As Director at NGOabroad: International Careers and Volunteering, daily I have many conversations with people who would like to volunteer in our Syrian refugee programs in Lebanon or Jordan.
97% of the people who I talk to who want to volunteer in Lebanon do not know essential background. Does this offend the Lebanese?
This is a beginners’ guide because I find this is what most people need. It is difficult to tell the complex, convoluted history of this region in a simple way. Hopefully this will inspire further reading.
1. Protests of autumn 2019 and 2020
When I talked to people who wanted to go in the autumn of 2019, most people did not know of the fireworks which were going on at that time and thus did not know why I was so concerned about safety.
In autumn of 2019, protests erupted in Lebanon, Iraq and Iran over much the same issues that prompted the Arab Spring – corruption, high unemployment and a government that does not care about the people’s needs. Lebanon ousted their Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Iraq was firing live bullets to suppress their uprising. 420 were killed and 17,000 injured. Donald Trump and Iran were rattling sabers after Trump ordered an air strike in Baghdad which killed Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander. My colleagues in Jordan and I wondered if Iraq protests and the American-Iranian tension would escalate and the entire region was going to meltdown.
2. Does ignorance about Lebanon offend the Lebanese?
97% of the people who I talk to who want to volunteer with Syrian refugees in Lebanon know only one thing about Lebanon: “One out of four people in Lebanon are Syrian refugees.” They do not know anything about Lebanon itself. Here are some key things to know:
~ Lebanon had a brutal, bloody civil war from 1975 to 1990.
~ One million fled which was 1/3 to ½ of the country.
~ There are more Lebanese outside Lebanon, the diaspora, than inside.
~ Lebanon and Syria have had a strained relationship. Syria occupied Lebanon from 1976 until 2006 when Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri was assassinated by a car bomb in Beirut.
~ Bashir Assad learned his dirty tricks from his father Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria for almost 30 years and is said to have ordered Harari’s murder.
~ So when you set foot into Lebanon to help Syrian refugees, be aware of all that has gone on.
We don’t know what way Lebanon will head:
~ Read about Lebanon’s power sharing between Maronite Christians, Sunni Muslims, and Shia Muslims
~ Read about Hezbollah.
~ Read about how Lebanon may default on their IMF loan. When a country defaults the subsequent “austerity measures” can be brutal. How will those impact people who are already financially strained and furious about the WhatsApp tax which triggered the street protests?
3. Does our ignorance about Jordan offend them?
If it does, they are too polite and gracious to tell you it directly. But the Jordanian medical director who works with Syrian refugees said: “Ann, Jordan is an educated country. We have many nurses and .doctors.” (The director of the Syrian organization which we work with in Lebanon is a neuro-surgeon.)
To me, the most important thing to understand about Jordan is that it is a monarchy. There is a very fond relationship between the people and Queen Rania and King Abdullah. The Queen and King are involved in community life and from what I have witnessed and been told, truly care about the people.
But where do many Westerners miss the mark? As a monarchy, Jordan is not rebellious or critical of the government. Change happens from the top down, not the bottom up.
4. Does our colonialism and foreign policy offend the region?
~ The region, I think, is sick of being considered the oil spigot for the West.
Read The Seven Sisters: The Great Oil Companies and the World They Shaped by Anthony Sampson about how the seven oil companies each claimed dominion of certain parts of Middle East.
~ Donald Trump pulled US troops out of northern Syria thus no longer protecting the Kurds who had died fighting as our allies against ISIS. They did our dirty work, 11,000 Kurds died fighting ISIS for the US. But then, Trump transferred those troops to protect the oil fields. Yikes, I thought, this is just the attitude –“We don’t care about the people, we only care about the oil” – that has created problems.
5. Does Westernization offend the region?
Important Islamic thinkers and writers have decried Western influence: we don’t want it imposed upon us. Jalāl Āl-e-Ahmad called it “Westoxification”. And I believe it was Hassan al-Banna of Egypt who coined the term “Western syphilization”. I found John Esposito’s books helpful. I think it was The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World which exposed me to many of the Islamic thinkers.
6. So what to do?
~ In these COVID times countries’ borders are closed so you cannot volunteer in Lebanon or Jordan.
~ Now is a great time to read more. I hope the above outline has inspired you to learn more.
~ After speaking to him about his career path, I proposed to Omar, whose family fled Iraq that he write and speak about Iraq. Educate the world.
~ In a consult with a Parisian couple, I suggested that they see if it is possible to volunteer in the slums of Paris – banlieue – where many Moroccan, Tunisian and Algerian immigrants live. There they could hear the stories of the despair about what is going on in the MENA region and why they left.
I thank the many people who have helped and want to help refugees in the Middle East or their home country. I think we can do better though. We can learn current events, history, philosophy, and tenets of Islam so that we can more graciously enter into a culture that is different than our own.