By Gavin White, IFRC
Working with the Red Cross and Red Crescent has taken me to a number of rough neighbourhoods over the years, places that only ever make the news when something bad happens. Yet, I often walk away from these visits with a strong sense of hope and gratitude – realizing over and over again that those who stay on in these broken communities and fight for their dreams offer us the best lessons of resilience and courage.
On a cold Thursday morning in February, a visit to Qobbe area of Tripoli proved to be another such experience.
It is plain to see how tough life in Qobbe has been in recent years. The concrete walls of modern apartment blocks on both sides of the town’s streets are strewn with bullet impacts, though some of the older holes have been patched up. Soldiers at the military checkpoint just down the block are dressed in full combat gear as they check the passing cars. An armoured vehicle is parked a few metres away, overlooking the otherwise vibrant city of Tripoli.
As we enter the New Qobbe Mixed Public School, we pass two young boys walking over to morning classes, seemingly unaware of the surrounding tension. Their school is located right in between the rival communities of Qobbe and Jabal Mohsen and acts as an unfortunate no man’s land between snipers on either side.
The volatile shoot-outs between the two neighbourhoods have taken their toll, and not only on the facade of the scarred buildings. Large banners hanging in front of every building remind passers-by of a lost son, brother or father, another martyr to the decade-long fighting.
Cash-strapped parents living here face an impossible dilemma: having to choose between their children’s education and their safety. Most decide to keep them home. Only 46 students remain, from almost 200 before the fighting began.
I joined a group of Lebanese Red Cross volunteers as they met with the school’s teachers and a handful of its more senior students. As in other conflict-prone neighbourhoods, they aim to identify and support risk-reducing actions before the situation becomes untenable… or before an accident robs the school of another student.
During the day-long session, the Red Cross volunteers split the students into two groups, with Karla meeting six teenage students on the first floor, while Olfat, Noorhan and Georgette discussed the school’s main issues with the thirteen teachers and the director in the school’s library.
A couple hours later, the students joined the teachers and they seemed transformed, empowered by the sudden responsibility thrust upon their shoulders. The students had meticulously drawn up their assessment of the situation, what needed to be done, and how they would do it, one small step at a time.
Shy, but determined, 16-year-old Elaa Nemer came forward to present their conclusions. She explained in polite, yet blunt terms the conclusions of their assessment, in many ways similar to those of her teachers.
Safety is everyone’s highest priority, she insisted, with no safe space in the entire school. The walls aren’t thick enough to protect from stray bullets and warning shots don’t give enough time to reach proper shelter.
The violence from the surrounding neighbourhood seeps into the school as well, with bullying and aggressions targeting the weakest.
But there are solutions, and they aren’t out of reach, pleaded Elaa. If only there were recreational and sports activities – which young people themselves could organize – they would be given a chance to take their minds off the hardships outside. All they (humbly) requested was for the school to make one of the empty classrooms available, and the students themselves would reach out to local non-profits to donate games and equipment. A first step to interacting on a more constructive basis.
On behalf of her classmates, Elaa announced that each student had agreed to contribute one dollar per month from their very tight resources towards starting this fund. They plan to fundraise in their community for the rest.
So while the teachers and the Red Cross volunteers closed the day with a concrete plan and cautious optimism, the energy and commitment radiating from the teenage students demonstrated that, if only for a few hours, hope for the future lifted the weight of their daily struggles.
Gavin White is the IFRC’s disaster risk reduction and resilience coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa region.