curbs, dodging cars (even on the sidewalk), dodging random poles. In this neighborhood, you are sidestepping cars parts or motorbikes disassembled on the sidewalk by the mechanic, even a car being spray painted on the road! There may be a random construction project or men just loitering the sidewalk and blocking the way. You must watch out for a motorbike zipping down the sidewalk or going the wrong way on a one way road, watching each step to avoid stepping in the ubiquitous piles of human and dog excrement all over the sidewalk (if you are blessed to not be walking in the middle of the road due to cars double parked on the sidewalk and the road), avoiding heaping, stinking piles of trash… did I mention that before? It deserved another mention. You may be balancing on the curb because the sidewalk is a crumbled pile of jagged concrete or a deep puddle in a torrential downpour. Navigating anywhere is like a game of parkour or free running and must be handled with that level of intensity and finesse. A simple walk is neither easy or restful. You must have your senses finely tuned and aware of everything going on all at once.
It is not just the senses of sights and sounds assaulted when stepping outside. You will be assaulting with air as thick with pollution as the hot Houston humidity on an August day. With each breath, you can feel in inhalation of the diesel from the generators from every home and business, the car exhaust fumes, the cigarettes, the burning of the trash. It just sticks in your lungs and you may choke just trying to inhale. Everyone that has lived here has a chronic cough from years of exposure to the pollution, even the people that don’t smoke the typical 3 packs a day. If you are lucky to smell things other than exhaust, it won’t be pleasant. See notes above on trash and excrement. Right now, I imagine that spring is beautiful in many locations in Lebanon and around the world. Here, you don’t see, hear or smell signs of spring. Other than the cats in heat caterwauling outside my bedroom window at 3am in the morning.
I am not sure how the markets here can be so crowded 24/7 from the produce market next door to the large, modern supermarket down the street. But then again it makes sense given the densely populated neighborhood, as I have previously mentioned. People shoving on every aisle, workers always in the way trying to restock. At the large supermarket, the guy is ALWAYS buffing the floors and is following me around with this big machine about to run over my toes. Seriously??? Is there time or room for this machine right now? You cannot wait until it is less crowded? I supposed that is never.
Boxes are flying around in front of you and beside you, people are shoving, yelling and shoving some more. And if you aren’t careful, there will be 5 people that cut in line in front of you while you are at the cash register.
It has taken several months for my senses to become accustomed to the chaos and not feel like my head is spinning from sensory overload every time I step outside. Maybe I am slowly adapting. I don’t have to hesitate to process the traffic situation before I step out into the road, I am expertly in front of the cars, behind the cars, dodging traffic while feeling the heat from the bumpers inches from my ankles and it doesn’t faze me; as if I have tamed these 2 ton metal beasts, forgetting that they are subject to the spatial perception of well meaning, but possibly preoccupied drivers.
My accommodations are humble. I am staying in a room that was a classroom turned into a hostel just 50 feet from my office. It features several bunk beds and a small shower and a very thin aluminum wall that makes me feel like I have roommates if anyone is ever staying next door. The bathroom is down the hall and, as it is shared with whatever event is going on at the center (sometimes as many as 4 different church congregations and possibly up to 1000 ladies at a time), it always looks like what you would expect 3 bathroom stalls to look like if shared with 1000 ladies at a time. Many mornings, I just opt to shower at the gym as it feels much more luxurious, even if shared by 6+ other ladies all sharing 2 hair dryers. Somehow, the crowded gym is my peace. A private bathroom is a luxury that I will thoroughly appreciate when encountered sometime in the future.
I frequently eat in the small, crammed kitchen that is shared by staff, teachers, guests of the hostel, other random people that seem to show up and I really don’t know who these people are, but I figure someone does or else they wouldn’t be here. Even preparing a cup of coffee is not a peaceful experience as you are bound to have an audience congregate to observe or talk or push you out of the way because they want to use the kitchen too. For the record, most people don’t feel like talking until they have finished their cup of coffee. And I am most people.
Yes, I have frequently thought how crazy I must be to be doing this. I used to fly in private jets. I used to have my own beautiful dream condo in a metropolitan location. I had the most comfortable bed known to man. I ate steak and bacon as much as I pleased. And now I am here in Bourj Hammoud. I know, it is crazy!
What am I doing???? Every time I open my Bible, I see another verse that reminds me that the heart of God is with the poor, needy, helpless and heartbroken. What does the success of this world mean if I haven’t loved and cared for those who needed it the most? Here are just a few verses:
1 John 3:17-18 “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” (NIV)
Proverbs 21:13 “If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered.” (NIV)
Proverbs 22:9 “A generous man will himself be blessed, for he shares his food with the poor.” (NIV)
Proverbs 28:27 “He who gives to the poor will lack nothing, but he who closes his eyes to them receives many curses
Proverbs 29:7 “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.” (NIV)
Proverbs 31:8-9 “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (NIV)