Farah, she keeps a cigarette behind her ear and when she laughs it sounds like beads falling. Her long, black curls are tied in a knot, kind of, but not really. She was as excited as I was when we found a secondhand shop with cheap army jackets.
Her sixteen-year-old Peugeot screamed as it was forced up the steep hills of the mountains of Lebanon. It wanted to die, but survived. Barely. Inside, Farah played Feiruz, the Lebanese woman who sings her tones all around the world. She apologized for polluting the fresh air with her cigarette smoke, and begged us to share her favorite bread with her.
We were on a mission. A mission to find Syrian refugees living in camps in the vast Beeka Valley. Finding them was not hard. Along the road, and across fields one spotted the primitive tents built with old billboards. Like mushrooms they seemed to pop up everywhere.
“Don’t go there,” the lady at the embassy had warned us. “There are too many people like you there already.” She didn’t say it, but you could tell she wanted to: “We don’t need you.” She did however say: “The UN takes care of everything. We give them loads of money. Small groups like yours often make things worse.” I had fumed on the inside, and some of it had to spill over. “I can give you a list longer than you can imagine of all the times they have failed. I believe that it is exactly small groups like ours that can be very effective in the work we do.”
The rest told us the opposite. “The needs are vast and they are not being met. Kids don’t get to go to school. There is not enough food. No medical care. Not enough warm clothes during the cold.”
We pulled over by the side of the road and walked into a small community of refugees. They looked surprised at first. “Why did we come for a visit?” “Who were we?” Farah smiled her galaxy smile and the battle was won. Soon there were smiles everywhere, smiles and curious stares. “Come with us,” it was motioned and we followed. We walked into the home as the unexpected and unknown guests of a refugee family. Inside gold-colored cloth draped the walls. There were thin futons to sit on on the floor. Pillows were placed by us so we would have something to lean on while we were sitting. Glasses with drinks were brought out.
My own black t-shirt and army-green pants looked hopelessly boring in comparison the the multicolored dresses the women were wearing, the beads and the sequins lighting up the room much like their smiles.
“We just want to get to know you. We want to hear your stories,” we explained, and they willingly shared. They shared about the destroyed homes, the flight across the mountains, about fleeing barefoot and with nothing other than the clothes they were wearing. They spoke of fear and loss. They talked about wanting the best for their children and about how they wish they could have invited us for a feast and slaughtered a goat the way they would have back in their own village.
One lady inched close to me and leaned towards my shoulders and I felt in an instant that we were sisters, although we spoke different languages and had lived lives as different as sugar and salt. The children came to sit close too. I drew a simple drawing and the smiles came easily. They did the same for me. Drew something they wanted me to see.
A man came inside and joined us. “What we have seen we cannot explain,” he said. “We saw people slaughtering people. They put people on the floor and shut them. This I saw myself. I ran with my family because children cannot live with these kinds of memories. We had to take them away.” He fled with his wife who was 8 months pregnant. The baby was born soon after they arrived. I held the baby, now 28 days old, and touched his thick black hair while he slept.
They told us they are cold and hungry here. They feel safe, but there is no school for the kids. They are trying to be content, but they only have two blankets to share when there are eight people in the family.
We said our goodbyes and they kissed us. We went for a new mission. To find blankets. After several failed attempts we ended up at a secondhand store called The King’s Vision. Nice name, we thought, although we weren’t sure why the King wanted such a vision. The store was run by something that appeared to be a family or the mafia, or perhaps both. Men with lots of grease in their hair and cigarettes attached to their lower lip looked grumpy and not at all keen on giving us a deal, let alone a special deal. Down in the basement were the blankets. One by one we pulled them down from the rods they had been hung on. There were the thick ones displaying Dora the Explorer, and the ones that had been eaten by moths. And then there was the rest. In the end we counted almost 50 blankets. Not enough for all the people in the camp, but it was a start.
Farah started the negotiating and for a while it sounded grim. She rolled her eyes, and while she still smiled, the smile started to look more and more strained. She pointed to the moth holes and lifted the thinnest blankets up to show that these were worth next to nothing. In the end it seemed like a deal was made, but we didn’t know how or what. Just: It was done. Just: Pay us here, and don’t let the big guy upstairs see how much you give us. Just: We will give you a receipt, but it is OK if the receipt is just a piece of paper from our notebook right here?
How does one bring four people and 50 blankets in a little Peugeot the size of a go-cart, and that already has a trunk full of film gear and paraphernalia? Tie it to the roof. No roof rack was needed, just some string and some rope and, voila, a bag almost as big as the car was safely strapped to the roof, making the car look like it was pregnant.
We thanked the kind mafia family and promised not to tell the dad. In the end they were smiling and wishing us well. One could almost detect a desire to go with us. And we were off.
Arriving at the camp some hours later we again surprised them. They had not expected us to come back. It felt good. With a lot of commotion, shouting, some pushing and even some tears Farah and and team managed to deliver all the blankets as fairly as they possibly could. It was nice to be able to give, but hard to think that even with our small gift they would still not be warm enough tonight. Just warmer.
We sat down to chat with our new friends when it was all over. The connection was even deeper. We were friends now. “We want you to come back,” they said. “We like you.” Then they added: “Sometimes the big aid organisations come here and they have no time for us. They just come to do their own thing. We like you because when you came you saw our children. You took the time to pay attention to them. We can tell you care about us.”
So here we were, the small aid organization that arrived in an even smaller Peugeot. We have no big budget, we had no logo to flash. But the people that mattered gave us the vote of confidence we needed. They saw that we cared and they saw that we came to serve. To them that mattered the most.
50 blankets and an afternoon shared. I think this is how change starts. It feels good to know we did the right thing. Now to continue on that track.